Come for the Crazy, Stay for the Trucolor
I believe I first saw this picture on a small black and white television, and it wasn't nearly the same experience as watching two angry women on different sides of 40 shoot daggers at each other in Trucolor. Johnny Guitar is a really good movie, don't get me wrong, but there is much hilarity to found a half century after its release.
First of all, "Vienna?" That's the Cher/Maddonna/Beyonce name of Joan Crawford's character in Johnny Guitar, the tough saloon owner embroiled in a standoff against intolerant small town burghers.She wants a railroad to come through, and with it, progress. Emma Small (the miscast Mercedes McCambridge) is a town princess whose brother has been killed, most likely by the man of her dreams, an outlaw called (seriously) "The Dancin' Kid" (Scott Brady). But the Dancin' Kid has the hots for Vienna, which makes Emma especially vindictive.
And shrill. Did I mention shrill? Mercedes McCambridge has never been my favorite actor, in large part because of her voice. Indeed, her Hamlet is truly as Pazuzu, the demon speaking through Linda Blair in The Exorcist. In Johnny Guitar, she plays Vienna's nemesis, a relentless, vindictive woman who (in my humble O) is clearly in love with her rival and furious about it.
Meanwhile, Vienna has built her saloon and sad gambling den after five years of hard work, which clearly has involved some unpleasant sexual encounters. To defend it, she's hired a former beau, Albuquerque gunslinger Johnny Logan, who, unbeknownst to Vienna, has forgone gun fightin' for guitar pickin' and now calls himself "Johnny Guitar.' Johnny is played by Sterling Hayden, who many of you know is not my ideal of a leading man (I refer you to The Come On). But Hayden is quite excellent as the forgiving, relatively peace loving hero.
Vienna hooks up with Johnny again and while making a routine, expository transaction at the bank, is caught up in the robbery of said bank by her former boyfriend, the Dancin' Kid. Her proximity to this event is all Emma needs to launch an all out vigilante assault on Vienna, the Kid, and his compadres, who include Ernest Borgnine and character staple, Royal Dano.
Everyone is now on high alert and the scent of blood. Crazy-ass Emma is wild to avenge herself on Vienna for, I dunno, having sex, being successful, having the business savvy to push Emma's family out of power, having the better color wardrobe, and possibly for being the hottest roulette dealer in town (if you know what I mean).
Well, one group chases the other until the group in the wrong loses the most people, but not before Emma sets Vienna's place and some other stuff on fire.
The accidental hilarity in this picture is in the staging and casting. Joan Crawford is superbly accidentally jaw-droppingly funny and heroic when she stands down or faces off the opposition -- with blood-red lipstick and expressive black eyebrows. Even when she's dressed in a white dress, playing piano against the rock-hewn natural foundation of her saloon facing her detractors.
It's also (and mostly) in McCambridge's hysterical glee at the thought of seeing her girlfriend/rival swing from the nearest hickory tree. There are several close-ups of McCambridge in disturbing vengeful rictus; her shrill calls to "string her up;" her insane laughter. So funny. So disturbing.
But this remains an excellent movie, in spite of the many many yuks you'll get at the wardrobe, the dialog, the intensity of misdirected feeling, and most likely, Mercedes McCambridge in her best mentally unstable reading of Emma Small.
I do think Sterling Hayden is pretty nuanced and (dare I say) attractive in this role; the men are complicated and interesting for a Western -- the Dancin' Kid isn't a complete tool, and his henchmen have layers. Like onions. If only it were the same for the two female leads.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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