Image of original movie poster, courtesy MGM
Contraries to the Simple Life in Civilization,
Go, Johnny Guitar, Go!
James Van Arsdale
The setting is the turn-of-the-century American west, Arizona more precisely. The opening sequence introduces a man on horseback, high atop a ridge, looking down on the action below, but atypically within the genre of westerns, outside of musicals, his accessory is a guitar slung over his back rather than a six-shooter in a holster around his waist. The film is titled Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray, and the title character is performed by Sterling Hayden, but it is Joan Crawford, as Vienna, who is featured and guides the film into a role that is the polar opposite of the traditional western.
This film has been extensively debated apparently, and as stated in Sandra Kay Schackel’s essay in the book Shooting Stars, it has been called a lesbian western, a neurotic western, and an anti-McCarthy western, as well as a parody of the genre itself. [i]
There do exist instances where the traditional western is skewed in a comedic fashion, but more importantly, it achieves firstly success as a commentary on the events contemporary to its release, the red scare and the communist “witch hunts," and secondly presents a fitting vehicle for Crawford to portray a unique western heroine who is strong and independent from beginning to end, as well as a realistic positive image of woman in a western film.
In the prior discussed opening scene, Johnny is witness to a stagecoach robbery and murder by several masked men on horseback while on his way to see Vienna. Once Johnny arrives at Vienna’s the setting is indeed one of changing times.
Johnny and Vienna both have seemingly left behind the personas of their more dangerous past, in an effort to be someone else and something more than the outlaw, a role, which as we see in other films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), had begun to have no place within the society at the end of the nineteenth-century and would soon die out, at least until the appearance of modern day outlaws such as the “Hell’s Angels.”
This is symbolized in part by names. [ii] Johnny Guitar is, of course, an assumed name, which at some point was changed from Johnny Logan, his name when he was a famous sharpshooter. He now wears and presents a guitar rather than a gun and has taken the role of the “singing cowboy," interested in entertaining rather than shooting. His guitar is the substitute for his gun now, he lays it down on the bar at Vienna’s rather than a pistol, and it at times is a means of either originating or quelling conflict.
Crawford’s character is simply known as Vienna, as if no surname is needed. Today this has associations to famous one-named performers, and Crawford herself who by this time has been well established as a film star, but it also promotes the notion that Vienna has left her less-than-virtuous past behind her, and also a rejection to the idea of family that a surname represents. She is independent and has no family nor an obvious desire for one. She is unique within the “saloon girl” character of westerns in that she is the owner of the saloon in which she inhabits. [iii] The saloon then becomes her home rather than one place among many in a rather unsettled or nomadic existence. I do not wish to say, however, that sentimentality or attachment should be used as appropriate descriptions for Vienna.
Her character is mysterious in this respect. No matter what emotional investment might be present in regards to her saloon, it is the economic investment that is foremost. By her own means, which could have been manipulative, Vienna has discovered the plans for a future railroad line and built her saloon on property that will skyrocket in value, not to mention the hoards of customers making a stop on their way west, once the planned railroad line is completed. When in the presence of Johnny, her old flame whom she has hired as a musician for her bar, her flirtations at one moment in the action are later confused by emotionless exchanges with Johnny on the subject of love and their past relationship. [iv] Like female characters within the film noir movement, she has used her sexuality to gain power, her implied in references to past events. However, unlike those characters, her independence is not tied to the destruction of the leading men. In fact, she makes moves to save them from harm, giving her character a motherly quality that is unusual to this type.
Vienna’s dress changes frequently during the course of the film, in many cases aiding the narrative. [v] Early in the story, as Emma and the townspeople enter to confront her, she stands in a position of power, looking down on them from a balcony and is dressed in costume more typical to the western male. She wears pants and a string tie around the collar of her shirt, with a holster and pistol hanging off her right side. The gesture of her strong unmoving stance adds to the toughness in her outfit, which is black, the traditional color of clothes for the “bad guy.” [vi] Emma, by comparison, is in drab, conservative clothing of a more “womanly” sort that denies any sexuality in its tightly laced and unrevealing nature, very suitable to the stereotypical description of “the spinster” given to the character by many writers.
