The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the April 13-17 Great Villain Blogathon 2015 hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that other TV-obsessed Baby Boomers have commented on (and that I have a feeling I may have, too): that surprising and slightly unsettling feeling that comes when an actor or actress you’re used to watching as a friendly or familial figure every week on the small screen suddenly turns up in an old movie as an antagonistic or downright malevolent character. Remember the first time you saw the wisdom-dispensing dad from My Three Sons as a scheming, murderous insurance investigator? Or when that alluring call girl turned out to be the Partridge Family’s mother? And how about seeing the hapless, bumbling Col. Klink as an unrepentant Nazi war criminal?
Well, that’s how I felt when, as a teenager, I first saw that lovable grandfather from The Real McCoys and The Guns of Will Sonnett, Walter Brennan, play the bad guys in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). As Texas justice of the peace and self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos”Judge Roy Bean in the former, then six years later as “Old Man” Clanton, who drove his cattle-rustling sons into the fatal Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Brennan put his own unique spin on a pair of the Old West’s most infamous real-life blackhats. Let’s take a brief look at the two:
Judge Roy Bean: Dispensing his own highly biased brand of justice from his saloon/courthouse, The Jersey Lilly, in the one-horse town of Vinegarroon, Bean also uses his questionable legal authority to support the local cattlemen in their deadly conflict with the ever-increasing number of homesteading farmers coming into the region. Bean’s ruthless judicial philosophy (he’s first seen convicting and hanging a farm hand who accidentally shot and killed a cow) is ever so slightly balanced by his own peculiar code of honor, but his most obvious character trait is his obsession with actress and 19th-century beauty Lily Langtry, whose face can’t be missed on the many posters and magazine illustrations covering the saloon’s walls.
It’s this romantic devotion that wanderer Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), brought in on a charge of horse stealing, quickly latches onto and exploits to work his way into the judge’s confidence, claiming that he met the fair Miss Langtry on more than one occasion and actually has a lock of her hair…which he might be willing to part with. The promise of this memento leads to a budding friendship between the two men, with Cole managing to extract a truce settlement in the range war from Bean before handing the (non-Langtry) lock over to him. Bean goes back on his word, though, and orders the farmers’ crops and houses burned. Harden vows to bring him to justice and signs on as a deputy to deliver a warrant for the judge’s arrest, while an announced performance by the actual Lily in the nearby town of Ft. Davis sets the stage–both figuratively and literally–for a final showdown between the two adversaries. I don’t want to give away too many details about the climactic showdown in the Ft. Davis theater and its aftermath. Suffice it to say that I always find it hard not to shed a tear or two while watching Brennan’s Bean preparing to finally meet the object of his adoration. It’s a testament to the veteran actor that, in spite of his character’s murderous ways, viewers still manage to feel sympathy for the old judge, who arrives at the music hall dressed to the nines in his Confederate battle grays (“I haven’t worn this uniform since Chickamaugie, but it still fits right smart.”). It’s little wonder that Walter won his record-setting third Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the role.
Newman “Pa” Clanton: There was no such touching last scene to be found, no redemptive quality to be had, however, in Brennan’s portrayal of “Old Man” Clanton in My Darling Clementine. The film opens with Clanton and his four sons out on the Arizona plains, where they encounter a quartet of siblings, the Earps, who are on a cattle drive to California. After declining an offer from the Clantons to sell their herd, three of the Earp men head into the raucous nearby town of Tombstone for “food and a shave,” but return to find their cattle gone and their youngest brother James, who stayed behind to watch the herd, murdered.
Much like Cole Harden was pressed into becoming a deputy to see justice done in The Westerner, soft-spoken family leader Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) agrees to don the tin star as the new marshal of Tombstone in order to bring in James’ killers. But before he and his brothers can fulfill that vow another family member will lose his life, Wyatt will form an uneasy alliance with local surgeon/gunslinger Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and the two clans will have a fateful showdown that will become a part of frontier history.
Whether he’s shooting down men in cold blood (and in the back) or beating his sons with a horsewhip while yelling at them “When you pull a gun, kill a man,” Brennan’s frozen-hearted Clanton family patriarch is just plain rotten through and through (one shudders to ponder what might have happened to Ma Clanton!). That twinkle in the eye which made you hope that Judge Roy Bean would see the error of his ways isn’t anywhere on Walter’s face in this film. There’s only the steely resolve and deviousness of an almost psychotic outlaw who is too far gone to care about anyone else…including, it seems, his own boys. At least, that’s how it seems until the final scenes at the O.K. Corral (Look, the facts of the battle are a matter of record, and there have been so many movie versions I’m not giving away many surprises here). As a half-crazed Clanton frantically calls out for his now-deceased offspring like a Wild West King Lear, only to be told by Wyatt Earp, “I ain’t gonna kill you. I hope you live a hundred years, so you’ll feel just a little what my pa’s gonna feel,” Brennan once again does the near-impossible and makes you have a twinge of empathy for the sad old coot. That twinge quickly goes away in the very next shot, which I won’t give away, but it’s there nonetheless.