Understanding Genre in 'My Darling Clementine'
How the film used genre using common tropes seen in the western genre, genre theory and more.
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946) follows the story of Wyatt Earp, an ex-marshal from Dodge city, and his brothers who heard a large flock of cattle across the wild west, the frontier, to California. They stop at the lawless town of Tombstone, leaving his brother, James, at their camp to watch over their cattle. When they return, they find James murdered and their cattle stolen. Earp suspects ‘Old Man’ Clanton and his sons and returns to Tombstone, becoming the Sheriff in an attempt to bring law to the land and get his revenge legally. While staying in Tombstone, Earp builds a life there and also falls in love with a woman, Clementine.
Genre theory became a significant focus in the late 1960s and was thought by some critics to be something which expands on auteur theory and place auteurs more credibly and systematically (Hutchings, 1995, 60). Genre is a word often used in film to put a film into a category which depends on the films’ content such as plot types, its presentation and nature (Altman, 1996, 276). An occurrence in one film may be similar to ones in other films, allowing a film to be associated with others under a category. This is what we see in My Darling Clementine and other films similar to it in more ways than one categorized as ‘westerns’. As the concept of genre and its uses in the film industry and for audiences is discussed, we will be able to understand My Darling Clementine and how it uses genre.
Genre existed in other forms of entertainment, such as literature, before it was used in film. Genre has always existed in the film industry because of its nature and most films created before the concept was theorized can still be associated with a genre (Hutchings, 1995, 61). In the early twentieth century, the industry gave films more generic titles such as ‘war films’ or ‘crime films’. It was first used in film around 1910 by the growing film industry when the demand for film was too much to supply and was used as shorthand communication within various parts of the industry to separate types of films into categories. Genre was used to create a base for ideas and decisions in production by studios which would eventually become an identity for the film itself. In distribution, genre was used as a way of product differentiation, allowing for easy communication between the film producers, distributors and exhibitors. Finally, it enables audiences to understand what type of film one is, allowing them to view what they wish with ease and creates easy communication between audiences and exhibitors (Altman, 1996, 276).
When a film is described as an ‘X’ genre film, it means it is associated with other films which have also been associated in the same genre and categorized. But what makes a genre a genre and what makes a film part of a genre? Andrew Tudor said:
‘To say a film is a Western is immediately to say that it shares some indefinable ‘X’ with other films we call ‘Westerns’ – Andrew Tudor, Theories of Film (Hutchings, 1995, 65).
Films of the same specific genre will share similar recognizable iconography allowing for films of the same genre to be identified as such. My Darling Clementine is a western and shares ‘semantic’ elements seen in other westerns. In My Darling Clementine, we see the American frontier, desert terrain, small town settlements with jails and saloons, horses and carriages as the prominent form of transport, natural earth colour palettes, characters wearing Stetson hats and western-style clothing, Marshalls, sheriffs, criminals, American settlers and Indians. Genres also have ‘syntactic’ elements which films categorized in the same genre may share including plot points, events in the narrative, character types, aesthetic hierarchies, guiding metaphors and more (Altman, 1996, 283). My Darling Clementine has some syntactic elements including a contrast between good and evil characters (the Earps and the Clantons) and plot points and narrative events (the Earps visit to the lawless town of Tombstone and the murder of James Earp by ‘Old Man’ Clanton). Other westerns share some these semantic and syntactic components such as Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), one of the oldest westerns to exist. Even more recent westerns such as A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane, 2014), a western romance/comedy which seems to parody the genre shares these components. They’re all known as westerns because of these semantic and syntactic elements which they share.
While genres mean something to audiences, Alloway, Altman and Maltby have all suggested that the film industry, such as the studios who produce films, use genre, however, they use it differently and do not work directly with them. They suggest that the studios use genre as a “guide for production,” a tool to use to find successful films or a specific element of a said film. Once a successful film or element of one has been found, it can be exploited, allowing the studio to make it more profitable. The element could be anything which is popular with the studios’ audience such as a director and their style whom they have a contract with, an actor they have a contract with and can reuse in future productions, particular narratives, plot points, reusable locations or sets. Alloway, Altman and Maltby coin the concept of a ‘cycle’ and favour it over the concept of genre (Gledhill, 2000, 226). This is because the films and their components, including their semantic and syntactic elements, are mixed, reconstructed and reused in other films to create successful products, gain profit and repeat the process (Hutchings, 1995, 61). The cycle is complete and is then repeated. This can be seen in My Darling Clementine and other westerns as semantic and syntactic components in the film are also seen as stereotypes in other popular westerns.
