Friday, January 15, 2021

Wonder Woman At Home On the Range: Joan Crawford’s Johnny Guitar

Why did I want to watch a pulpy 1954 western called Johnny Guitar?  Let me count the ways. First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by the title. Secondly, it came out of an enterprising Poverty Row studio, Republic Pictures, that produced such major films as John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Orson Welles’ Macbeth, as well as hillbilly musicals, low-budget westerns, and flicks starring ice-skating queen Vera Hruba Ralston. Also, its director is Nicholas Ray, who began his career with haunting film noir dramas like They Live By Night (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950), in which Humphrey Bogart gives one of his most distinctive performances. Just one year after Johnny Guitar, Ray charged into the bigtime by way of Rebel Without a Cause.

 And then there’s the fact that the movie stars Joan Crawford. Yes, Mommie Dearest herself, an actress whose career began almost at the start of the movie era, in silent films. In the 1930s, she played flappers, but her great period began in 1939 with The Women, then continued into her Oscar-winning 1945 role as a self-sacrificing mother in Mildred Pierce. By the time she shot Johnny Guitar, she was about 50, on her third husband, and heading toward her Grand Guignol era, during which she subverted her glamour-girl image in grotesqueries like 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

 Johnny Guitar, though, gives her a role in which she is strong and svelte. Though the title refers to a mysterious guitar-playing stranger (Sterling Hayden) who stumbles into a weather-wracked saloon in the middle of nowhere, Crawford’s Vienna is clearly the queen of this domain. From her first appearance, in sleek black slacks, at the top of a staircase, we know she’s in charge. She’s also generous to her friends, shrewd about her business dealings, and tough on the bad guys who exist in abundance in this out-of-the-way spot. And what about her heart? As the plot moves forward, she blossoms, even dressing at one point in a filmy white gown to signal that she’s emotionally engaged. But we should not be distracted by her revealing of her feminine side. True, at one point she desperately needs to be rescued, but fundamentally she’s a winner all the way. This gal’s tough, and she’ll prove it before the final fadeout.

 By contrast, there’s a secondary female character, played by the always interesting Mercedes McCambridge, who denies her femininity in a way Vienna does not, and becomes, in the course of the film, her implacable enemy. Apparently the enmity was real: the two women hated each other, and it didn’t help that Crawford (who like McCambridge enjoyed abusing alcohol) was having an affair with director Ray during the shoot.  

 Instead of the usual good-guys-versus-bad-guys dynamic, Johnny Guitar benefits from a complicated triangular framework involving three factions. There’s Vienna and her employees at the saloon; her former lover and a batch of raggle-taggle misfits hanging out at a hidden silver mine; and finally the wealthy land baron (Ward Bond) and his minions who show up in both locales to foment trouble. Part of the fun is seeing such classic character actors as John Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ernest Borgnine show their stuff. Locations are cheap and unconvincing: there’s many a painted backdrop being passed off as the real thing. But the atmosphere within Vienna’s saloon is splendidly detailed and powerfully evocative. I suspect Quentin Tarantino had Johnny Guitar in mind when he created his own saloon as the chief set for The Hateful Eight. The world of Johnny Guitar, though, is less hateful than exciting.




No comments:

Post a Comment