The Big Idea Behind MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
The conflict between the Democratic ranchers and the town's Republican business establishment came to a head in the 1881 election for county sheriff. Wyatt Earp ran against incumbent John Behan, charging Behan with protecting the cowboys, while Behan and the Democrats countered that a series of stage robberies the Republicans blamed on the Clantons were really the work of the Earps and Holliday. Wyatt lost the election but managed to steal Behan's lover, the beautiful Josephine Marcus. The confrontations between the two camps escalated until the Clantons and a couple of their cronies, the McLaurys, gathered in a vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral. The heavily armed Earp brothers and Holliday followed them there, and Earp allegedly said, "You sonofabitches have been looking for a fight and now you can have it!" They opened fire and, in a few second, one of the Clantons and two McLaury brothers were dead, and both Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. The citizens of Tombstone quickly took sides along party lines. The Democrats brought murder charges against the Earps, but the situation only worsened when a Republican judge let them off. Within a few weeks, Virgil was ambushed, his arm blown off by gunfire, and Morgan was killed. Wyatt got himself appointed marshal and took Holliday and others on a rampage, killing at least three of their cowboy enemies, then fleeing the territory.
Holliday died of his tuberculosis in a Colorado sanitarium not long after. Wyatt married Josephine and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where as an old man during the birth of the film industry he used to hang out with Western stars, trying to convince someone to film his story. By the time he died in 1929 Earp had been largely forgotten but a short time after that is when his legend really began. In his last days, Earp was visited by popular writer Stuart Lake, and by 1931 Lake had turned their brief meeting into a book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Mixing just enough fact for credibility with its highly imaginative account of an upright lawman who single-handedly cleaned up the worst towns on the frontier, the book became a best seller and the basis for all future Earp stories.
John Ford is regarded today as almost exclusively a director of Westerns; that is understandable but inaccurate by any measure, and the films of that genre by which he is best known were, at the end of World War II, still to come. He had made a number of Westerns in the silent years, but of the three dozen or so features he made after the advent of sound, only one, Stagecoach (1939), was a true Western. For his first post-war picture, he decided to return to the genre with a property he had filmed years earlier, The Last Outlaw (1919). After the success of Stagecoach, Ford and Merian Cooper had formed an independent production outfit, Argosy, and this was to be the first project by the reactivated company. United Artist bought the story rights and was set to distribute, John Wayne and Harry Carey were going to star, but the deal fell through. While Cooper looked for other projects for Argosy, Ford agreed to take on the final film he was obligated to make in a multi-picture deal he had made with 20th Century Fox.
Fox had made a film about Wyatt Earp based on Lake's book in 1939 entitled Frontier Marshal; it was a minor B-Western starring Randolph Scott that concentrated almost solely on shoot-em-up action. Sam Hellman's script for the film did have a few effective set pieces, though, that Ford must have found appealing because when he and writer Winston Miller prepared their new story, those key scenes were virtually lifted from the 1939 Western. One was about a drunken Indian terrorizing the town of Tombstone that Ford turned into the sequence explaining how Wyatt got his lawman's job; he even hired the same actor who had played the Indian in the 1939 version, Charles Stevens, and gave him the same character name, Indian Joe. The earlier film also features a traveling vaudevillian, real-life entertainer Eddie Foy, played by his son Eddie Foy, Jr. In Ford and Miller's version, the vaudeville star is transformed into Granville Thorndyke, a second rate Shakespearean actor.
Up to this point, Winston Miller, the brother of silent star Patsy Ruth Miller, had mostly written scripts for low-budget programmers, but a majority of them were Westerns. He also had one other factor to recommend him to Ford: he played the younger version of George O'Brien's character in Ford's silent Western The Iron Horse (1924).
Ford knew Earp during his early days in Hollywood, and he claimed Earp had described to him the details of the famous gunfight.