Vienna’s saloon, her home and settlement, becomes threatened however as Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, and the wealthy John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, use their influence to turn the townspeople against Vienna, alleging that she is involved in the stagecoach robbery and murder of Emma’s brother. [vii] Early in the film, the townspeople enter Vienna’s with the corpse of Emma’s brother to confront her, believing she is involved in the crime, along with the Dancin’ Kid. Vienna stands in a position of power, looking down upon them from a balcony. We see both Emma and Vienna as strong, but Emma’s strength is present when surrounded by those she has swayed to share her view. Vienna stands alone and is successful in running them out without a violent confrontation. This scene establishes Vienna’s strong character, and even though she wears black, she is not the attacker, but is just interested in being able to go about her business as usual. The saloon is her fortress and she is intent to protect it. [viii]
Here it is introduced that that there are two circles; the inner circle of the town and its inhabitants, and the outer circle that is Vienna and Johnny in the isolated saloon, alone in the landscape, and The Dancin’ Kid’s lair, hidden in a valley and not easily accessible.
This becomes the map on which the heroes are deemed outsiders, uncivilized and renegade versus the town proper, which is civilization. [ix] This map can also refer to the traditional role of women in westerns outside of the few films of this sort in the 1950’s. The male as dominant hero is in the center and the female as nothing more than a service to which the male attains the status of hero.
It becomes obvious however that Emma’s appearance as pure, law abiding and concerned for the welfare of all the other citizens is a facade that hides her fixation on power, money and men and the threat that Vienna poses to all three. It is Emma who becomes the aggressor, storming into Vienna’s bar for a confrontation already having turned the townspeople against her. Emma needs no proof positive that Vienna was involved in the crime. She uses her power and her persuasiveness to build
her case. She herself may not believe that Vienna was involved, but the idea presents itself as the perfect catalyst for her scheme; a plan to eradicate the threat Vienna poses to her sexuality. [x] Emma fancies The Dancin’ Kid (played by Scott Brady), a miner and subsequent outlaw, but The Kid is infatuated with Vienna. Thus Crawford has two leading men, underscoring this threat and symbolizing her sexual power. [xi]
The threat is also based on greed. The balance of power and wealth in the area would change once the railroad comes through, and unlike Mr. McIvers, Emma cannot control Vienna. Both Vienna and Emma are greedy characters, but while Vienna does not conceal her greed and has no intention of controlling others with her acquired power, Emma’s desires are hidden under a straight-laced, puritan character that is used as a tool to sway public opinion as a model citizen and town leader. [xii]
So it is evident that costume aides in establishing codes relating to the representation of the two female characters and the outsider versus insider political conflict. The townspeople all wear clothing that is similar in appearance and thus begin to appear soldier-like; part of the collective machine rather than individuals. [xiii] Their clothing when the posse is formed is in matching black and white, referred to by Vienna as “funerary clothes.” The heroes, Vienna, Johnny and the Dancin’ Kid, are set apart visually by their costume which firmly places them within the role of outlaw even though it no longer is applicable. When the Dancin’ Kid and his gang actually do become outlaws, by robbing the bank just to spite the townspeople, it is a role forced upon them by Emma’s strong accusations. [xiv]
Thus the power she displays not only brings the townspeople under her control, but begins to destroy the opposed characters, all of which, by the way, are men. The only one unaffected is the only other female, Vienna. She is the primary target of Emma’s rage, but is not changed by it. As noted earlier, she uses her gun when necessary to demonstrate her power and to protect herself, but does not believe killing to be a viable solution to any problem, until faced with the absolute need to do so.
