Nicholas Ray’s western, Johnny Guitar, was considered eccentric when it was released in 1954 because it focused on a feud between two women (played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge). It wasn’t the usual male-centric western with themes like a stranger comes to town, cattle ranchers versus farmers, or the hiring of a gunslinger for revenge. It’s reminiscent of the Oscar-winning The Favourite. The Favourite, although recently released, was also considered unusual because the women were the main characters, they had most of the speaking parts and controlled the plot of the film while the men looked on dressed in elaborate costumes.
Another unusual twist is that this film is more like a love story than a western. Joan Crawford (Vienna) wins the love of Scott Brady (who plays a character named the Dancin’ Kid). Mercedes McCambridge plays Emma Small, who has an unrequited love for the Dancin’ Kid. Based on her fury for being scorned by the Kid, Emma spends most of the film yelling at the sheriff, the marshal and an assembled posse demanding they hang Vienna. Viewers of The Exorcist will find McCambridge’s braying voice familiar. She spoke for the demon that possessed the little girl. Vienna, who owns and operates a casino, is unconcerned and determined to hold on to her business until the railroad comes through so she can make her fortune.
There are some typical western themes in the film. A stranger (and legendary gunslinger) does come to town. In the middle of all this craziness, Crawford’s true love, Johnny “Guitar” Logan, played by a lunky Sterling Hayden, appears after abandoning her years ago. There’s also the tension between cattlemen and potential settlers. The men seem unconcerned about Crawford’s fabricated crimes and more motivated by potential loss of their endless land where they run their cattle.
Crawford’s garish makeup looks as if it was applied by Andy Warhol. Her over-the-top mix of costumes go from gunslinger to damsel in distress to debutante ball gown. They aren’t the type of drab, frontier clothing worn in a typical John Wayne western. All this strangeness is topped off by Peggy Lee’s crooning of the theme song that seems more appropriate for a love story than a western. Overall, this film is a wild, genre-stretching, gender bending ride that gallops like a crazed rabid horse until the very end!
See JOHNNY GUITAR starting October 27th at the Kiggins as part of our monthly “Saddle Up Sundays” series!