The first draft of the script for My Darling Clementine is fairly close to the final movie with some crucial differences: the draft has Doc Holliday killed before the gunfight; the Clantons never overtly confront Earp; Chihuahua is killed but it is another wounded girl who is operated on by Doc, and Wyatt leaves at the end with no final parting words to Clementine.
The final script of My Darling Clementine did take considerable liberties with historical fact for the sake of dramatic conflict and character: Old Man Clanton actually died prior to the gunfight, Doc a dentist in real life, not a surgeonsurvived it, and there was no Clementine. The deaths of the Earp brothers occurred differently in reality (James, who was the first to die in the story, actually lived until 1926), and the key women in Wyatt's and Doc's lives - Wyatt's wife Josephine and prostitutes like the infamous Katie Elder were eliminated. Also, the film gives the date as 1882, but the gunfight actually occurred in 1881.
The only reported instance of Ford's famous temper flaring up during the writing phase involved the scene where Wyatt rides out after Doc to accuse him of killing his brother. Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck suggested Ford have Doc on his horse rather than riding shotgun on a stagecoach (as scripted and eventually filmed). Zanuck thought it would be better just to have the two men confront each other and made the mistake of noting that, with the stage driver present, the scene might feel too "cluttered." The remark launched Ford into a ten-minute tirade about his ability to direct scenes with any number of people in them that never felt cluttered. "He was volatile," Zanuck recalled. "He could be the nicest guy in the world and he could be the meanest. You never knew which was going to happen."
Ford's changes to Miller's script characteristically consisted of paring down several elements. Dialogue was cut, not only for Earp (who Ford wanted to portray as laconic as Earp was in real life) but also for Doc, whose first appearance wearing an opera cape was also eliminated. He also cut a long speech at the church service and a catfight between Doc's two women.
"Sooner or later he wanted to dominate you," Winston Miller later noted of working with Ford. One day during the scripting phase, Ford asked him if he thought it would hurt him in the business if My Darling Clementine didn't turn out well. "No, I've got other credits I can fall back on," Miller replied, failing to recognize that Ford was actually fishing for a compliment. "Ford kind of dummied up for a while....He kind of froze; he wanted me to say, 'Oh, no!'"
Ford had made his previous picture, They Were Expendable (1945), and his only sound Western to this point, Stagecoach (1939), with John Wayne. However, for the part of Wyatt, he had Henry Fonda in mind from the beginning; Fonda had been the star of two of Ford's most acclaimed films prior to this, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). My Darling Clementine would be Fonda's first film after returning home from service in World War II. His previous release was another esteemed Western, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Two actresses considered for the part of Clementine were Fox contract players Anne Baxter and Jeanne Crain. Instead, Ford was given Cathy Downs who was an unknown actress at the time.
Tyrone Power was an early possibility for Doc Holliday, but for whatever reason, his name was dropped from consideration early in the pre-casting stage. Ford was enthusiastic about Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., telling Zanuck in a memo, "He might be terribly good in it. He would look about the same age as Henry and as it's a flamboyant role it is quite possible he could kick hell out of it. Think it over well." He was not happy with Zanuck's choice, Victor Mature, and he began pressing for Vincent Price instead. But after meeting with Mature, Ford told Zanuck he was not at all worried about the actor's performance. He was never very happy, however, with Linda Darnell as Doc's Mexican spitfire lover.
As production neared, Ford's good mood grew, and he even displayed his humorous side in a letter to fellow director Frank Capra, who was using Ford regular Ward Bond in his latest picture, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Ford reminded Capra that Bond had already been contracted to appear as Morgan Earp and jokingly told Capra that members of the Clementine cast wholeheartedly approved of Bond working for Capra instead, even to advancing a collected $890 if that would help get Bond out of the Western. "Hank Fonda...offers to throw in a Radio Victrola, hardly used. A Mr. Victor Mature also offers in compensation...the phone number of a very interesting young lady." Joking aside, the two directors arranged their schedules so that Bond could work on both films back to back.
by Rob Nixon