A camp classic
Of course it’s distinctly weird. When it came out, this picture puzzled Western lovers in the US. It looked like a Western but it was so stylized and arty and passionate that they thought perhaps it wasn’t one. In his guide to Westerns Stagecoach to Tombstone, author Howard Hughes said it “offered a very different view of the American west – home on derange.” European auteuriste critics loved it, as Martin Scorsese says in his intro on the DVD, exactly because of those qualities.
It was stylized in the sense that large parts were shot on the studio lot, ‘exterior’ scenes against obviously painted backdrops. This was partly a budget-saving measure (location shooting is expensive, and Republic studio boss Herb Yates didn’t really do expensive) and partly because Crawford had a tight control over the whole project and she insisted on no close-ups except in the studio where she could strictly control the lighting. Maybe too Ray liked the almost stage-play vibe with Vienna’s saloon as a ‘set’. It is like Italian opera without the music, and stuffed full of Freudian symbolism.
Though not credited as a producer, Crawford, then 49, had bought the rights of the Roy Chanslor novel on which the story is based (which author Chanslor had dedicated to her) and sold the project to Republic, as long as she could lead. She also had ‘requests’ for the casting. These were largely ignored, though. She wanted Robert Mitchum for the title role (that would have been good, I think) and first Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, then Claire Trevor for the part of Emma (ditto). In the end she did not get on at all well with either actor cast in the roles – McCambridge, and Sterling Hayden as Johnny. Some claimed Crawford was easy to work with, always professional, generous, patient and kind; others that she had an enormous Hollywood ego, and did not suffer either fools or limelight-seekers gladly. Hayden said afterwards, “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” And Ray added sardonically, “As a human being, Joan Crawford is a great actress.
As for Mercedes McCambridge, 38, the relationship between her and Crawford was spectacularly acrimonious. The fact that both women, it is said, tended to hit the bottle hard didn’t help, and there is also a suggestion that Crawford was having an affair with Ray (I don’t know how true that was) and real jealousy was being acted out on the set. After the shoot McCambridge called Crawford “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady”. She complained bitterly that Crawford blocked her career for years afterwards. Crawford’s acid response was, “I have four children. I do not need a fifth.”
You will have heard or read accounts of how Crawford stormed into McCambridge’s dressing room and slashed her costumes, going on to scatter the wardrobe contents all over an Arizona highway. Authors Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell in Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography say that on one level Nicholas Ray was delighted that the actresses detested each other so much as this added to the on-screen tension and gave depth to their characters’ mutual loathing in the story. He was a sensitive soul, though, and found it hard to manage. He said he would sometimes stop the car on the way to the film set in the mornings in order to throw up.
And then it’s an entirely feminist Western. The protagonist and antagonist are women, and they come to a classic showdown with six-guns in the last reel, just as countless men had done before (and would again). The two women play out the cliché of the macho-male Main Street shoot-out. Furthermore, all the men do these women’s bidding. One of the croupiers in Vienna’s saloon offers his opinion to the camera, “Never seen a woman who’s more man.” It’s all role-reversal – women in gunbelts, women hating more than men, and possibly loving women more than men. Crawford’s character seems to want to emasculate her men and McCambridge’s also has males, even quite tough males, as mere lackeys, but she has nothing but scorn for them. Johnny Guitar (Hayden), brought in by Vienna as a gunman, seems to have given up guns, and croons softly to the sound of a sweet guitar, saying only “Yes, ma’am” when Vienna barks orders at him. The critic Dennis Schwartz recalls: “François Truffaut said it reminded him of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, with Sterling Hayden being the beauty.” As the camera worships Crawford from below in low-angle, her cringingly loyal male employees look up at her in awe.
You’re never quite sure whether Emma is jealous (verging on the insanely jealous) of Vienna’s dalliance with the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) or if she in fact longs for Vienna herself. McCambridge’s Emma is magnificently malevolent, glistening with evil, splendidly vile. It must have been her greatest ever performance. She hints at lesbian lust and jilted fury. In her long cattle-baroness’s dress with inevitable gunbelt, with her mad smiles and pyromaniac glee, she simply seethes with sex.
Or is it feminist? Is it really? Isn’t it the macho man who saves Vienna in the last resort, when she melts into his arms? And after all, the picture is called Johnny Guitar, not ‘Vienna’. It finally seems to come down to the same situation as in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (released three years later): Stanwyck in that is the power in the land but, as the accompanying music tells us, “After all, she was only a woman.” It’s not a great message for feminist viewers!
Ray and his writer(s) knew the conventions very well. When a woman bears a place name she is disreputable or of dubious propriety. Think of Claire Trevor’s Dallas in Stagecoach, Joanne Dru’s Denver in Wagonmaster, Virginia Mayo’s Colorado in Colorado Territory, Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, or many more. Perhaps the suggestion is that the names come from the places where they once plied their trade.
