17 January 2019

My Darling Clementine: Ford's handshake vs. Zanuck's kiss

John Ford's My Darling Clementine is often regarded as one of Ford's best films and one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Released in December 1946, the film is a retelling of events leading up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. The film as we know today, however, is not the version Ford himself had in mind. In late June 1946, 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck saw Ford's cut and while he liked parts of it, his overall impression was that it was too long and needed serious editing. Zanuck edited the film himself without Ford's interference (like he had done with other Ford films, i.e. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941)) and ultimately removed 30 minutes from Ford's version while also adding and changing scenes. 

Probably the most significant change that Zanuck made to Ford's version was the ending. In the original cut, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine (Cathy Downs) say goodbye with a friendly shake of the hand. While Zanuck himself liked the ending, preview audiences hated it. And so, having invested $2 million in the film, Zanuck had a kiss inserted in the final scene: Earp kisses Clementine on the cheek before shaking her hand. (Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs were called back to film the kiss in the studio, months after shooting had already wrapped.)

In the following memo, written on 4 September 1946, Zanuck informed the film's producer and co-screenwriter Samuel Engel about his decision to change Ford's ending and to add the kiss.
DATE: Sept. 4, 1946
TO: Mr. Samuel Engel
Dear Sam:
Insomuch as I am flying East in the morning I thought you should have this note in case you wish to show it to Jack Ford and Henry Fonda.
I like the ending of My Darling Clementine exactly as it is. It is completely satisfactory to me from every standpoint. Unfortunately 2,000 people who saw the picture at a preview did not agree. You were present at the preview and you know what happened and you have read the preview cards.
I would like to ridicule the mental attitude of the audience at this preview but you must remember that this is the same audience which applauded the quality of the picture in its earlier sequences....
Therefore it is difficult for me to ignore their request for a more satisfying or satisfactory conclusion to the film. Furthermore, let us be frank. This audience accepted and tremendously enjoyed every moment of the picture but they laughed at us at the finish.
You will recall that the last scene was perfect up to where Fonda reaches out to shake hands with Cathy Downs. It was such an obvious buildup for a kiss or for some demonstration of affection that the audience felt first amused and then completely cheated...
I do feel that it will be honest, legitimate and reasonable if Henry looks at the girl, smiles, leans over and kisses her on the cheek. It is a good-bye kiss and nothing more. He does like her. The audience knows he likes her. Now is no time for us to get smart.
Believe me we need the picture in New York. I detest going back for this scene as much as anybody. But I actually think that it is absolutely essential that we avoid spoiling the last moment of an outstanding picture and we certainly spoiled it for the audience that saw it at the preview.
Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years At Twentieth Century-Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

[Watch Ford's original ending here]

Above: in Ford's ending of My Darling Clementine Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine (Cathy Downs) only shake hands, while in Zanuck's ending a kiss was inserted to please the audience (photo below). 


  1. I supposed the handshake would've been OK, really, but I'm with Zanuck on the cheek-kiss. Great bit of backstory!