Johnny Guitar

Starring: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden

Director: Nicholas Ray
Released: 1954

Mood: If you love classic movies and badass women and had no idea there was a powerful Joan Crawford Western but now that you know you desperately need to see it.

“I never seen a woman who was more a man. She acts like one, thinks like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” 

I was beyond excited to finally watch Johnny Guitar, and let me tell you – the payoff was real.

The title came up on a list of Westerns with strong female roles – which are hard to find, especially among the older movies. A classic Western with a genuinely female-driven story? I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but I was here for whatever it might be.

And what it is, is a brilliant Revisionist Westernflipping traditional Western roles to depict not just one but TWO strong women commanding a town full of men. At the same time, it uses the Western setting to comment on themes like feminism, blacklisting, sexuality, persecution, and mob mentality – it’s HUGE.

I mean, ‘Johnny Guitar’ is the name of a male character and not either of the two leading ladies… but you could only push 1950s audiences so far. 

Johnny Guitar‘s story has all of the aforementioned messages, but it doesn’t get too hard on your brain because it uses a relatively simple framework. 

You’ve got a tough, pro-railroad saloon owner named Vienna (Joan Crawford) on the outskirts of an Arizona town. And you’ve got a righteous cattle rancher named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who will stop at nothing to keep the railroad out of town, destroy Vienna’s business, and to see her hang.

The rest of the characters are all men led by one of those two women. It’s amazing. 

Emma has her pack of local ranchers up in arms, making repeated attempts to drive Vienna out by trying to pin a stage robbery on her. Vienna fights hard for her saloon despite Emma’s antics plus two distracting former lovers: the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). 

But even though there’s a bit of romance and it’s deliciously smart writing, the movie doesn’t sacrifice on classic Western action – which seriously surprised me. You get shootouts, fist fights, horseback chases, attempted hangings, and a lot of characters die.  

illustration of a fancy moustache

Johnny Guitar was actually SO GOOD that I barely took any notes and didn’t play with my phone. I couldn’t look away. And much of that credit goes to Joan Crawford.

Her passion and emotional range are intense and terrifying. You’re afraid to look away from those flashing eyes, like losing that staring contest could cost you your life. There is no question that she commands the room, and it’s just perfect for Vienna’s HBIC character. I fully bought that every man in that Arizona town would bow to her will. 

And yet, in her scenes with young Turkey (Ben Cooper) you see glimpses of softness. Not a total weeping 180 – that wouldn’t fit her character. What Crawford evokes is a softness long since buried inside, out of necessity to survive and succeed in a man’s world

Which is, of course, what she herself did as an actor. She was notorious for putting her career first, and working tirelessly to be the star that she needed to be and then some. 

  • Fun Fact: Crawford owned the movie rights to the 1953 novel Johnny Guitar, which author Roy Chanslor had dedicated to HER upon writing; she was the one who brought it to Republic Pictures and had them hire Nicholas Ray to direct. She literally did the thing. 

I wish I could be all cool and say I’m a diehard fan of Crawford’s work, but I had honestly never seen one of her films until Johnny Guitar

I’d obviously heard of her, who hasn’t? But her enthralling performance here prompted me to do some research, and now I’m disappointed to realize that all I ‘knew’ – all most people know – of Crawford is the bizarre “No wire hangers!” villain that wasn’t actually her. That was Faye Dunaway PLAYING Crawford in a movie made from her adopted daughter’s memoir.

If, like me, you thought Crawford was that shrieking monster favoured by drag queens, I HIGHLY recommend this article that dives deep into Crawford’s decades of hard work, dedication to her career, and professionalism –  and how it was ruined by that memoir. 

Mercedes McCambridge does a damn fine job as Vienna’s repressed rival. Her reason for hating Vienna is a bit disappointing (of course it’s about a man), but it’s also highly realistic. We’ve all been there. McCambridge radiates a shameful longing and fiery hatred that reach biblical levels in her epic monologue to her lynch mob. 

On that note – you can find all kinds of dirt on the making of Johnny Guitar, which may or may not be true but it does make the women’s characters even more thrilling:

  • Apparently Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge both liked to drink, and to fight, and did plenty of both
  • Crawford supposedly drove down a highway throwing McCambridge’s costumes out of her car
  • The two women had to film most of their scenes at different times so that they were never on set together
  • Director Nicholas Ray said that Crawford was totally professional, and that he didn’t mind the fighting – it fuelled their performances

Sterling Hayden and Scott Brady are great as the main men in the story, and you get solid performances from Ernest Borgnine and Royal Dano as the Kid’s gang. They’re all good – they just pale in comparison to the fierce women. 

  • Fun Fact #2: Apparently Sterling Hayden couldn’t ride a horse, shoot a gun, OR play guitar, yet he was chosen for the role of gunfighting, horseback riding cowboy Johnny Guitar. 

The most enjoyable supporting performance for me is actually John Carradine as Old Tom. He’s the perfect soothing balance to Vienna’s fire, and I warmed to him right away. Each time the camera cuts to him he’s smiling, easygoing, ready to jump to her aid. It’s through his character that you can see how well Vienna takes care of her employees. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The new DVD version of Johhny Guitar comes with a critical re-evaluation by influential director Martin Scorcese, who praises the film for being a unique, operatic production like no other. If you watch the movie, then the special feature, then the movie again, it will blow your mind. 

Thanks to him I discovered tons of intentional little details that add to the messaging, like how white and bright colours were worn by the ‘bad’ guys and black worn by the ‘good’ guys, subtly asking what’s really right and wrong.

Unfortunately, it’s that kind of thing that made Johnny Guitar way too smart for its time. Many critics panned it, complaining about too much dialogue, too many nuances, and even making offensive attacks on Joan Crawford’s appearance and femininity (I’m looking at you, bullshit New York Times review).

But as Scorcese says in his interview, the kind of people who were expecting another pleasantly mindless ’50s Western were NEVER going to get it.

Johnny Guitar now has excellent ratings on every movie site: 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.7/10 on IMDb, 83% on Metacritic. And for good f*cking reason! The story is absolutely brilliant and Crawford is a force of nature

You don’t want to sleep on this one. Find a copy right now. 

Side note: I’m now convinced that Susan Sarandon’s soap opera diva on Friends was based on Joan Crawford. There’s a scene where Vienna allows Johnny to embrace her, but the camera is on Joan’s face and she’s using her hand to keep his head down and out of her light and it’s exactly what Sarandon’s character did on Friends and now I can’t unsee it.