Moviedrome Mondays: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Although their is a video link to later Moviedrome host Mark Cousins (1997-2000) introducing this film, I could not (once again) find a video link of earlier Moviedrome host Alex Cox (1988-1994) introducing Nicolas Ray’sΒ  1954 cult cross-gender western Johnny Guitar. Nevertheless, as usual, you can read the transcript for his intro here. The episode’s original airdate was July 10, 1988 (read here). I am sorry but Cox is totally wrong on this one. First off, the film’s cult reputation lies in Ray’s and screenwriter Philip Yordan’s (adapted from Roy Chanslor’s 1953 novel of the same name) audacious blend of camp and social commentary that has earned it a cult reputation over the years (read here). Johnny Guitar is not so much a revisionist western as it is an intentionally vicious parody of one. For example, despite rescuing anti-heroine Vienna (Joan Crawford) twice, actor Sterling Hayden’s title character comes off as uncharismatic throughout. In fact, he and the rest of the male cast are upstaged by the two lead actresses of the film – Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, who plays the villainous Emma Small. Taking all of this into consideration, one is tempted to call Johnny Guitar (in some respects) a feminist western. But then again, that is still heavily debatable. Some people I know who adore Johnny Guitar have even implied that it can be praised as a western with lesbian overtones. Again, still heavily debatable. At the same time though, others (critics and viewers alike) have viewed it as a social commentary on McCarthyism (read here). Debatable or not though, Johnny Guitar does work on all of these levels. What Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly from one year later (read my review here) did for 1950’s film noir, Johnny Guitar does for 1950’s westerns. In this case, Johnny Guitar can best be viewed as a 1950’s western with openly anti-fifties tendencies. If any of you readers are interested in reading my list of my favorite Nicholas Ray films, read here.

Here is a youtube link to Johnny Guitar’s original theatrical trailer


20 thoughts on “Moviedrome Mondays: Johnny Guitar (1954)

  1. I think Johnny Guitar is unusual, and has a lot of merit. It seems to me that the western genre is just a ‘setting’ for a timeless story that could almost have been set anywhere. I like the tone, colour palette, and melodramatic tension too.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. I agree with you completely πŸ™‚ Director Nicholas Ray was always a master of expressionism through both his use of color and melodrama. Anyway, thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

  3. I guarantee that you will love it πŸ™‚ As I told Pete above, director Nicholas Ray is a master of expressionism. This is most certainly evident in the way he uses the color palette and in his flair for melodrama. Anyway, thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

  4. I need to get my arse in motion and get on on this one. Been meaning to get to it but hey there’s a million films all nudging themselves into pole position. Hopefully soon. I need to tick some more off that amazing MD list!

  5. I must have missed Johnny Guitar when it first aired on Moviedrome. I have seen parts of it recently, it pops up quite regularly on English tv, but I’ve never seen the full film. It’s interesting that you don’t see eye to eye with Alex Cox on this one. I know you two are usually on similar wavelength. Cox thought Johnny Guitar was a bit like Christmas in July. I’ll have to watch it myself and make up my own mind.

  6. As I said to Wolfie above, you are going to love Johnny Guitar πŸ™‚ This is actually not the first time I did not see eye to eye with Alex Cox – do not forget he put down Diva and he sort of did the same thing with last week’s entry The Hired Hand. As with Johnny Guitar, I also loved those two other films and If he feels the same about Preston Sturges Christmas in July, then he is wrong there too. Nevertheless, I agree with him just as much as I disagree with him πŸ™‚ Anyway, thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

  7. I’m a big Nic Ray fan, as is everybody these days. I’m glad that he is getting his do. I appreciate Johnny Guitar more than I really like it. I know that it’s much lauded and rightfully so, but I guess, it’s the lesbian overtones that I don’t care for. I never was a Mercedes McCambrige fan. She was very good in Touch of Evil, playing an overt lesbian–that was her wasn’t it? Anyway, stellar post John. I can see why you adore Johnny Guitar. It’s very stylistic and–even in the era of techno color–it’s color palate really pops. In fact, it becomes almost a “character” in the film.

  8. Interesting thoughts there πŸ™‚ I know you were a big fan of the way director Alfred Hitchcock portrayed the very subtle relationship between Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds when I did a review of that back in October of 2018. Was the lesbian overtone here just too melodramatic? Cause you have always gave off the vibe that you had a love/hate relationship with melodrama (then again you do love Douglas Sirk of course :)). Your thoughts on Mercedes McCambrige is understandable even If I disagree. And yes, that was her in Orson Welles Touch of Evil πŸ™‚ Johnny Guitar is indeed very stylish and yeah that color palette really does sparkle πŸ™‚ I could not have stated your last two sentences more eloquently πŸ™‚ Anyway, thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

  9. Ha! So you’re calling me out on inconsistencies…Fair point. Yes, I liked the lesbian dynamic in The Birds. I thought it was tasteful and interesting–especially for it’s time. Mercedes McCambridge has always rubbed me the wrong way. I found her character repugnant, and though I’m a Joan Crawford fan and her performance was satirically over-the-top (yes, I usually like that kind of thing) the whole thing was too much for me. I admire the movie. And I get it. It’s just not my cup of tea.
    As for melodrama…To me it’s a lot like comedy, i.e., it’s very hard to do right. Typically I don’t like it because of the way it’s done, but when it strikes and accord with me it strikes very hard. I won’t say that Ray didn’t do it right with Johnny Guitar. I’ll say it’s just me.

  10. No no you are not inconsistent at all πŸ™‚ I was pointing it out based on how different directors tackle relationships within a dramatic format – whether it be on stage or on the screen (cinema or television). You are perfectly fine πŸ™‚ Johnny Guitar is indeed one of those films you do not see everyday so your reaction of appreciating it more than adoring it is to be expected. While I am probably a bigger fan of melodrama than you, it is probably because we come from a different background of how we approach film. I think it is very easy for one to laugh at melodrama mainly because of how over-the-top it can be, though it’s intentions are in the right place. And once again, you are never inconsistent and you are perfect just the way you are πŸ™‚ Anyway, keep those comments coming πŸ™‚

  11. John. Stop. You are too kind. I didn’t take offense. I am inconsistent, believe me. I was amused that you recognized it. Johnny Guitar just throws caution to the wind. I mean look at Joan Crawford. She’s basically in S&M bondage gear, McCambridge too. It’s very bold. We dissected Johnny Guitar in Film History…Way back in the day. My professor loved it.

  12. Johnny Guitar most certainly throws caution to the wind as you so eloquently state πŸ™‚ What makes it even funnier is how nobody even minds the way both Crawford and McCambridge are dressed πŸ™‚ Every character just focuses on the central situation πŸ™‚ Anyway, keep those comments coming πŸ™‚

  13. John, there are layers of subtext in this film, some of which you address. Surprisingly, the film was a modest hit at the time and today is considered a minor classic. Ray is one of my favorite filmmakers. A true rebel in his time.

  14. Interesting thoughts there John πŸ™‚ Currently, I personally believe that as a cult film, it can be considered a major classic, but standing on it’s own as a classic plain and simple, it ranks in the missing link between minor and major. Anyway, thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

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