(note: updated with post-screening remarks, scroll down!)
Joan Crawford wants YOU to see Nicholas Ray’s riveting 1954 ‘political’ western JOHNNY GUITAR. The daring Ms. Crawford enters in masculine pants and shirt and wearing a gun belt to make her message crystal clear: “All you can buy up here is a bullet in the head.” One of Vienna’s male employees breaks the fourth wall, stares right at the camera and says, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”
Philip Yordan’s screenplay places Crawford’s ex-prostitute Vienna as a casino owner holding out until the railroad arrives to make her a rich woman. Local landowner McIvers (Ward Bond) wants Vienna run out of town, and the nearly psychotic Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) wants Vienna dead in jealousy over the dashing Dancing Kid (Scott Brady). In fact, Emma is so unbalanced that she’s willing to frame the Kid and his gang (Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper) for robbery and murder, and see them all hang with her. But arriving out of the wind-blown dust is the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who may or may not have been summoned to defend Vienna against her vicious neighbors. Emma’s lynch mob is directly compared to the then-current HUAC and McCarthy witch hunts, right down to having Emma pressure a captured cowboy to falsely denounce a friend. There’s also an intense romantic streak in JOHNNY GUITAR, backed by Victor Young’s lyrical music score, of the pain of rekindling lost illusions of love. The key love scene is a delirious exchange of accusations:
Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.
Pedro Almodóvar was so moved by the scene that he included a big chunk of it in his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — being dubbed into Spanish.
At this point in her career Joan Crawford was her own unofficial producer, and maneuvered to exert control over all aspects of the show. Joan was particularly determined that her female co-stars give her no competition. Young Diane Baker had a great scene in Strait-Jacket until Joan had it rewritten to emphasize her character instead. This of course put Joan on a collision course with her handpicked co-star Mercedes McCambridge, an Oscar-winning fireball personality in her own right. In what sounds like total insanity, after hearing the crew applaud McCambridge’s big address to the posse on location in Arizona, Joan drunkenly threw the actress’s wardrobe onto the highway. Joan demanded major script changes to enhance her role, including a new ending in which the male gunslingers stand by as Vienna and Emma shoot it out instead.
The really insane part of Joan’s interference is that it makes JOHNNY GUITAR an even better picture. The hatred between the two female leads crackles with electricity. Other changes demanded by Crawford greatly enlarge the romantic appeal of the picture, which takes on a stylized, almost mythic tone. Although Nicholas Ray was reportedly himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown through the filming, the movie comes off as a strong statement of his personality. As the philosophical Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden even recites director Ray’s personal motto: “I’m a stranger here myself.”
Cementing JOHNNY GUITAR’S status as a classic is the fact that that maker of Italian westerns Sergio Leone took the show’s basic concept as the basis for his Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone always showed good taste in sagebrush epics.
Gotta catch Joan, Sterling Hayden & Mercedes McCambridge in the weirdest ’50s western of them all tonight at 10pm. It has campy dialogue, a vocal by Peggy Lee and it’s soaked in Republic’s garish Color by Trucolor. Audiences go crazy for it. Writer and producer Michael Schlesinger is giving the introduction, and he’s always terrific.
(Post-screening addition:) Michael Schlesinger batted his intro out of the park, nailing JOHNNY GUITAR’S eccentric, unique appeal and getting several big laughs as well. Mike discussed the fan base that regards it as nothing less than “All About Eve Goes West”, and hangs onto every deliciously ripe dialogue line. I got to see Michael intro Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three a few years back and when he does another I’m going to lobby to cover it too.
The ‘print’ shown of JOHNNY GUITAR is a new Paramount restoration, and looks like the Olive Films disc from last year with more digital clean-up. It’s still in the seemingly incorrect 1:37 Academy ratio, which looks fine but frequently leaves dead area at the top and bottom of the frame. But by now people have seen the movie flat so much that anything else might look wrong.
It’s midnight! Back again at 9am for John Wayne in STAGECOACH !