It is here that a discussion on the political implications begins. The film’s
release falls at the height of the red scare and towards the end of Joseph McCarthy’s time in office, the senator from Wisconson who became the figurehead of the communist “witch hunts” of the 1950’s and died, shortly after his fall from power, in 1957. John Lenihan, in the book Showdown. Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, describes Johnny Guitar as a film “focused on individuals who fall victim to communities that are dominated by self-appointed pillars of respectability.” [xvi]
The “self-appointed pillars” being Emma Small and John McIvers. These two position themselves as a team to provide power to their cause, much like McCarthy’s alliance to J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI. It is they and the posse of townspeople they gather to hunt down Johnny and Vienna who elicit comparisons to the House Un-American Activities Committee [xvii] . Vienna is captured and to be hanged without trial much like the arrests, without warrant or notification of rights, of suspected communists. So the classical western is reversed in that the “bringers of civilization have taken over the usual role of the villains.” [xviii]
The western film is an ideal means of conveying political commentary in that it is though of to the viewing audience as very safe territory, not literally in the streets of the old west, but in the genre. It is a truly American invention and setting that has an element
of fantasy that allows these comparisons without being overly explicit. It brings to the viewer images of the American west, such as freedom and enterprise; two of the admired qualities of a democracy. If “mythology is remarkably responsive to changing needs in society” as stated in the essay “Women in Film Noir” by Janey Place, [xix] then it is reasonable to state that the myth of the west could be utilized as a valuable tool, especially when portrayed in color, to comment on the troubled state and morale of America during a high point of the cold war.
The saturated colors in the film, brought about by the Trucolor process add to the quality of fantasy inherent in westerns. It at times has the appearance of comic-book colors; the almost-too-blue sky for example, but is used effectively in establishing character. Vienna’s dress in her introduction is dark; a reflection of her mystery and emotional suppression. Footage of the posse is virtually in black and white, treated coldly and lacking depth of character. This is in sharp contrast to the warm color of those pursued, an effect perhaps not only to reinforce a political stance, but also to imbed a connection to and sympathy with the wrongly accused heroes.
There is a connection between color and the action of beauty, since the use of color has the ability to create a response, born of the many associations set in motion within the mind of the viewer, to that which is beautiful and that which is sublime [xx] . In most cases, of course, these are not so easily divided. They both inhabit the same world. To use “western” imagery, the beautiful and the sublime are far from dueling gunfighters at high noon, but are rather lovers that succumb to the occasional spat. However, for our
purposes, it is acceptable to slightly “genericize” these ideas in relation to color. For example, the oversaturated colors of the Arizona landscape inspire awe and a natural beauty; the “sight value” and “exoticism of the west.” [xxi] The waterfall that marks the entrance to the valley where the Dancin’ Kid lives is gorgeous, not to mention a means to be “cleansed” as one passes through after having come from the city. The protagonists in warm color hint at an emotional beauty and the love we feel is present between Johnny and Vienna.
Opposingly, the colorlessness of the posse evokes a terror aimed at the audience member to beware of this sort of circumstance, regardless of time period or place, and firmly establishes the true villains. Their black and white clothing is an obvious lack of color and therefore a lack of that which is considered to be beauty in comparison. Nicholas Ray’s use of color is effective. I believe it is for these reasons rather than any notion of deliberate parody. The setting and genre of the western is enough to carry the load of political commentary without being forced to “drink straight from the bottle.”
In the scene prior to Vienna’s capture, the posse heads out to the saloon, but only after Emma unleashes a stream of accusations affirming her self-righteousness and playing on their guilt and their fear. Emma is a character formed in opposition to Vienna, and as evidenced in the previous scene, she uses her power manipulatively and persuasively to achieve an end based on jealousy and greed. Her impassioned speech before the townspeople encourages loyalty to her convictions and a pursuit of the wrongdoers. She here is described in ways that make additional comparisons to McCarthy and, in being a female, she becomes a foil to Vienna’s admirable and strong character, creating an eventual sympathy for the heroine in the viewer.
In Vienna, a positive role model is created who willingly adopts the traditional position of the male. “A man can lie, steal and even kill,” she states to Johnny, “but as long as he hangs onto his pride, he’s still a man, but all a woman has to do is slip once, and she’s a tramp.” She has moved from the “saloon girl” to the owner of a saloon, a unique role for the woman in westerns, and the saloon being the realm of men, according to many sources, is in a new position of power. Her service is to herself now, when only five years prior she was an ornament and an object of visual pleasure. Importantly, this service to herself does not come at the expense of others.
Most notably, contrary to other examples of strong female characters, she does not need to be, and is not, ultimately saved by the male hero. Johnny, at first a hired hand, becomes her partner and helper, but it is she who faces her conflicts alone, and ultimately must destroy her enemy or be killed herself. In the scene where she plays piano as she is confronted by the mob, Johnny is absent and the man present, one the Kid’s gang, is hiding; under the protection of Vienna. She has become the one trying to save the male characters.
