In 1960, when author, producer, distributor and exhibitor Daniel Talbot opened the now-legendary (and long gone) New Yorker Theater on upper Broadway, his novel idea was to program predominantly American films. No one then was doing that in revival houses, which almost exclusively ran foreign films. The policy at the New Yorker, I think, influenced the drift of American movies, helping to bring to the U.S. the movement of the French New Wave towards classic Hollywood.
I worked for Dan part-time for three or so years and learned that the toughest American product to sell to New Yorkers was Westerns; as Dan used to say, they didn’t draw flies. I had grown up with some good Westerns, my European parents having approved; they saw Westerns as the purest form of Americana and comparable in their own way to all sorts of European folk tales and mythology. Two of my three favorite films when I was ten were Westerns with John Wayne (the third was Rene Clair’s 1936 comedy The Ghost Goes West, but that’s another story): John Ford’s cavalry drama She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Howard Hawks’ 1948 epic of the first cross-country cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail, Red River (available on DVD, but be aware there are two versions; see below).
Even now, it’s still impressive as hell when you realize Red River was Hawks’ first Western (out of only five), that it was the beautiful and breathtakingly fine actor Montgomery Clift’s first picture (though released second), and that it was the movie which made John Wayne a superstar, the single most defining role of his career. As Tom Dunson, playing a character nearly twenty years his senior, Wayne went from an attractive and reliable, though mild, young leading man to the tough, no-nonsense, usually unyielding, gruffly laconic loner he was to play most memorably for the rest of his career.
John Ford, who had rescued Wayne from B-picture oblivion with the director’s first sound Western, Stagecoach (1939), and then used him on three or four pictures in the ‘40s, was amazed: “I didn’t know the big son-of-a-bitch could act,” he said, and promptly cast Wayne in an even older role for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. In fact, Hawks told me, Wayne was always so identified with Ford, and Ford with Westerns, that people often thought Ford had directed Red River and would compliment Ford himself on the picture; and Ford, Hawks continued, always said, “Thank you very much.” Yet when I asked Hawks if he’d been thinking of Ford while making the picture, he replied: “It’s hard not to think of Jack Ford when you’re making a Western. Hard not to think of him when you’re making any picture.”
If you’d care to see why, Ford’s second sound Western is a perfect example of his extraordinary evocation of the American West, as well as his profound sense of narrative and his poetic range, starring Henry Fonda as the quintessential Wyatt Earp in 1946’s My Darling Clementine (available on DVD). The real Wyatt Earp used to hang around Ford’s early silent Westerns with Harry Carey (1917-1921), and the director said Earp told him in detail the particulars of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clantons; Ford’s staging has mythic proportions, yet also feels absolutely authentic. Fonda gives one of the most sympathetic and richly archetypal performances of his career.
And, yes, it’s one of the few times Victor Mature’s looks and manner really worked to great effect, set up with Fonda’s line (improvised on the set by Ford, I would guess) when he first sees Mature: “Good-lookin’ fella…” This was Ford’s first film after World War II (which he saw at close range in the O.S.S.) and, significantly, the villains in Clementine (led by Walter Brennan as Pa Clanton) are more insidiously evil and brutal than ever before in Ford’s work, and a poignant sense of loss hangs over the whole film.
As it does over Red River, too, which begins with Wayne’s tragic loss of his beloved; Clementine starts with the murder of the Earps’ youngest brother. Loss in both films is depicted as an ultimate gain for civilization, though Red River, with the happier ending, is strangely the more ambiguous; it also seems more modern in its characters’ psychological makeup. And deals with sexual tension in a more forthright way.
Both pictures have two different versions: In Ford’s original ending, Fonda only shakes hands with Clementine before he rides off; the studio added a kiss on the cheek, which infuriated Ford. Happily, the latest DVD restores Ford’s original non-kiss version, along with a few other short scenes that are nice to see. But the Hawks problem is much worse. For years now the most commonly shown version–with handwritten bridging sections, as though from an ancient historical journal–is a preview cut which Hawks discarded in favor of a faster, more personal device: narration by one of the main characters, an especially lovable Walter Brennan as Groot, the cook.
Somehow, the slower, more portentous “book version” has been mistaken (because somewhat longer) as “the director’s cut” and presented erroneously that way. I specifically asked Hawks in the mid-70s why there were two versions. He answered (as published in my Who the Devil Made It): “The one with the book was the first cutting and it wasn’t any good. It’s slow—you had to stop and read it—and why any prints were made from that I don’t know…It was meant to be with narration, which shortened it and brought it closer to you because we had a very distinctive voice doing it.” I said, “So the version that was released in theatres with Brennan narrating was the final one.” To which Hawks replied, “Yes. God knows where the other one came from…”
For years, I’ve been petitioning MGM/UA (the current rights owner) to bring out the actual director’s cut, and a slew of letters to them from our readers would be helpful in demanding a release of the Hawks-approved version of this acknowledged American masterpiece. Rumor has it that Criterion might be bringing the picture out in the near future. In whichever version, however, both the Ford and the Hawks films are absolutely essential works in motion picture history.