The Movie Without the Song

Having just seen True Grit, which makes so much use of the song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” I was thinking about music as I watched My Darling Clementine again last night. It’s my favorite Ford Western – which means it might be my favorite Western of all. But the movie makes practically zero use of the song it’s named after – just a nod at the beginning and end. Maybe the key is the last lines of the movie, when Wyatt Earp says to Clementine, “Ma’am, I sure like that name: Clementine.” The song is about a miner’s daughter who dies in a mine. Yes, it has the line “I’ll be lovin’ you forever, oh my darling Clementine” – but even that doesn’t really fit the tone of the movie all that well – remember, Doc Holiday turns his back on Clem and Henry Fonda rides off at the end, saying he might visit her at her newly opening school sometime.

There are several great music moments in the movie, including Chihuahua in a wide sombrero singing about the sweetness of a kiss under a wide sombrero; but the best moment – the best sequence period – is the following, which starts with Wyatt Earp getting squirted with perfume and ends with his marvelous acceptance into the community through a dance, a dance which takes the place of church!

I really don’t think Ford cared about the song “Clementine” or he would have made some more intelligent use of it. As he did with the Shakespeare reference, where Doc Holiday finishes the great “To be or not to be” speech. The speech, of course, is about fear of death, contrasting the struggles of life to the potential nightmares of the “undiscovered country”. This speech says so much in relation to Doc. First, he’s a Hamlet-figure, dithering about what to do. But more importantly he’s gone off into the “undiscovered country” of the West, leaving civilization behind for a place called Tombstone. He says the speech almost wistfully, as if he’s remembering a choice he made long ago, as if he chose “not to be” by going to Tombstone. And several times in the movie he flirts with getting into a fight just to be killed. Like Hamlet, his end is more glorious than that: he risks not being so that being can be maintained.

I guess Ford just liked that name: Clementine.

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