At the film’s climax, as the two sides fight it out in by far the most action oriented segment, which many westerns are full of from beginning to end, Emma and Vienna are the ones who must settle it without the involvement of any others. As the credits begin, one can also hear the theme song, “Johnny Guitar," sung by Peggy Lee, a female “hero” herself in contemporary pop music of the time. The song and Peggy Lee promoted the film immensely, and its inclusion at the end underscored the differences between the typical western and Johnny Guitar. [xxii]
An intriguing question worthy of more thought would be the symbolism and social implications of the very fact that the primary target for the film’s politically and socially oriented attacks is a woman, and is played by Joan Crawford. Is there a personal dialogue here paralleled to her own life, and is there an intent to define woman as the target for any number of different allegations threatening her fulfilled existence or recognition throughout history? It is a perhaps broader interpretation, and one that could have been unintentional, but nevertheless is not entirely unworthy.
It is true that the accused must be a woman if the accuser is a woman. This provides for what would typically be a equal conflict. A conflict that would end in a death and not be considered at the time to be savage. More so it is set up to provide a study in the dynamics between these two females and their use/abuse of power. The character of Vienna can be generalized to portray all women and the roles placed upon them, as evidenced in the first appearance of women on stage in Roman paratheatricals as “props” for realistic portrayal of sex acts. The film then not only reverses the female character within the western genre, but also provides a contrary to the woman’s place throughout history in a strong, intelligent and independent character that lacks the evil attribute of film noir’s femme-fatale. [xxiii]
If this is true, then the view of the male spectator has changed as well. This leading lady does not pose the threat that the femme-fatale does. In actuality, the male spectator most likely is not only placed in the role of Johnny, but also that of Vienna, a woman and a man. The threat then comes from the duet of Emma and McIvers, a woman and a man as well. In this an ambiguity is achieved. The heroic traits are located within a female and a male, and the same for the evil traits, producing views, for spectators of either gender, that cross.
This acts as an equalizer, just as Johnny, when he states that there is “nothin’ like a good smoke and a cup of coffee,” is the neutral force in that scene to intermediate between the opposing sides. His comment not only addresses the characters in the film and their egotistical preoccupations, but is a message to viewers at the time, when it could be said that perhaps people had lost sight of the simple pleasures in life. The female spectator’s view is not as “masculinized” since the hero, Vienna, exudes both masculinity and femininity within a character that spectators of both genders would tend to identify with. Even the usual masculinity of the western in action, play and fantasy, while still present, are downplayed by the strategies within the film that label it a melodrama as well. [xxiv]
Interestingly enough, the conflict between McCambridge and Crawford was not limited to their time in front of the camera. Rumors of jealousy and bickering circulated
about the two, and McCambridge even alleged in an interview much later that Crawford had her blacklisted for two years after this film. [xxv] Contemporary reviews of the film were overwhelmingly negative. New York Times film reviewer, Bosley Crowther, even criticized Crawford’s character for lacking femininity. Even so, Johnny Guitar, and a handful of others from this time period, including Rancho Notorious, were successful in expanding the role of the woman in westerns and turning away from, both visually and thematically, the classical western model.
[i] Schackel, Sandra Kay. “Women in Western Films: The Civilizer, The Saloon Singer, and Their Modern Sister.” p.209.
[ii] Cameron & Pye. “The Book of Westerns."
[iii] Cameron & Pye. p.224
[iv] Cameron & Pye.
[v] Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View.
[vi] Basinger, Jeanine.
[vii] Motion Picture Guide vol.IV.
[viii] Motion Picture Guide vol.IV.
[ix] Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society. p.81.
[x] Schackel, Sandra Kay. p.209.
[xi] Cameron & Pye. p.223.
[xii] Cameron & Pye. p.224.
[xiii] Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society. p.81.
[xiv] Cameron & Pye. p.224.
[xv] Basinger, Jeanine.
[xvii] Motion Picture Guide vol.IV.
[xviii] Wright, Will. p.80.
[xx] Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Sublime and the Beautiful.
[xxi] New York Times Film Review. May 28, 1954.
[xxii] Cameron & Pye. p.221.
[xxiii] Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir”
[xxiv] Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’…”.
[xxv] Motion Picture Guide vol.IV.
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