The supporting cast was actually very good. I don’t think John Ford himself could have put together such a group of Western character actors. Playing Johnny’s rival the Dancin’ Kid, Scott Brady, billed fourth, was in his seventh feature Western and would soon start leading in the genre. Playing the tough cattleman backing Emma but a man who, however, in the end, hasn’t the stomach for it, McIvers, was Ward Bond, key member of the Ford stock company. John Carradine, of that great Western clan, was the saloon’s loyal factotum Old Tom. Frank Ferguson was not his usual avuncular self as the marshal but rather a tough guy trying to keep order (but still bossed by the two women). The Dancin’ Kid’s gang consisted of old stagers Royal Dano as the sensitive Corey, young Ben Cooper as naïve Turkey Ralston and the big-ox thug Bart was Ernest Borgnine. Paul Fix was one of the croupiers, Eddie (“Spin the wheel, Eddie.”). Denver Pyle and Sheb Wooley were possemen and Will Wright was the bank clerk. It was a mighty good line-up for Western fans.
As for the screenplay, there is still some debate as to who actually wrote it. It has often been said that while Philip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, The Bravados, Broken Lance, etc) got the credit, he was in fact fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow (The Unforgiven, The Way West, The Man from Colorado, others). However, there is some doubt about that. Certainly Yordan was on the set and making on-the-spot adjustments. Crawford had threatened to quit if Yordan didn’t come out to Sedona to rewrite her part so that it would be bigger than Hayden’s, even demanding the climactic shootout with McCambridge, with which Yordan obliged her. Then Ray himself was famous for rewriting large portions of his scripts, usually with feedback and support from his actors. He also greatly encouraged improvisation. “If it were all in the script, why make the film?” he said.
Many people have regarded the script as an anti-witch hunt diatribe and quite political, and there is certainly an element of that but I think that reading can be overdone. OK, 1953 and ‘54 were the height of the McCarthy hysteria, with the Hollywood blacklist in everyone’s thoughts. And I suppose you could argue that the ‘posse’ (lynch mob) that hangs Turkey and seeks to do the same to Vienna because she (they think) wants to undermine their traditions, beliefs and interests, was a kind of ‘better dead than red’ witch hunt. The attempts of the ‘posse’ to browbeat people into testifying against another do have a ring to them. And maybe, yes, Ray was having a sly dig by casting arch-McCarthyite Ward Bond as one of the leaders of the mob. But really, to me it’s a sly dig and not a rabid political manifesto. Lynch mobs, and the brave loners who stood out against them, were an absolutely central theme to the Western genre and had been long before Joe McCarthy came along.
So was the idea of the railroad coming and the fact that it would bring in the “dirt farmers and squatters”, as Emma scathingly calls them. The cattle baron vs. homesteader plot was as geriatric as the hills, and the idea that someone could make it big by being in the right place at the right time when the railroad was built was also a venerable plot device. I hadn’t twigged until this watch of Johnny Guitar (slow on the uptake, doh) just how much Sergio Leone was referencing Vienna and her saloon when he created Claudia Cardinale’s character Jill McBain and her place in Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968. The idea is just the same.
Some of the early exchanges set the scene. Emma arrives early in the film, seeking, in Vienna’s saloon, the outlaws who held up the stage and killed her brother. She has already made up her mind who that was. “I’m going to kill you,” she spits, as she looks with loathing/longing at Vienna. “I know,” Vienna answers calmly. “If I don’t kill you first.” There is no doubt at all, even in the first reel, how things will pan out. But though Emma says that the Dancin’ Kid wants her, there is hardly a moment when she can tear her eyes away from Vienna even to glance at the Kid, and she is almost disgusted when he dances with her.
Similarly, there is rivalry between Johnny and the Dancin’ Kid for Vienna’s affections – though she seems too cold-blooded to commit to either, and she says coldly to the Dancin’ Kid at one point, “I like you, but not that much.” The rivalry between the would-be or maybe suitors is very well handled, as the two alpha males verbally fence. When he hears the name ‘Johnny Guitar’ the Kid sneers, “That’s no kinda name.” (Coming from someone known as the Dancin’ Kid, it was rather a case of the kettle calling the pot black). “Anybody care to change it?” wonders Johnny, and gives a steely glare. They all look away. Later, the Kid will learn that the soubriquet ‘Johnny Guitar’ actually hides the feared gunslinger Johnny Logan, fastest gun in the West, or something, and that will change the Kid’s point of view, though of course he can’t back down.
