JOHNNY GUITAR: Watch it again – and again

  • Very happy to welcome back one of my favourite bloggers, CineMaven who hosts this Blogathon about movies we love so much, we can watch them again at the drop of a hat.

(https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2022/01/18/for-the-umpteenth-time-blogathon/

In no particular order, some thoughts – and lots of pictures from one of my favourite westerns, JOHNNY GUITAR which I view every so often. So excuse me while I rave on.

……..It’s a film which modern critics love to write about, calling it ‘bizarre’;   ‘operatic’;  ‘subversive’;   ‘ a Freudian psycho drama’ ; ‘twisted’ ; ‘a very strange film’; ‘the weirdest western ever shot’!

What am I missing!

For me, it’s simply a favourite western of the 1950s ( which is my favourite decade for the genre). It’s beautifully filmed and directed by Nicholas Ray, with a strong  plot, great cast and a fabulous set.

And it isn’t the only western with strong female characters leading the plot ( though there weren’t many.)

Maybe an unusual choice for Joan Crawford,but she fits the character of Vienna as far as I am concerned – strong, single minded and willing to fight for what she wants.

If all the stories are to be believed, it was not a happy set, but for picturegoers, it’s a colourful,exciting western with plenty of action , though many of the leading characters bite the dust! – Tom, Turkey, Corey, The Kid and Emma.

 

………..My copy of Picture Show magazine from July 1954. I always liked how Picture Show would have a page featuring the story of the film in pictures.

 

……..It’s always interesting to see reviews when the film was released.

Joan Crawford’s first western ,”Montana Moon”(1930)  was referenced in one article about the film. And why not reveal the ending – ……the two women tangle in a unique gun battle, with Miss McCambridge the loser.”

Another article in ‘Harrison’s Reports’ of May,1954 also felt it was ok to give away the finale – “Miss McCambridge, after failing to have Miss Crawford lynched, loses her life in a gun duel with her.”

And another reviewer said, “It is overburdened with a number of talky passages.”

In contrast, a more positive comment  – “Crawford shines in a sock role. McCambridge as venomous as they come. Peggy Lee song a potent selling point.”

Still, despite mixed reviews, JOHNNY GUITAR did well at the box office.

 

……….Interesting notice about a song  title change. Patti Page had released a record called “Johnny Guitar” in February 1954 and the record company was threatened with litigation by Republic – their film was due to debut the following  month.

The song title was changed, but not the lyrics which contain frequent references to ‘Johnny Guitar’ – “Johnny Guitar, my restless lover ; Why is my Johnny Guitar a rolling stone….”

Very far removed from the haunting Victor Young /Peggy Lee song.

 

………..The Variety review didn’t pull any punches:

“Crawford should leave saddles and Levi’s to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. “Guitar” is only a fair piece of entertainment, seemingly headed for spotty returns,even with exploitations……it will be a major disappointment to loyal Crawford  fans.

Scripter Yordan and director Nicholas Ray become so involved with character nuances and neuroses all wrapped up in dialog, that Johnny Guitar never has enough chance to rear up in the saddle and ride at an acceptable outdoor pace.”

 

Sterling Hayden

The start of the film, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden ) heading for Vienna’s  saloon . He’s been hired to play the guitar – and maybe use the gun in his saddle bag.

 

Vienna (Joan Crawford) seems to have sent for Johnny, though it’s not clear why she would, considering they haven’t seen each other for five years.  At one point she says to him, “I hired you for protection.”Though  she doesn’t look surprised when she first sees him in the saloon with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Has she been keeping tabs on him?

 

Vienna’ s private quarters are as different from the saloon downstairs as she can make it. In this scene with Mr. Andrews (Rhys Williams )there is a bust of Beethoven in the middle of the shot!

( The German born Beethoven stayed in Vienna for over 30 years.)

We never learn what Vienna’s real name is , (assuming it isn’t Vienna.)

