Praised as Joan Crawford’s “greatest triumph”, Johnny Guitar is a 1954 western drama directed by Nicholas Ray. Featuring the Academy Award winning actress, Johnny Guitar follows Vienna, a strong-willed and independent saloonkeeper with a volatile relationship between herself and the community of an Arizona cattle town. Vienna and her unstable relationship with the town and it’s cattlemen stem from Vienna’s support for a new railroad to be constructed through the town. The opposition is led by Vienna’s rival, Emma Small who is played by Mercedes McCambridge. Emma and the townsfolk will cease at nothing to run Vienna out of the town. Originally received with negative reviews, the film was later liked and would be considered to be one of Nicholas Ray’s best film. In 2008, Johnny Guitar was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
For a film made in 1954, the narrative complements the feminist ideologies of the 21st century, all while making it a standout western in the 1950’s. The film follows a strong female lead, Vienna who isn’t the traditionally jaded damsel in distress in need of being rescued and isn’t led by decisions while blinded by love. Rather, we see elements of a traditional western film narrative that features an outside force threatening the peace of the town, in this case Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan. Johnny’s timing showing up is anything but a coincidence. We see Vienna emerging as the heroine, fighting the opposition and doing whatever it takes to protect herself and her friends. The dialogue is smart, witty and progresses the narrative at an appropriate pace. And what is a western without some action? The film concludes with a traditional, good ol’ western chase on horseback and showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. Without revealing too much, Johnny Guitar satisfies expectations for a western film and features a progressive story that highlights Crawford, McCambridge and the rest of the dynamic cast, plenty of action and aesthetically engaging compositions filmed with TruColor on 35mm.
As for the director, Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) was one of the most innovative and consistently entertaining filmmakers of the Hollywood studio era, remaining legendary for his intense personality, fierce individuality, and restless creative growth. Coming up through the left-wing Theater of Action in New York City followed by the Federal Theatre Project (alongside John Houseman and Elia Kazan), Ray was known as an “actor’s director” for his tendency to allow the actor to define their own role, which shows through his work in Johnny Guitar. With notable films like In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Ray demonstrates versatility in style, character development and overall narrative structure. The Northwest Film Center previously celebrated Ray’s work April 25 – June 26, 2015 through a series named Bigger Than Life: The Films of Nicholas Ray.
The Northwest Film Center will screen Johnny Guitar as part of the Bette & Joan film series. Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Joan Crawford (1904-1977) were two of classic Hollywood’s most famous and respected leading ladies. Crawford got her start in the silents, first appearing in minor roles in lavish MGM productions, then transitioning to the gritty Warner Bros. films which earned her fame. The two stars famously carried on a bitter feud throughout their careers, which became fodder for unending gossip and legendary Hollywood lore. But despite their deep personal animosity, the rivalry pushed each to excel, and between them they achieved some of the highest highs in some of the most memorable roles that we have had the good fortune to enjoy.
Written by Omar Rivera, PR/Marketing Intern