My wild pitch pick for best Christmas Blu-Ray is this classic 1954 Nick Ray revisionist western, a longtime personal favorite. What is it, you ask? The name’s Guitar, friend, JOHNNY GUITAR, and it’s now a part of the new Olive Films Signature Series; and I must say, if this presentation is representative of what we have to expect on future Signature releases – Oh, boy!
A Republic western starring Joan Crawford sounds like something Bette Davis dreamed up, but, damn, if it ain’t all the berries. The movie, based on a novel by Roy Chanslor, has had reams of backstage backstabbing stories told about it since its Bijou debut sixty-two years ago. The main and most-repeated of these tales is nonsense: Crawford’s career being in the dumps, so she HAD to do this B-western. I know for a fact, being one of Nick’s assistant editors on his last movie (the much-maligned We Can’t Go Home Again), that this “print the legend” tale is total bullshit, as we had mucho discussions on his work – with GUITAR a prime topic.
Truth be told, Crawford’s career was in pretty good shape. A 1952 noir movie she coproduced, Sudden Fear, had become a huge hit (ironically costarring Gloria Grahame, Ray’s ex-wife). Crawford, in fact, through shrewd wheeling and dealing (much of it orchestrated by Lew Wasserman, who repped the star, Chanslor, Ray and credited GUITAR screenwriter Philip Yordan) obtained the movie rights to the novel, and sold them to Herbert Yates, head of Republic. As Nick told me, “Joan was a very smart woman. Westerns were all the rage then, almost none of them lost money. It was a wise decision. And choosing Republic, known for the genre was doubly smart. She also knew that she’d have more leverage at an outfit like Republic, than at Fox, MGM or Paramount.” It was also NOT a B-picture by any standards (Yordan claims the picture cost a then-staggering two-and-a-half million dollars). It was likely one of Republic’s biggest undertakings, with a stellar cast, virtually filmed entirely on-location in Arizona.
On one abstract level, JOHNNY GUITAR is a camp fantasy; its surface gloss unfurls the standard good/bad guy vs. dastardly villain, except here the guys are women (Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge); the men, while interesting, are essentially ineffectual. But it’s the political undertow of the narrative that has helped make GUITAR a world renowned classic. The picture is a brass-knuckled punch in the face of McCarthyism. GUITAR‘s Vienna, a self-made woman, runs a profitable gambling house. Her refusal to conform piques the ire of the racist (and misogynist) townsfolk, supposedly led by rich, corrupt Ward Bond (“Did he know his fascist character was a take on his HUAC-loving self?,” I asked Ray. “No, way, too dumb,” the directed replied), but really spearheaded by the psychopathic Emma, whose seething hatred against the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and Vienna actually masks her bisexual lust for both of them (“He makes her feel like a woman,” reveals Vienna, “and that frightens her”). Indeed, both Vienna and Emma are butched up throughout most of the picture, making it almost out of place when Crawford dons a white gown. Nick accurately pegged the underlying theme of the movie as a shocking example of “You always hurt the one you love.” “In Emma’s case,” said Ray, “it was Vienna and The Kid. For the idiot hypocrite witch-hunters, it’s democracy.”
I asked Nick if Crawford’s character was named Vienna as homage to Fritz Lang’s female western, Rancho Notorious. Nick, with a twinkle in his eye (that’s singular, cause he was wearing his patch), replied, “You know too much.” Women westerns were indeed a sub-genre in the 1950s. Allan Dwan and even Roger Corman did ’em. The three most notable, however, are Rancho Notorious, JOHNNY GUITAR and Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns. Each featured strong leads (Marlene Dietrich, Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck), and I love them all, but GUITAR is probably my fave.
McCarthyism’s brand of justice points its ugly finger at the Kid and his shall-we-say eclectic bunch (Royal Dano, Ben Cooper and Ernest Borgnine), accusing them of crimes they haven’t committed, even forcing a weak link to falsely name names. So, rather than be persecuted for doing something they haven’t, they turn to crime. Hovering over this plotline is the arrival of musician Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), hired to entertain at Vienna’s. Like everyone and everything (including sexuality) in the picture, he isn’t what he seems; he’s really Johnny Logan, infamous gunfighter and Vienna’s former lover. Hayden’s and Brady’s verbal banter for Vienna’s favors is a GUITAR highlight, basically a “whose dick is bigger” contest, with Crawford the undeniable winner. The Kid’s aforementioned gang is a hoot too, highlighted by sociopath Borgnine as Bart (“…you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you’re mean to horses. What do you like?,” chides The Kid. “ME!,” snaps Borgnine, “I like ME!”). Bart is also a personification of the festering political evil engulfing the community. Like all good maniacs, he telegraphs his attention-getting intentions. When he is scoffed at, he resorts to murder, “Some people just won’t listen!,” he reasonably concludes.