When Johnny plays a tune on his guitar (in reality the music was dubbed on; Hayden said they put hardware-store string on the instrument so that he wouldn’t strike a chord by accident) Vienna is suddenly transported to their past as lovers. She stops him. “Play something else,” she says, and we think inevitably of Casablanca, only here it’s Crawford who is Bogart, not Hayden.
Then there’s the tough fist-fight between Johnny and Bart, with Hayden and Borgnine slugging it out. At one point Ernest throws a chair at the camera and we are reminded that the idea was originally to shoot the picture in 3D, which had been all the rage in 1953, but the craze had already faded by the spring of ’54 when this movie came out.
The waterfall, behind which lurks the outlaws’ lair (which they all always call a lair) is another venerable prop to the Western and harks back to Chapter V of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912 – or, if you are being a bit more prosaic, the John Wayne movie Randy Rides Alone in 1934. Hayden himself had used a waterfall in Take Me to Town only the year before, and Return of the Frontiersman, The Big Sky, and many others made a feature of the cascade, often as a place of refuge.
When waiting outside the bank for Vienna to withdraw her money, Johnny witnesses the Dancin’ Kid and his gang robbing the bank. Will he intervene? No. “I’m a stranger here myself,” he explains. He is, yes, a marginal character in what is essentially a Vienna/Emma conflict. This was classic Nicholas Ray, whose films often contained this concept of detached alone-ness. His protagonists were often troubled loners who cannot fit in with society, and his films sympathize with them. He said that his noir In a Lonely Place (1950) was “a very personal film”.
The climactic fire at Vienna’s (dramatically staged), the lynch party and the final showdown at the lair through the waterfall could easily be accused of being completely over-the-top and even absurd. But they aren’t. Not to Western lovers. They are a fitting ending. The right people are killed. Bart is shot dead, the rat; the evil Emma gets her just deserts (McCambridge wrote in her autobiography that for her death scene, she was doubled by stuntman Charles Wilcox in a dress and Hayden joked that he looked like a mother superior in drag); and the Dancin’ Kid, who must perish as a dramatic necessity to allow Vienna and Johnny to go off to wedded bliss, does so heroically. The lovers kiss in front of the Freudian waterfall, Peggy Lee sings a brief verse of the ballad she wrote specially, and it’s The End. Most satisfactory.
Victor Young’s score is magnificent. Sometimes it is tenderly romantic – in contrast to what is happening on screen because even in the ‘tender’ moments of the relationship between Vienna and Johnny, and these are few and far between, the dialogue is pretty blunt and un-sugary. At other times Young makes the most of the full-on melodrama being acted out. It wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award, let alone win.
The picture was a box-office hit when it was released in New York in May ’54, making $2.5m, a large and unusual amount for Republic Pictures. The critical reception was not so great, though. Reviews were often negative, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times calling it “sexless” (what?) and adding “Neither Miss Crawford nor director Nicholas Ray has made it any more than a flat walk-through — or occasional ride-through — of western clichés.” And he also wrote, “Miss McCambridge screeches nastily and Mr. Hayden gallumps about morosely as though he’d rather play the guitar. The color is slightly awful and the Arizona scenery is only fair. Let’s put it down as a fiasco.” Did we watch the same film? Even as late as 1975, when the picture was re-released, the Times said it was “A very rum Western with cockeyed feminist attitudes.” Cue said it “frequently stumbles over its own artiness.” And the film garnered no Oscars or other awards.
But the picture has subsequently grown into one of the greats of American cinema, lauded by Truffaut (make of that what you will), shortlisted for Best Film by the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1955 (though in the end it only came ninth), called by Erik Maurel “l’un des plus beaux westerns de l’histoire du cinéma” (one of the most beautiful westerns in the history of cinema), listed as one of the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die, standing at No. 5 in The Rough Guide to Westerns’ Top Ten Westerns ever, and more recently selected for preservation in the United States National Film registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Yup. It’s official. It is now what they call a cult movie.
The whole thing owed more than a little to Rancho Notorious (1952) with Marlene Dietrich, and Ray must have seen that movie. The RKO B-ness, the lurid, painted sets, the primary colors and the dominant woman boss of the rancho all fed into Johnny Guitar. But it outstrips Rancho big time; in the last resort, Fritz Lang’s effort is turgid. Johnny is brilliant and weird.
Is Johnny Guitar just another mid-50s low-budget Republic Western? It is and it isn’t. Implausible, overwrought, made on the cheap, visually remarkable, a 101% viewing experience, Johnny Guitar is a classic (now) to boggle over. The late great Western guru Brian Garfield said, “It is a mesmerizing experience: one of the great good-bad movies.” To me it seems like a Western in drag, a camp classic. But I love it and I think it was a Nicholas Ray masterpiece.