We begin with one of her odder films - 1954's Johnny Guitar. First off, it is rather strange to see Joan in a Western. I don't believe she had ever done one before, nor did she ever do another one. As directed by Nicholas Ray, this is also a very peculiar western. For one thing, the lead protagonists are two women: Vienna, as played by Joan Crawford has opened a gambling saloon just outside town, as she waits for her land's value to appreciate with the arrival of the railroad; and Emma Small, a local rancher who loathes Vienna for a number of reasons, not the least of it is Emma's attraction to The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who rather has eyes for Vienna. In this scene, Johnny and Emma hint at their past:
The whole movie is centered around the conclusion, the battle between Vienna and Emma. More than a simple catfight, it is the kind of battle one normally expects of the male rivals in the film. In fact, for the most part, the men are rather weak. Sure, Vienna has hired Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to work for her - he is a reformed gunfighter and her former lover - but he revolves within her orbit, not she around his. Vienna and Emma are clearly alpha females. The men do their bidding.
The personal antagonism of Ms. Crawford and Ms. McCambridge has become the stuff of legend. On screen, they spit fire at one another. The film is both electric and fascinating for its oddness. It verges on film noir, yet it isn't quite.
Costuming is an important feature in Johnny Guitar. Witness Vienna, posed in her flowing white dress, positioned next to Emma in her black mourning weeds: Even when Vienna switches to clothing that is less conspicuous, she puts on a blazing red shirt - matched precisely to Ms. Crawford's bold red lipstick. Crawford looks tall and stately (though she was only 5'4"), next to the "tiny" Mercedes McCambridge (who was 5'3"). Even Ms. McCambrige's name in the story - Small - speaks to her personal and physical attributes. As a result, Vienna always stands out. Ms. Crawford makes sure of that!
Next time, we'll go on to a much earlier Crawford film. Please join us.