One of the best lines in the film , after the train company executive, Mr. Andrews  asked Vienna how she knew the train route was coming through the land she owns:

“I ran into your surveyor and we – exchanged – confidences.”

 

Vienna to the mob:

    “Who are you? And you, and you, to break into my house, with your angry faces and evil minds.”

(McIvers (Ward Bondand Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge , both big ranchers  who more  or less run the nearby town. Emma hates Vienna – with a vengeance!  There’s obviously quite a backstory between the two women, but my impression is that Vienna doesn’t spend much time thinking about Emma.  It’s all on Emma’s side. She obviously resents another woman challenging her power in the community – and that Vienna attracts men as easily as Emma doesn’t!

……..Republic’s Tru Color isn’t Technicolor but I think it looks great. The costumes and contrasting colours add so much to the look of the film. ( And the recent U.K. blu-Ray release from Eureka is just a beautiful digital restoration , making it look as if it was just made, with even better technology than 1954 when it was released).

This is one western I would never want to see in black and white. And one I would love to see on the big screen.

 

……The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) senses Vienna and Johnny have a history. Later he says to Vienna, ”What’s wrong with me. tell me. What don’t you like?”

She replies, “Nothing. I like you.”

 

I love this scene where we learn Johnny has left Vienna five years earlier. He asks her to pretend that things are as they were before.  He says: “Lie to me. …tell me that all these years you’ve waited….”

She repeats what he says , with no feeling until the very end of the scene when she admits she has  waited for him.

A very unusual and powerful love scene.

 

We know what Vienna’s been doing the last 5 years,but we never hear how Johnny has spent these years and what made him substitute a guitar for a gun.

 

 

John Carradine as Tom who works for Vienna.

 

Ben Cooper as ‘Turkey’.

 

Is this not one of the best sets in any western – a saloon with a back wall built against the red rock face of the cliffs.

I have no problem with the first half hour of the film being set in the cavernous saloon.

The long white dress is a dramatic change of costume for Vienna , but when would she ever wear it?
She plays the haunting title song.

 

 

Emma’s brother has been killed in a stagecoach  robbery and she blames the Dancin’ Kid– and Vienna – with no evidence. She just wants them dead.

The posse don’t even wait to change their funeral clothes ( after the bank is robbed by the ‘Dancin’ Kid’), before going after him.

At the bank robbery in town, Vienna just happens to be closing her account when the Dancin’ Kid and his men arrive.

Johnny is with her and makes it clear he won’t be interfering, saying , ”I’m a stranger here myself.”

( There’s a great song called ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ , written by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash and sung by Mary Martin in the 1943 musical, “One Touch of  Venus”.)

No trial, it’s mob justice.Emma offered the men $100 to whip the horse from under Vienna but is told, “You’ll have to do it yourself, Emma.”

And she would have done it if Johnny hadn’t rescued Vienna.

 

Not quite the burning  of Atlanta, but still quite a dramatic scene when the saloon is in flames. Emma takes maniacal delight in destroying Vienna’ saloon.

Mercedes McCambridge stands  out in all her scenes.

 

Vienna and Johnny escape from the posse through the waterfall that leads to the Dancin’ Kid’s hideout.

Not a real waterfall, but who cares.

 

On the set during the waterfall scene.

 

The Dancin’ Kid’s hideout. Joan visible at the top.

Another impressive outdoor set.

 

And the final shoutout between Vienna and Emma.

 

Of course, Joan Crawford is still with us at the end of the film.

 

 

The frontage for the saloon, against the Arizona rocks. Republic Pictures , with  Joan Crawford as their star, spent more than they usually would on a western.

 

Johnny Guitar street in Sedona. Arizona. ( many streets in Sedona were named after movies filmed there.)

 

WHEN WOMEN HATE.

 

With director Nicholas Ray’s help, Joan prepares for that scene where she faces the posse assembled below.

 

One poster with Johnny Guitar himself on the cover and a devilish looking Ernest Borgnine in the background. No sign of Vienna. It’s called “Johnny Guitar” but of course it is Vienna’s  story.

