JOHNNY GUITAR, 1954
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Rhys Williams
Vienna has built a saloon outside of town, and she hopes to build her own town once the railroad is put through, but the townsfolk want her gone. When four men hold up a stagecoach and kill a man the town officials, led by Emma Small, come to the saloon to grab four of Vienna's friends, the Dancin' Kid and his men. Vienna stands strong against them, and is aided by the presence of an old acquaintance of hers, Johnny Guitar, who is not what he seems.
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When you think of westerns, you probably picture the panoramic landscapes of Monument valley that John Ford made iconic. Or maybe you imagine the hyper masculine figure of John Wayne, also synonymous with the western genre. You probably don’t imagine a gun toting Joan Crawford, but as Nicholas Ray turns traditional western gender stereotypes on their head in Johnny Guitar, that is exactly what you get.
The film’s title character may be Johnny Guitar, but it’s undoubtedly saloon owner, Vienna (Crawford), who the film is really about. Vienna’s saloon is just outside the town limits but the townsfolk, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), see her as a black mark and want her out. A ban on drinking and gambling outside the town limits is imposed, effectively forcing Vienna to leave. She’s then wrongly accused of robbery but is saved from a lynching by her ex love, Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and the film ends with a shoot out between Vienna and Emma.
Since its initial damning reception, Johnny Guitar has become a cult classic, loved for its outrageous camp and subversion of the typically masculine genre. Previously, women in the western signified the home but here, Vienna is a potential heroine. She has gone from working in a saloon to owning one. She is in charge and men work for her. When the saloon is forced to close, she is seen paying off her male employees.
Interestingly, none of them seem demeaned by this and accept her wholeheartedly as the boss. However she does have to become masculine in order to succeed as a woman. She wears a gun, spends most of the film in jeans and a shirt and her demeanour is distinctly masculine, so perhaps Johnny Guitar can’t be seen as a feminist film, because in order to succeed as a woman, Vienna has to masquerade as a man.
Throughout the film, Vienna and Emma are enemies and the delightfulness of this situation is that it is only exacerbated by the actresses’ intense dislike of each other off the set as well. Crawford had long had a reputation in Hollywood as a tyrant and she’d had the script of Johnny Guitar changed so it was more focused on her. She hated the younger McCambridge and once threw all her costumes for the film out onto the street in a rage. Their shoot out at the end of the film, as they stalk each other around the cabin high up on the hill, gives the ultimate sense of role reversal, as all the men can do is watch from below.
Johnny Guitar is a cult hit for a reason and despite critics’ derision, is definitely worth watching. It’s delightfully camp, in particular the scene where Vienna waits for the townsfolk to come and get her, playing the piano in her saloon wearing what resembles a wedding dress. The gang’s lair is hidden through a passageway behind a waterfall; where else can you see that in a western? Francois Truffaut also gave it his seal of approval, calling it a “hallucinatory western” and heralding director Ray as an auteur. As one poster said it; “Joan’s greatest triumph.”ess.