Director: Nicholas Ray Writer: Philip Yordan
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Ben Cooper
110min | Western | US
Nicholas Ray saw Johnny Guitar as a first step to independence. Little did he know that he would be engulfed in a battle for control of the film with its star, Joan Crawford, who literally had the script re-written during the shoot, to please her ego, and denigrate co-star Mercedes McCambridge, who was married to one of Crawford’s former lovers.
Vienna (Crawford), a saloon owner, is nearly bankrupt but she is waiting for the railroad to arrive, to booster her profits. But the towns people, led by Emma (McCambridge), who hates Vienna because she suspects her to have killed her brother and wants her to move on. With her four friends she forms a gang, led by Dancing Kid (Brady), which terrorises the town. When Kid’s gang holds up a stagecoach and kills a man, Emma wants to hang Vienna. But she is rescued by her former lover, Johnny Guitar Hayden), and erstwhile famous gunslinger Johnny Logan. Emma burns the saloon down and after a long chase, Vienna gets her revenge.
The story of the making of this cult film with its outstanding colour images by the legendary DOP Harry Stradling (Guys and Dolls) and Peggy Lee’s title song, could not have been more confrontational. Johnny Guitar was a project for four clients of the Lew Wasserman agency: Roy Chanslor, who wrote the novel of the same name, published in 1953, was the first. He dedicated the novel to Joan Crawford, who had just finished her come back film Mildred Pierce. Script writer Philip Jordan was a front for many blacklisted writers, particularly Ben Maddow, who wrote the The Naked Jungle and Men in War under Jordan’s name. “Just like Wasserman sold film packages, Jordan sold script packages with a guarantee of quality”. Jordan worked with Ray during 1953 in Hollywood, their script run up to 200 pages, Ray depositing thirty pages with Cinematheque Francaise. Shooting started in mid October 1953 at Sedona, Arizona, where Republic had a Western Street, a permanent set. McCambridge, who played the villain, recalled in her memories “I felt I had a certain edge, because a gentleman with whom [Crawford] had had some association, to the degree that she has given him gold-cuff-links, was now my husband”.
When Ray was shooting McCambridge in the scene where she addresses the posse to hunt Vienna down, he sent Crawford back to camp. But after he finished the scene, he saw Miss Crawford sitting up on the hill watching. “I should have known some hell was going to break loose”. That night, Crawford asked for “five more scenes”, having strewn McCambridge’s clothes all over the road. As Jordan said, “They were on location, and Joan Crawford decided she wasn’t going to make the picture. They were shooting about 2 weeks without her. So Wasserman called me up and he flew out here.”
According to Ray, Crawford “got some crazy ideas. she said, she wanted the man’s role.” Crawford said exactly: “I’m [like] Clark Gable, [but] it’s Vienna who has the leading part”. She threatened to leave for good, and the picture would have been finished. In this case, Republic might have gone bankrupt, because they were used to making films for $50 000 and Johnny had budget of $2.5m.
Jordan had to rewrite the way Crawford wanted it: It was nowhere in the novel or the script that Johnny and Vienna had known each other before. In the finished film, this way added much more weight to their relationship. Jordan decided to simply let Hayden play Crawford’s part with her having the shoot-out at the end, killing Emma/ McCambridge. The 44 shooting days were very traumatic for Ray and as he was directing his next film, Run for Cover, he wrote to his friend Hanna Axmann, an actress! “The atrocity of Johnny Guitar is finished and released to dreadful reviews and great financial success. Nausea was my reward, and I am glad you were not there to share the suffering”. But there was no pleasing Crawford, in her autobiography she wrote, blaming McCambdrige: “The responsibility lays with an actress, who hadn’t worked for ten years [McCambridge had won an Oscar two years earlier], and lashing out at Ray:” There is no excuse for making such a bad film”. AS
A New 4K restoration Johnny Guitar | In UK cinemas: 6 May