Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden
Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden

'Johnny Guitar' is a dramatic and highly unusual Western movie made in 1954 and starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge. The film is based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Roy Chanslor, was directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by Herbert J Yates of the Republic Pictures Studios.

The unconventional nature of the movie made it highly unlikely that it would be well received by the critics or public when it was released, and this was indeed the case, but the movie has since dramatically gained in popularity and is now regarded as an artistic classic. It was selected by the Library of Congress in 2008, for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."


The story centres round a saloon in a small Arizona town, owned and run by Vienna, a saloonkeeper with attitude, a lot of attitude, played by Joan Crawford. She is an active supporter of a projected railroad to be built through her land and she is strongly opposed by many townsfolk, none more ferociously than Emma, played by Mercedes McCambridge. Much of the drama and tension in the film comes from the conflict between these two strong women.

When a stagecoach is held up and robbed by a gang led by a local bad boy called the Dancin' Kid, (Scott Brady), Vienna is accused of being involved. She then gets unwittingly involved in a bank robbery which again has been organised by the Dancin' Kid. Vienna comes close to being hanged for a crime she did not commit when she is saved by her former lover, the eponymous Johnny Guitar, a reformed gunslinger whose relationship with Vienna forms an important cornerstone of the plot. Played brilliantly by Sterling Hayden Johnny passively allows his woman to dominate him and is a highly unusual character for a Western.

The movie is not a conventional movie at all and is certainly not simply a traditional Western despite the presence of well known Western character actors such as Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine. The central conflict about land and future development of the township is between two women and traditional gender roles become thoroughly mixed up. Joan Crawford dresses like a man for most of the film and there is sexual tension between her and Mercedes McCambridge's character.


Roy Chanslor dedicated his 1952 novel 'Johnny Guitar' to Joan Crawford and the actress herself bought the film rights, selling them to Republic Pictures with the proviso that she would be the star. One of her advantages as the star name was that she insisted on all her close ups being done in the studio, not on location, so that she could control every aspect of light and shadow on her face.
Crawford-McCambridge Feud
Originally Crawford considered Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Claire Trevor for the part of Emma until Nicholas Ray brought in Mercedes McCambridge. The two female stars took an intense dislike to each other, Crawrford in particular being jealous of the younger woman.

Crawford was normally very professional and easy to direct but she she was known for her jealousy of younger actresses. She initiated the feud after seeing the cast and crew applauding Mercedes' scene where she harangues the posse. Later that night, she was seen by the director stumbling along the highway throwing costumes and clothing belonging to McCambridge after raiding the younger actress' dressing room in a drunken fit. After the film was finished, McCambridge memorably described Crawford as "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady."

McCambridge was also having to battle her own demons of alcoholism at this time, which she admitted later contributed to the antipathy between herself and Crawford.

The movie was filmed on location at Sedona, Arizona, where Republic Studios built a Western town under a cliff. Nicholas Ray had a reputation for clever use of colors in his films and for 'Johnny Guitar' he filmed several scenes near Oak Creek Canyon, Phoenix, where the reddish tint of rocks add to the movie's stylized color palette. He chose to use "Trucolor" a cheaper version of "Technicolor", and the ensuing garishness emphasises the surreal, dreamlike nature of the film.

In the dramatic scenes where the gang rode under a waterfall, the horses were fitted with blinkers, without which the animals could not be persuaded to go near the rushing water.

The beautiful, haunting score by Victor Young and theme song by Peggy Lee complement the gender blurring roles, the surreal photography and the expressionistic sets, and add to the dreamlike tone . It is unusual, thoroughly entertaining and definitely a film to be viewed many times for a full appreciation.

Main Cast

Joan Crawford ... Vienna
Sterling Hayden ... Johnny Guitar (Johnny Logan)
Mercedes McCambridge ... Emma Small
Scott Brady ... The Dancin' Kid
Ward Bond ... John McIvers
Ben Cooper ... Turkey Ralston
Ernest Borgnine ... Bart Lonergan
John Carradine ... Old Tom
Royal Dano ... Corey
Frank Ferguson ... Marshal Williams
Paul Fix ... Eddie
Rhys Williams ... Mr. Andrews
Ian MacDonald ... Pete

Joan Crawford (1905-77)
Joan was one of the top movie actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age. She was a major star for several decades, cleverly renewing her image at regular intervals, so ensuring that she had one of the longest-ever movie careers in Hollywood. She always had great charisma, great style and hers is a true rags-to-riches story of a lowly chorus girl rising to the heights of show business success to rival all the great names of Hollywood.
Sterling Hayden (1916-86)
He dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and ran away to sea, becoming a highly respected ship's captain. During WWII he was a commando operating with partisans in Yugoslavia. After the war, as well as his brilliant performance in 'Johnny Guitar', he appeared in several highly regarded movies such as, 'The Asphalt Jungle' in 1950, 'Dr. Strangelove' in 1964 and 'The Godfather' in 1970.
Mercedes McCambridge (1916-2004)
Mercedes won a Best Supporting Actress Award on her movie debut 'in 'All the King's Men' in 1949 but did not appear on screen at all in her best known film performance - as the voice of the demon in 'The Exorcist in 1973. Her movie career was short but highly successful with a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in 'Giant' in 1956.
Ward Bond (1903-60) Bond gives his usual sterling performance as John McIvers. During his career, he appeared in over 250 films, always in a supporting role, including many of the classic movies of the Golden Age, ranging from 'It Happened One Night' in 1934, and 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939' to 'Its a Wonderful Life' in 1946, and 'The Searchers' in 1956. It was not until late in his career that he achieved stardom ironically on television as the wagonmaster Major Seth Adams in 'Wagon Train'.


Director ... Nicholas Ray
Producer ... Herbert J. Yates
Screen Play ... Ben Maddow, credited to Philip Yordan from the novel by Roy Chanslor
Musical Direction ... Victor Young
Title Song ... Peggy Lee
Cinematography ... Harry Stradling Sr.
Distribution Company ... Republic Pictures
Release Date ... May 27, 1954
Running Time ... 110 minutes

Academy Awards

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