Johnny Guitar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the 1954 film. For the song, see Johnny Guitar (song). For other uses, see Johnny Guitar (disambiguation).
Johnny Guitar
Johnny guitar.jpg
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Herbert J. Yates
Written by Ben Maddow, credited to Philip Yordan
Based on Johnny Guitar
1953 novel
by Roy Chanslor
Starring Joan Crawford
Sterling Hayden
Mercedes McCambridge
Scott Brady
Music by Peggy Lee
Victor Young
Cinematography Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Richard L. Van Enger
Republic Pictures
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Release date
  • May 7, 1954 (1954-05-07) (Los Angeles, California)
  • May 26, 1954 (1954-05-26) (New York City)
  • August 23, 1954 (1954-08-23) (United States)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.5 million (US)[1]

Johnny Guitar is a 1954 American Trucolor western drama film directed by Nicholas Ray starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady.

The screenplay was adapted from a novel by Roy Chanslor. Though credited to Philip Yordan, he was merely a front for the actual screenwriter, blacklistee Ben Maddow.[2] Filmed in Republic's Trucolor process, the film was directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by Herbert J. Yates.

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".[3]


On the outskirts of a wind-swept Arizona cattle town, an aggressive and strong-willed saloonkeeper named Vienna maintains a volatile relationship with the local cattlemen and townsfolk. Not only does she support the railroad being laid nearby (the cattlemen oppose it), but she permits "The Dancin' Kid" (her former amour) and his confederates to frequent her saloon. The locals, led by McIvers but egged on by Emma Small, a onetime rival of Vienna, are determined to force Vienna out of town, and the hold-up of the stage (they suspect, erroneously, by "The Dancin' Kid") offers a perfect pretext. Vienna faces them down, helped by the mysterious and just arrived Johnny Guitar. McIvers gives Vienna, Johnny Guitar and "The Dancin Kid" and his sidekicks 24 hours to leave. Johnny turns out to be Vienna's ex-lover and a reformed gunslinger whose real name is Johnny Logan. A smouldering love/hate relationship develops.

The Dancin' Kid and his gang rob the town bank to fund their escape to California, but the pass is blocked by a railroad crew dynamiting a way in, and they flee back to their secret hideout behind a waterfall. Emma Small convinces the townsfolk that Vienna is as guilty as the rest and the posse ride to her saloon. Vienna appears to be getting the best of another verbal confrontation when one of the wounded bank robbers, Turkey, is discovered under a table. Emma persuades the men to hang Vienna and Turkey, and burns the saloon down. At the last second Vienna is saved by Johnny Guitar.

Vienna and Johnny escape the posse and find refuge in The Dancin' Kid's secret hideaway. The posse tracks them down, and the last two of Kid's men are killed by infighting. A halt is called to the bloodbath by the posse's leader, McIvers. Emma challenges Vienna to a showdown; The Dancin' Kid calls to Emma but is killed by a bullet to the head by an angered Emma. Emma then shoots Vienna, but only in the shoulder, where Vienna shoots Emma in the head. The posse allows Johnny and Vienna to leave the hideout in peace, and watches them go.


Production notes[edit]

Crawford and Nick Ray were scheduled to make a film called Lisbon at Paramount. But when the script proved unacceptable, Crawford brought the book (to which she held the film rights and which author Roy Chanslor had dedicated to her) to Republic and had them hire Ray to direct it.[4][5][6][7]

Crawford wanted either Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck for the role of Emma Small, but they were too expensive.[8] Claire Trevor was next in mind for the role but was unable to accept because she was tied up with another film.[9] Finally, Nicholas Ray brought in McCambridge.

Most people claimed Crawford was easy to work with, always professional, generous, patient and kind.[10][11] Issues between the two women cropped up early on, but Ray was not alarmed – at first. He found it "heaven sent" that they disliked each other and felt it added greatly to the dramatic conflict.[6] The reasons for the feud appear to date back to a time when Crawford had once dated McCambridge's husband, Fletcher Markle. According to some of the other co-stars, McCambridge needled Crawford about it.[10] McCambridge also appears to have disliked that Crawford and Ray were in the midst of an affair. Crawford, on the other hand, disliked what she perceived to be "special attention" that Ray was giving to McCambridge.[6]

Making things worse was that McCambridge was battling alcoholism during this period,[12] something she admitted later contributed to the problems between her and Crawford.[13]

After filming, McCambridge and Hayden publicly declared their dislike of Crawford, with McCambridge labeling Crawford, "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady".[14] Hayden said in an interview, "There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money."[this quote needs a citation]

Crawford for her part said of McCambridge, "I have four children - I do not need a fifth." [6] However, Crawford was surprised at the comments by Hayden, claiming she had a letter from him saying he would love to work with her again.[this quote needs a citation]

Later, Ray claimed that Crawford, during a rage, drunkenly threw McCambridge's costumes into the street.[15] However, McCambridge only had one costume throughout the entire film. Crawford later laughingly admitted she had thrown McCambridge's own clothing into the street.[6] Ray also said of that time, "Joan was drinking a lot and she liked to fight," but that she was also "very attractive, with a basic decency." [16]


Originally opening to negative reviews, the film later became liked and would become regarded[by whom?] as one of Ray's best films, topped by the famous title song.