Genre is like society ‘speaking to itself’ (Gledhill, 2000, 238) and is a reflection of society. Steve Neale said “genres call on cultural verisimilitude according to their relationship to a social world” which defines what audiences expect to see in the world of a specific genre. This is generic verisimilitude. This can be seen in westerns such as My Darling Clementine as a common setting in western films is the frontier, the ‘wild’ west which is historic in American history. The genre reflects a period of history to the present day society (Gledhill, 2000, 235). Cultural and social disputes are the events which can provide components for “renewed generic enactments” to create the fictional worlds genres are made from (Gledhill, 2000, 238). Events in our world effect genre. For example, would the western genre exist in its current form (if at all) if American westward expansion didn’t occur? As the semi-settled towns, the separation from civilization and the confiscation of Indian territory which are common elements in the western film would not have existed, then most likely not. Genres are fictional realms filled with worlds of similar components, however, they manage to break their boundaries and cross the border into ours, where their components are discussed and the way they speak and reflect our societies and cultures are discovered (Gledhill, 2000, 240-1).
Andrew Tudor proposed that genres are ‘what we collectively believe it to be’ as genres are defined by already existing beliefs and expectations an audience has; although he later thought this to be an unsatisfactory approach (Hutchings, 1995, 67). However, it brings audiences and cultures from around the world into the argument. Genre appears to be subjective and what defines one depends on the culture of an audience and the culture which produced them (Altman, 1999, 26). Furthermore, elements which define a genre are more than just components in a genre as they depend on the culture they operate in and therefore reveals that one genre may not be read in the same way in each and every culture and will depend on the history and beliefs of the culture (Tudor, 2000, 96-7). For example, the Western is a genre (although popular around the world in many cultures such as Arabic, Germanic and British (Hutchings, 1995, 62)) made for the American audience. A film shown to American settlers of the time about American settlers fighting Indians who threaten to take their newly settled town would appear to be a Western where the Americans are the heroes. However, show the same film to an audience of native Americans of the time and suddenly the film becomes a tragedy about a group of people who had their land stolen and failed to get it back when they fought.
Genre also changes over time and iconography associated with one may not be associated in the future. Semantic and syntactic components change and so does the themes associated with genre. Jim Kitses provided an important example of a way to analyze themes in genre. He uses the Western genre to demonstrate his argument. He argues that the wild west in American culture is a subjective concept which has no definitive answer and is subject to change over time. However, they bonded several uncertain ideas and general feelings about it and American progress. Kitses presents a set of binary opposites, values and ideas which oppose each other that he believes isolate the ‘thematic concerns for the western’ (Hutchings, 1995, 69).
These themes are two sides of a spectrum and they are binary opposites of each other. Because of these thematic oppositions, Kitses describes the Western (and genres in general) as ‘loose, shifting and variegated’ with ‘many roots and branches’ (Hutchings, 1995, 70). This argument suggests that genres do change over time and therefore cannot be one static completely defined thing. My Darling Clementine is not exactly the same as every other Western in the genre and yet is still associated with the genre. Steve Neale said that difference is ‘essential to genre’ and it is completely wrong to suggest that all films in a genre are identical to each other. He also states that without the difference in a genre, all meaning and pleasure in film would be lost to the identical films, and therefore the audience could not be sustained. (Neale, 1980, 49-50). Western films would be positioned on the table of binary opposites, but each would have varying degrees of these themes and how important they are to the main story would vary. In My Darling Clementine, for example, savagery is seen by the criminal and murderous acts of the Clantons towards the Earps, however, we also see a touch of humanity between the love of Wyatt Earp and Clementine.
In conclusion, the concept of genre is not as simple as it seems and is one with many roots and branches itself with many different arguments which try to define what it is. Genre theory became an expansion of auteur theory and is something which allows films to be categorized by their components which other films in the same category may share. However, films are different from one another at the same time. It is used as a way of communication between the film industry and audiences as they both mutually understand them and what to expect with one. Genre is cultural but it depends on the culture that determines how a genre will be read by an audience. Finally, genres also change over time with society as itself also changes. Genre will continue to develop as a concept and change as society progresses through time. Some arguments of the concept appear to be accepted more than others and therefore, I believe it creates greater emphasis that genre is, as Tudor said, ‘what we collectively believe it to be’.
Altman, R., Film/Genre, London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Altman, R., ‘Cinema and Genre’ in The Oxford History of World Cinema, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gledhill, C., ‘Rethinking Genre’ in Reinventing Film Studies, Christine Gledhill & Linda Williams (eds.), London: Hodder Headline Group, 2000.
Hutchings, P., ‘Genre Theory and Criticism’ in Approaches to Popular Film, Joanne Hollows & Mark Jancovich (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Kitses, J., Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, 2nd Edition, London: British Film Institute, 2007.
Neale, S., Genre, London: British Film Institute, 1980.
Tudor, A., ‘Critical Method… Genre’ in The Film Studies Reader, Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings & Mark Jancovich (eds.), London: Hodder Headline Group