The ultra-modern look of Vienna’s saloon likewise gives the bland townsfolk a shock of the new (which they naturally rebel against). Bringing Guitar/Logan back into her life involves an ulterior motive: she’s out to make a mint via her knowledge that a railroad will be coming through her property. Thus, her role as a mega-successful woman only manages to further outrage the bigoted yokels, most prominently Emma, who previously held the reins on local economy (she owns the bank).
The supporting cast is phenomenal, and, aside from those cool folks already listed, includes John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson, Rhys Williams, Ian MacDonald, Trevor Bardette, Clem Harvey, Robert Osterloh, Denver Pyle, Sheb Wooley and Will Wright. The spectacular location photography (in TrueColor by Consolidated) is aced by Harry Stradling, Sr., and the terrific soundtrack is scored by Victor Young (with Peggy Lee singing the iconic title song, which she composed, in perfect crazy unison with everything else in the movie, over the END credits).
JOHNNY GUITAR was a smash for the studio, (and one of 1954’s biggest hits), second only to Republic’s earlier 1950s blockbuster, The Quiet Man.
The shooting of the movie, depending upon your definition of sadism, was either an epic catfight or never-ending nightmare. Crawford really squeezed her considerable juice out of her powerful position, and Hayden, also known to be difficult, followed suit. Long story short: the two despised each other with Hayden unabashedly bellowing, “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money!” (Nevertheless, as evidence of their professionalism, their characters exhibit a genuine affection and regard for one another.). Nick came out of all of this smelling like a rose, reaping the best benefits of both worlds. Hayden became one of his three best (actor) friends (the other two being Roberts Mitchum and Ryan) and Crawford became his off-screen lover.
As much as Hayden pissed off Crawford (and vice versa), it was a pat on the shoulder compared to the malice she exhibited toward McCambridge. She terrified the younger actress and flew into a rage when after one long take of Emma venting her lunatic verbal venom, the cast and crew applauded the All the King’s Men Oscar-winner wildly. Crawford, at first, played psychological games on McCambridge, sidling up to her, and whispering how much better Claire Trevor would have been as Emma (Crawford also vented her regret that her two original choices for the male leads were not cast: Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman). Later this manifested (or womanfested) itself physically when, prior to an early dawn call, Crawford had a pickup truck strew McCambridge’s clothes all over the desert roadway. Nick had crew members retrieve the garments rather tire out the actress (earlier, some of McCambridge’s wardrobe was found slashed to bits). Crawford also demanded that her close-ups be filmed back in Hollywood, where she had more control over lighting, makeup and hair. Ray told me she would audibly shout that there should be at least ONE good-looking woman in the show. Nick, proponent of the glass half full theory, admitted that their antagonistic animosity certainly added realism to the on-screen proceedings. True that.
Even the horses were on-edge during the filming, which encompassed mining explosions and a secret hideout under a waterfall. For a good deal of the shoot, they wore blinders.
Like the Kid and Guitar, the script was an alias, credited to the ubiquitous Yordan, who was actually fronting for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow; talk about life imitating art (or is it the other way around?). The two split the contract fee down the middle.
Recently, rumors surfaced about JOHNNY GUITAR being geared up as Republic’s big entry into the 3D stakes. It sorta makes sense, with its plethora of explosions, waterfalls, fiery infernos and mini-avalanche occurrences, but I can find no valid claim to these stories. Don’t get me wrong, a Nick Ray 3D movie would be amazing (yet another eye-patched director making a formidable mark into the process). Yet, I doubt it, as he never mentioned it to me, especially since we did discuss the movie’s proper aspect ratio. 1954 was the industry’s big changeover year into standard widescreen. Ray told me he had seen the picture shown in old-school 1.33 and matted to 1.66. He admitted that both looked okay, but that he personally preferred the 1.66:1 dimensions. Well, hallelulah! JOHNNY GUITAR, formerly ONLY available in 1.33, is now, thanks to the Olive Films/Paramount Home Video Signature Edition in 1.66 1080p High Definition. In effect, it constitutes a Director Approved version. And it looks just swell. Admittedly, the earlier Olive Blu-Ray was a dandy, but this one, in a 4K restoration, blows it away. The audio plays fine through a regular monitor, but, is enhanced by an authentic theater ambience when played through a decent sound system.
Furthermore, there’s a cache of new extras to supplement this package, including audio commentary by Geoff Andrews and no less than six GUITAR-oriented featurette documentaries: A Western Like No Other; A Feminist Western?; The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar; Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures; My Friend, the American Friend; The First Existential Western.
For fans of the genre, Nick, Crawford or even political dramas, JOHNNY GUITAR covers all the bases. Suffice to say, it’s the screen’s greatest shoot-femme-up!
JOHNNY GUITAR. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films Signature Edition/Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # OS004. SRP: $39.95.