At least until his 1960s films, I’ve never disliked a John Ford movie. And I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. It’s just that Ford is one of the most revered of directors, and he isn’t quite that high for me. But My Darling Clementine has always been my favorite John Ford movie, and one of my favorite Westerns of all time. (Rio Bravo is my favorite, with The Wild Bunch a close second, but Clementine certainly belongs in their company.)
The question is, why do I like this one so much compared to other Ford movies I’ve seen? For comparison, my other favorites of his films are The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath, with only 7 Women and How the West Was Won being pretty stinky (he can’t be blamed entirely for the latter, of course).
Ford had things he liked, and he was never shy about going back to the well. Most famously, he placed many of his Westerns in the Monument Valley (including Clementine), even when the result didn’t match the “true” story (including Clementine ... Tombstone is about 500 miles from Monument Valley). One can hardly blame him ... it was indeed a beautiful setting, and he made the most of it. Ford also relied on a stock company of actors that served him well over the years. But he had other habits I find more irritating than enjoyable. In particular, his rambunctious comic scenes are always more rambunctious than comic, at least to me. It is this, more than anything else, that makes me rank The Searchers just a bit below the best of the classics.
My Darling Clementine mostly avoids this. The humor is quieter ... Wyatt Earp just wants a shave, and keeps getting interrupted in his quest, and there’s a nice bit where the barber (proprietor of “The Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor”) sprays some cologne on Earp and everyone mistakes the smell for the wide-open spaces.
Another thing Ford loved was dance scenes. My Darling Clementine has one of his best ... it is, in fact, one of the two key scenes in the film:
There may be no sweeter movie scene that brings the classic Western theme of burgeoning civilization on the frontier than this one.
Of course, the other key scene is the shootout at the OK Corral, and it’s tense. But it doesn’t come until near the end of the film ... Ford trusts the picture to lead us gradually to the big moment.
For me, My Darling Clementine features the best parts of a John Ford Western, while minimizing the parts that I don’t like. Which I guess is why I like this one so much compared to his others. #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.