 

Publicity shot.

 

Robert Osterloh, Royal Dano, Will Wright.

Rhys Williams, Ian MacDonald, Paul Fix.

 

 

Sterling Hayden’s name before Joan’s! ( Unusual to see the male actors listed on one side, and Joan and Mercedes on the other.)

 

Some good black and white stills which I found on the site forumwesternmovies.fr

 

 

Only at the end of the film do we hear Peggy Lee sing the title song she wrote with prolific composer Victor Young. I simply love this haunting song. Relatively simple lyrics, but that beautiful arrangement by Young.

 

 

 

 

P.S. I just played it again.

 

 

 

 

 

18 responses »

  1. SayVienna…what a coincidence ~ you share the same name with Crawford in this movie! ( Heh heh! )

    Oh boy oh boy!! The man they call “JOHNNY GUITAR.” Hayden, one tall drink o’ sarsaparilla. This movie is a hoot. Oh, trust me…I don’t laugh at it or treat it as camp. It’s a good ‘un: mob rule, a woman entrepreneur, two men vying to be top dog…and the wildness of Mercedes McCambridge. She and Crawford together are like dynamite ( or oil & vinegar ). So unusual for the movies to have two women go after each other like in this one.

    My favorite line in the movie has ‘Sam’ say it directly to the camera. I wait for this moment:

    “Never seen a woman who was more a man.
    She thinks like one, act like one and some-
    times make me feel like I’m not.”

    I enjoy the movie very much. Thanks for bringing it to my blogathon.

  2. Yes, that is a coincidence (not!).
    And that shot with Robert Osterloh is memorable. And what he says reflects society- a woman in charge , for goodness sake!
    I should have said more about Scott Brady -like him a lot
    Great blogathon. Happy birthday 🎂‼️

  3. I enjoyed your highlighting of this film, one of the very best westerns of the 1950s. Ray’s direction is flawless and the relationship between Crawford and Hayden is deeply moving and has great emotional resonance. Simply a great movie on just about every level.

  4. Bless you for placing Johnny Guitar where it belongs, right smack dab in the middle of the great westerns of the 1950s, not some outlier created to confound critics. Certainly it is a script full of nuance and characters worth delving into but, at the end of the day, it is a Republic western.

    My daughter has become enamoured of the song thanks to Fallout New Vegas and now we’re just looking for the right time to introduce her to the movie.

    PS: I always worry about that white dress. It distracts me.

    • Thanks you so much, Patricia ( or can I call you Paddy Lee). I love your phrase – “At the end of the day, it’s a Republic western.” Isn’t it nice to know that little Republic could make one the best ever westerns ( in our opinion!) .
      I’ve no idea what ‘Fallout New Vegas’ is, but will be googling. I do hope your daughter likes the movie.
      Ah, yes, that white dress. Worn just for effect maybe, and it works

    • Funny how we have to introduce things to our kids slowly, like movies are vegetables or sumthin’. I hope she likes it Paddy. And I like what YOU say that it’s not some outlier. You oughta see what the Coen Bros. just did with “MacBeth” ( with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand ) ~ Amazing.

      A good director can tell a good story in any genre. Long Live Johnny Guitar.

  5. Loved your post. I really do adore Joan Crawford, but somehow I have missed this one. It’s probably the western angle – which is dumb because I always avoid westerns and then end up liking them.

  6. Roger Ebert once said that ti was hard to make a bad movie if it had M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton n it. I think you can say the same thing about Paul Fix, especially in westerns. Critics who didn’t like this film should have had their pencils broken 🙂

  7. Vienna, I would never have guessed that you liked this Classic Western Movie! Well, I really like JOHNNY GUITAR(filmed 1953, released 1954) also. I thought it was a top-notch Western when I first viewed on the WREC Channel 3 LATE MOVIE in 1971 and I still think it is a top-notch one, over fifty years later.

    Good selection of pictures, as always.

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