Variety commented, "It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle...The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time."[17]

Bosley Crowther singled out Crawford's physical bearing for criticism in his New York Times review, stating " more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in "Shane." For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades."[18]

The film is beloved by French filmmaker François Truffaut, who described it as the "Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream".[19] Truffaut was especially impressed by the film's extravagance: the bold colors, the poetry of the dialogue in certain scenes, and the theatricality which results in cowboys vanishing and dying "with the grace of ballerinas".

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar pays homage to the film in his 1988 release Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. His lead character Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a voice artist, passes out while dubbing Vienna's voice in a scene where Johnny (voiced earlier by Pepa's ex-lover Iván) and she banter about their conflicted past. Almodóvar's film also ends with a chase and an obsessed woman shooting at his lead character.

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum lists Johnny Guitar as one of the 100 best American films.[20]

Japanese film director Shinji Aoyama listed Johnny Guitar as one of the Greatest Films of All Time in 2012. He said, "Johnny Guitar is the only movie that I‘d like to remake someday, although I know that it’s impossible. It’s probably closest to the worst nightmare I can have. I know for sure that my desire to remake this movie comes from my warped thought that I want to remake my own nightmare."[21]

Despite a number of initial negative reviews, in the USA and Canada Johnny Guitar grossed more than $2,500,000 as of January 1955 ($21,396,003.72 in 2012 dollars, adjusted for inflation) [22] and was No. 27 on Variety's list of top money makers of 1954.[23]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Many critics, among which Roger Ebert,[26] have pointed out that the film is a hidden commentary on the McCarthy witch-hunts.[27] The film is more than just a Western – Truffaut, who admired the film, called it "a phony Western".[this quote needs a citation]

In an interview in the Criterion Collection release of The Killing, Sterling Hayden stated that he did not care for Johnny Guitar. "They put string, like you get at the grocery store, over my guitar in case I accidentally hit them," he said, acknowledging that "I can't play guitar, and can't sing a good-goddamn, either." "I was at war on that film, during the daytime, with Joan Crawford," he recalled, "and at night with my second wife." Despite his reservations about the film, Hayden acknowledged its popularity.

According to Martin Scorsese, contemporary American audiences "didn't know what to make of it, so they either ignored it or laughed at it." European audiences, on the other hand, free of conventional biases, saw Johnny Guitar for what it was: "an intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtexts that rendered it extremely modern."[28]

The film has been released in VHS, DVD and Blu-ray formats.


Johnny Guitar was adapted into a stage musical, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2004, with a book by American television producer Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyrics by Joel Higgins, and music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins. It starred Judy McLane, Ann Crumb, Steve Blanchard, and Robert Evan, and was the recipient of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, as well as a nominee for the Lucille Lortel Awards and the Drama Desk Awards.

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  2. ^
  3. ^ National Film Registry Titles 1989 - 2013|
  4. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud
  5. ^ Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star
  6. ^ a b c d e Joan Crawford, The Essential Biography
  7. ^ Production Files
  8. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, page 266.
  9. ^ Johnny Guitar production files
  10. ^ a b Johnny Dearest,, October 2003
  11. ^ Interview with Ernest Borgnine,
  12. ^ "'The Exorcist' actress Mercedes McCambridge dies at 85". USA Today. March 17, 2004. 
  13. ^ Mercedes Mccambridge: A Biography And Career Record
  14. ^ "The Exorcist actress Mercedes McCambridge dies at 85". USA Today. March 17, 2004. Retrieved 2013-10-24. 
  15. ^ Interview with Ray
  16. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud
  17. ^ Quirk, Lawrence J.. The Films of Joan Crawford. The Citadel Press, 1968.
  18. ^ Tomatoes
  19. ^ Truffaut, The Films in My Life
  20. ^ List-o-Mania Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies By Jonathan Rosenbaum, June 26, 1998
  21. ^ Aoyama, Shinji (2012). "The Greatest Films Poll". Sight & Sound. 
  22. ^ "CPI Inflation Calculator". Retrieved May 19, 2015. 
  23. ^ The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954", Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955.
  24. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06. 
  25. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ For example, Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray (1991, 2004)
  28. ^ Martin Scorsese introduces Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) dir. Nicholas Ray. YouTube. 24 April 2011. Retrieved May 19, 2015. 

External links[edit]