The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

A camp classic

The more I watch Johnny Guitar (and I’ve just watched it again) the more I think it’s
an absolutely stunning film.

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. European auteuriste
critics loved it, as Martin Scorsese says in his intro on the DVD, exactly
because of those qualities.

Nicholas Ray (left) plays with the black-hat baddies/white-hat goodies tradition.
At the lynching party, Vienna (Joan Crawford), first seen in slinky black
man’s attire with low-slung gunbelt, is now in a virginal white dress, about to
be hanged by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) in her jet black, backed up by the
posse, all in black because they have just been attending a funeral of one of
their own. Yet
plays a vital part in the movie: the vivid primary colors of the character’s
clothes, especially lemon yellow and bloody scarlet, are set against the deep
orange Arizona earth and the washed greens of much of the scenery and set. The
blue was suppressed. Why? Ask an artist. Or an auteuriste. You get the idea
that primary colors were almost the raison
of the film. One look at Crawford with her chalk-white face slashed
with the brightest red lipstick you ever saw will tell you that color is key. It
was shot by Harry Stradling Sr. in Republic’s Trucolor, a process which seen
today in other movies often gives faded, almost pastel hues, but here the tints
are startlingly bright and rich in the restored print.

Brilliant primary colors, especially yellow and red

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 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.

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, “
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.

Doing her square-jawed act

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.”

All smiles in a publicity shot, but

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.

Her greatest ever role

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.”
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.

Gunfighter without a gun – and his bland beige costumes emphasize his non-status, despite being the title character. It’s the women who rule.

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.

Magnificent Mercedes

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

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, many
more. Perhaps the suggestion is that names come from the places where they once
plied their trade.

One of the bizarrest scenes

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.

Ward Bond is McIvers, the cattleman who backs down

Scott Brady is the Dancin’ Kid

Ernest Borgnine is the thuggish gang member Bart

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 a 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.

Chanslor, Maddow, Yordan, writers all

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.
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.

He had a lot to answer for

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 old 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.

Leone was influenced for sure

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, 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.

References, references

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

Vienna in virginal white doing her tragic act

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.

Victor Young

The picture
was a box-office hit when it was released in New York in May ’54, making $2.5m,
a huge 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.” 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 “
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.

Improbable ending

9 Responses

  1. Terrific, and very enthusiastic, review of a remarkable film, Jeff. I have come to enjoy it more in recent years than I did in the past (more discriminating in my old age?).
    Whilst I feel the anti-McCarty thread is probably present I don't feel it was any more than incidental.
    Is that Trevor Bardette I spy alongside Joan in her virginal-white dress??
    Another actor to gladden the hearts of any westerns lover.

  2. Really interesting article, Jeff. Enjoyed every word. Question: is there a point at which a western is so camp it's no longer a western. There are movies that aren't on the face of it western but really are. Are there westerns that are so off the wall they aren't really a western? For example, I can think of at least one that's really a soap.

    1. Interesting point. Certainly the definition of 'Western' has always been fluid, and the genre has often flirted with or even crossed over into other genres – musical Westerns, sci-fi Westerns, gangster noir Westerns, and so on. Whenis a Western not a Western, that is the question!

    2. A recent example of a western that's not a western might be A Million Ways To Die In The West although a spoof is rather obvious. But I remember watching the Glenn Ford Cimmaron for the first time a few years ago and at a certain point thinking it's stopped being a western. On the other hand, Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand is a western in modern dress. If you haven't seen it I thoroughly recommend it. A lot of fun and you care about the characters. It reminded me a lot of Wayne's Durango westerns: didn't set out to be classics and he was past his prime but it was so good to see the man still filling the screen.

  3. After Kirk Douglas, Ben Cooper, unforgettable as Turkey, is gone at 86… Still wondering why you did not award 5 revolvers to this masterpiece…!?
    By the way I have annother question : since you are so fond of Der(r)ingers, especially the Remington Over Under .41 caliber, whe are you using a revolver as a reward !? Of course the revolver – especially the Colt 1873 Single Action – is much more associated to the genre when the Der(r)inger is a kindof niche…JM

    1. That's a good point. Perhaps I should be reviewing five-derringer Westerns.
      On the other hand, derringers don't quite fit with great pictures like Red River or The Searchers…

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