Vanity Production’s Feminist Equestrian Opera ‘Johnny Guitar’ Brazenly Undermines Western Convention – Tone Madison
Nicholas Ray’s intricate and garish take on the quintessential American genre of 1954 35mm screens at the UW Cinematheque April 15.
Header Image: The titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) exudes a James Dean coolness as he sips a glass of whiskey and converses tersely with Western saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) at through an opening in the wall.
Leaving Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar in 1954, critics were unsure what to make of the quirky, subversive western. At once a scathing indictment of rampant McCarthyism, a masterful evocation of mob psychology, a daring experiment in gender revisionism, and a stylized, delirious high-flying melodrama, Johnny Guitar remains one of the weirdest Hollywood films ever made. And on Friday, April 15, at 7 p.m., you can get in the saddle and catch a free screening of it on glorious 35mm at the UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall).
Based on Roy Chanslor’s 1953 novel, Ray’s avant-garde proto-feminist equestrian opera tells the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), an ambitious and determined entrepreneur, who owns a saloon and casino on the outskirts of a sleepy border town. in the 1800s. Johnny Guitar opens with the titular musician (Sterling Hayden) witnessing a stagecoach heist from afar and riding on horseback towards the Vienna establishment. Shortly after her arrival, a group of vigilante ranchers, led by Vienna’s nemesis Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), show up at the saloon with the body of Emma’s brother, who was killed during the of the flight. Emma falsely accuses Vienne of hanging out with the gang that committed the crime. Despite having no proof, Emma blames occasional Vienna lover The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies for her brother’s death.
The townspeople are already hostile to Vienna as its business is poised to prosper after the impending construction of a nearby railway. Emma, who happens to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in town, demands that Vienna hang out alongside The Dancin’ Kid and his gang. John McIvers (Ward Bond), the town’s mayor, compromises and gives them 24 hours to leave. However, Vienne refuses to be chased away and Johnny agrees to help her. Apparently hired to provide musical entertainment in the saloon, he is not what he seems.
Produced by Republic Pictures, considered at the time as the most prestigious of the minor studios, Johnny Guitar was part of a package that included Roy Chanslor, who wrote the screenplay by Joan Crawford. As owner of the novel’s film rights, Crawford was the de facto producer, and Ray was brought in when another planned project with Crawford fell through. Despite the film’s modest budget, the iconoclastic director was granted great creative freedom. He hired Philip Yordan for a complete script rewrite, significantly altering Chanslor’s story in the process. Ray and Yordan have acknowledged their intention to do Johnny Guitar a thinly veiled allegory of anti-Communist hysteria and McCarthyist witch hunts in Hollywood.
Along with the fierce rivalry between their characters, Crawford and McCambridge were also bitter enemies behind the scenes. A former superstar whose popularity was in decline and whose professional jealousy of young actresses was widely known, Crawford sparked the feud when the cast and crew cheered on McCambridge after a particularly difficult scene. Later that night, Crawford raided McCambridge’s dressing room in a drunken rage and scattered his clothes and suits along the highway. The very next day, Crawford demanded major script revisions, and the studio acquiesced. She threatened to quit if Yordan didn’t rewrite her part to be bigger than Hayden’s. Consequently, Vienna and Emma became the focus of the film, instead of Johnny Guitar and The Kid. Crawford even demanded a decisive shootout with Emma, and Yordan agreed. Hayden later remarked that “there’s not enough money in Hollywood to get me to do another picture with Joan Crawford. And I to like money.” Ray was rather unhappy during filming, but he still managed to finish almost on time and on budget.
Shot on location in the otherworldly landscape of Sedona, Arizona, this baroque western unfolds like a fever dream against the majestic red rock landscape. The mind-blowing quality of the film largely comes from shooting in Trucolor format, which was both cheaper and more garish than Technicolor. Johnny GuitarThe superficially simple plot remains secondary to its visual excesses and rich thematic core, which can be exploited for a wide range of possible interpretations. Ray deftly interweaves intense psychosexual conflict, complex ideas about femininity, and elements of film noir with sharp political critique, Western tropes, amplified caricatures of rugged masculinity, and stunning expressionist aesthetics.
With its reversal of traditional gender roles, anti-authoritarian subtext, unusual set design, highly saturated color palette and flamboyant operatic performances, Johnny Guitar is a real sui generis cinematic spectacle. Ray’s multi-layered western defies viewers’ expectations at every turn as it brazenly undermines the conventions of the quintessential American genre. While the film received mostly negative reviews from critics at home, Johnny Guitar was greatly admired in Europe. The icon of the French New Wave François Truffaut proclaimed it “the The beauty and the Beast westerns” and say anyone who didn’t like this should never be allowed into a cinema again.
Jean-Luc Godard also applauded enthusiastically Johnny Guitar and explicitly refers to it in Pierrot le fou (1965), The Chinese (1967), and Weekend (1967). More recently, Godard presented images of it in his experimental film essay The picture book (2018). Since its original release, Ray’s film has garnered a cult following while influencing many notable directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodóvar, who incorporated it into the plot of his dark comedy. Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (1988). In 2008, Johnny Guitar was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Ray’s film has certainly come a long way from its dismal beginnings as an eccentric, critically derided vanity production. In retrospect, Johnny Guitar feels way ahead of its time as its modern sensibility and bold visual style continue to inspire nuanced readings and resonate in today’s fluctuating cultural landscape.