Monday, March 30, 2009

Johnny Guitar

TCM is showing the bizarre western Johnny Guitar at 11:30 AM ET on March 31. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD here in the States, so it's well worth recording, as it's got somewhat of a cult following.

Joan Crawford, seen here in one of the loud-colored outfits she wears, stars as Vienna, a woman who owns a saloon in the old west. The saloon is in the middle of nowhere -- for now, at least; she knows that the planned railroad is going to be passing right near her saloon, so if she can hold on to it, she'll be rich in the not too distant future. However, holding on to the saloon is the problem. As in Shane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, there are ranchers who don't like the encroachment of other things on the range, so they'll stop at nothing to get rid of Vienna. Into all of this walks Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden), ostensibly a guitarist, but actually a man who used to be a gunfighter, as well as the former love of Vienna's life.

The ranchers, for their part, are led by Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother was shot by a gang that's been menacing these parts; Emma thinks the gang is in cahoots with Vienna, and Emma isn't going to let anything stop her from getting revenge for the death of her brother. It's melodrama at its finest, leading up to the typically Western shootout.

Joan Crawford, as I mentioned earlier, is the star here, and she's determined to make every scene hers, from the moment she first shows up on screen in a tight black blouse, riding pants, and a green bandana doubling as a tie. She continues to make her way through the proceedings in similarly solid-colored outfits, notably a virginal white dress when a posse is out looking for the leader of the gang. (Interestingly, she later escapes the hangman's noose in that same dress, runs across the dusty desert, and doesn't seem to get a speck of dirt on the dress.) It's rare enough that one woman is the lead in a western, but here we've got both the protagonist and the antagonist being women. McCambridge does a good job, displaying suitable tension in her scenes opposite Crawford, largely because Hollywood legend has it that she didn't need to act out that tension: she and Crawford supposedly hated each other on set. Hayden is OK, too, although he really doesn't have much to do except serve as window dressing for the two female leads, while a younger Ernest Borgnine is capable as one of the members of the gang.

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