JOHNNY GUITAR—“When a fire burns itself out, all you have left is ashes.” The aroma of sagebrush psychosis has never stopped wafting from this 1954 six-shooter, a cookwagon stew of succulent silliness so wacky it amounts to How The West Met The Blacklist On The Way To The Analyst’s Couch. With Bonus Catfight. A butch she-boss who calls herself ‘Vienna’. Her ex-lover ‘Johnny’, who strums a guitar instead of thumbing a Colt—until the time demands; a fella can only take so much. A punk named ‘Turkey Ralston’ who follows ‘The Dancin’ Kid’. All of ’em up against deranged dame ‘Emma Small’. Welcome to the frontier, director Nicholas Ray style.
“A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.”
Arizona Territory. Saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford, in defiant mode) wants to bring the railroad in, but irate ranchers and burg dwellers resent her and the idea of sharing the wide-open with ‘civilization’. Vienna’s pals include wild broncos led by the arrogant Dancin’ Kid (brass-packing Scott Brady, heavy with attitude). He and his crew, among them young pup Turkey (Ben Cooper) and thuggish ‘Bart’ (Ernest Borgnine), have to make room for Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden, big and calm) who blows in to reignite sparks from Vienna’s checkered past. Worse trouble arrives via the salivating anger of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, pintsized & pissed) and stern range boss ‘McIvers’ (Ward Bond, solid as ever). Scores will be settled, dust will be bitten, tons of accusatory dialogue will be chewed.
VIENNA: “Is that a proposal?” JOHNNY: “A man’s gotta stop somewhere. This seems as good a spot as any.” VIENNA: “That’s just about the most touching speech a woman ever listened to.”
Designed as a vehicle for Crawford, the yak-packed script whipped up by Philip Yordan and Ray plays with archetypes, honoring some, slyly subverting others, and Ray’s gift for visually illustrating emotion through art direction, camera setups and color design gives the purple palaver an eye-catching patina. From the Arizona location scenery around Sedona to the baroque look of Vienna’s saloon, to Crawford’s makeup and vivid costume array, the treatment mixes nature’s clean expanses with claustrophobic camp. It’s pleasing enough as a pure viewing experience that when the occasional boner shows up it passes with a chuckle: the scene where Vienna and Johnny take a coach ride has the actors zipping past rear-projected scenery so fast they may as well be in a ’54 Oldmobile Starfire, floored.
Not a happy shoot, with Joan of Arch, 49, trying to bend everyone to her whim and will: whatever: her performance is her standard full-bore excellence. She and McCambridge detested each other (which works for the film), much to the delight of gossip eaters, then and now. McCambridge is afire; Hayden, 37, more alert than usual; Brady, 29, relishing the interactions; Borgnine nailing another pre-Marty meanie; burly Bond not aware his judge & jury character was mocking his own anti-Commie hysteria within the industry. It’s a hoot.
Crawford, Hayden and Ray thought it stunk (critical adulation saw Ray later change his mind) and stateside critics at the time laughed at it (along with everything that’s good, it is ludicrous) but the French cinéaste elite went amour fou sauvage for Ray’s styling and what it all really meant. Back in Bobville, the $7,100,000 US domestic take drew 40th for the year, revealing favor with the “lowing herd” (many no doubt perplexed by its garish weirdness), taking care of the expenditure which according to Yordan came to around $2,500,000, miles more than budget-starving Republic Pictures usually allowed. Today, auteur-worshipping critics short out their their keyboards lauding everything about it, reading social/political/sexual/psychological subtext into every cranny with a nook.
“Five years ago, I met you in a saloon; now I find you in one. I don’t see much change.”
Added fun comes through the gang, bar and posse being loaded for bear with genre-vetted character actors: John Carradine, Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Rhys Williams, Trevor Bardette, Paul Fix, Denver Pyle, Will Wright, Robert Osterloh, Sheb Wooley. Peggy Lee croons a slip of a title tune (she did the lyrics) at the finish. Victor Young did the score. 110 minutes.
* JOHNNY: “How many men have you forgotten?” VIENNA: “As many women as you’ve remembered.”
Usually, reviewers have writer Philip Yordan fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow, which he did several times, but Maddow, according to Nicholas Ray’s most dutiful biographer (Bernard Eisenschitz in “Nicholas Ray: An American Journey”) denied it for this job; best evidence is that the script was a mutual collaboration between Yordan and Ray. Crawford’s insistence on giving her role a ‘masculine’ “Clark Gable” twist worked to advantage as did her feud with McCambridge (each fueling their mutual distaste with copious alcohol intake).
Hayden: “I was at war on that film, during the daytime with Joan Crawford, and at night with my second wife.” And “There is not enough money in Hollywood that could lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.”
Repeated stories about ex-sailor and OSS agent Hayden not being able to ride a horse are bunkum; he made six westerns prior to this and would go on to do seven more. The following year Hayden, Borgnine (as a good guy) and Cooper would defend the Alamo in Republic’s The Last Command, an expensive gamble to beat John Wayne’s dream project to the Texas punch. Crawford hadn’t appeared in a horse opera since 1930 (the justifiably forgotten Montana Moon) and didn’t attempt another after this. McCambridge, 37, would do one more, modern and a biggie, Giant, also playing a disagreeable she-cuss (and notching an Oscar nomination). She would later revisit the genre on TV including four Rawhide‘s, two Bonanza‘s and a Gunsmoke.