Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Calendar of Hollidays: Part One

Having finally gotten over The Doc Holliday Cold, during which I watched a lot of Westerns, I started thinking about how all the Hollywood Docs compare to the real Doc (and each other). So let's start off with an obscure Doc and then a classic one:

The Doctor in Need of Redemption. Cesar Romero, Frontier Marshal (1939).

Answer to the trivia question: who played Doc Holliday and the Joker?

Watching Frontier Marshal (which is a "special feature" on the new two-disc Ford At Fox edition of My Darling Clementine) will give anybody who's familiar with Clementine a pretty frightening case of deja vu. It's like watching the two early versions of Maltese Falcon: you not only get echoes everywhere, you get echoes in strange voices. There's nothing quite like watching Ricardo Cortez mortalizing the same lines that Bogart makes immortal, unless it's watching Randolph Scott lighting up the same set pieces that Henry Fonda makes dark, and realizing that the classic you grew up watching is an adaptation of an Ur-Tombstone movie that was made seven years before.

How alike are they? Both movies are based on the Stuart Lake bio of Wyatt Earp. Both have a saloon girl in love with Doc Holliday (in Frontier Marshal he's Doc Halliday); both have a girl from his past show up in Tombstone, a girl Wyatt Earp is obviously sweet on; both have Doc operating to save someone from a gunshot wound (because in both movies, Doc is a medical doctor and not a dentist). The major differences? In Frontier Marshal, Wyatt Earp has no brothers (!); instead of the actor doing Hamlet we get Eddie Foy (bonus points for historical accuracy); and Doc is killed before the OK Corral gunfight (whoops--take those bonus points away). Also: Doc drinks milk (!) until he gets depressed, then he starts in on the whiskey.

That's more like it.

Self-destructuive drunkard that he is, Doc finds redemption when he saves the life of a little boy who gets a bullet in the neck as part of a horse-by shooting, assisted by Nancy Kelly as (well) Clementine. (Hard not to think of it in those terms.) After which, with his arm around his girl, stone-cold sober and proud of himself, Doc gets shot by one of the Clantons as he's leaving the saloon. Shot dead, as in too dead to fight at the OK Corral. Which, because this film's Wyatt Earp is an only child, means that Randolph Scott gets to go up against everybody (including a spineless Lon Chaney Jr.) and finish them all off to avenge Doc. (Halliday even gets the closing shot, as his saloon girlfriend rides off to her future past his grave in Boot Hill. No dying in bed for this Georgia gunman.) In my opinion, if you're going to fictionalize history this much? Change the names.

How does Romero stack up on the Doc Holliday list? Pretty low, actually; about the same level Randolph Scott stands on the Wyatt Earp list. Stolid would be a compliment. Neither actor has the chops to give the camera more than a surface portrayal of his character. Scott makes you wish you were watching Ride The High Country or Seven Men From Now; Romero makes you wish that you were watching Anthony Quinn. And, all in all, the movie itself makes you wish you were watching My Darling Clementine.

The Mountain of Health. Victor Mature, My Darling Clementine (1946).

Primarily a John Ford movie with some pretty jarring David Selznick-authorized post-production inserts (they jump out at you like salmon when you know what to look for), this film feels and looks older than it is, like it was made in '39 or '40, rather than just after WWII. But the Clanton family scenes are a dead giveaway that we're a femme fatale short of a noir movie here (is there anything more noir than the line "When you pull a gun, kill a man?"). And if we're talking dark? Look no further than the man mountain playing Doc Holliday:

Don't mess with me or I'll fall on you.

He wears black like a bad guy, and he coughs about once every ten minutes to remind you that he's supposed to be wasting away from consumption, but I'm sorry, Victor Mature has consumption like grizzly bears have anorexia. There's no way this guy is being eaten away by anything, except maybe pride because he's stealing the movie from Henry Fonda. And boy, does he. When Mature is on screen, you can't take your eyes off him. This is where the tradition of Holliday Trumps Earp in Tombstone movies begins.

I am drinking Henry Fonda's milk shake.

Historically, we're no closer to the real Doc Holliday than we are in Frontier Marshal. He's still a medical doctor and not a dentist, and in Clementine he got his degree in Harvard. But there's something in Mature's performance (the sweat that never seems to leave his face? The sense that there are rocks and avalanches grinding beneath his cheekbones?) that prefigures every doomed thug and gunsel from No Way Out to Night And The City. This guy has a jumbo-sized death wish, and the camera loves every second of it, nowhere more than when he's reciting Shakespeare like Edwin Booth on steroids:

Historically, Mature's Holliday is as fictional as Romero's Halliday, but because Mature is larger than life, his performance conforms to the Liberty Valance Law ("When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"), and works on a mythic level above history. The gunshot victim he operates on? Dies in the night. His Boston girl? So obviously in love with the town Marshal. What else can this hulk do but take his boots off, sneak into a stable, and then start coughing so he gets himself shot? One of the top five Hollidays for sure.

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