“The Beauty and the Beast of westerns, a western dream,”
I went to see this movie at a special showing at the Grand Theatre in Leeds last night. Before it started we had an introduction by Dr Lee Broughton, who is the Lever Trust Early Career Fellow in World Cinema at Leeds University. He has studied the movie and provided a background to the Western movies of the period and highlighted just how unusual a movie it was, given the state of American politics and how they were reflected in the cinema in the 1950s. And indeed it is an unusual movie, with singing cowboys and female gunslingers.
It was made in 1954 by Republic Pictures, an independent studio. Nicholas Ray directed it and it starred Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden and Scott Brady. There were also a strong cast of Western stalwarts, including Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine.
The screenplay was credited to Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Roy Chanslor. But in fact, the screenplay was written by Ben Maddow, who had been blacklisted during the MacArthy era, because of past left-wing sympathies. Republic were making a lot of cheap movies and Maddow would have been offered the lower paid ‘blacklist rate.’ That was an interesting piece of social history, because it demonstrated that blacklisted writers could still work, but they just weren’t credited.
The plot is fairly simple, but it stands out because of the strong female characters and the reversal of the traditional Western movie roles. Also, the title song co-written by Peggy Lee and Victor Young, and sung by Peggy Lee is quite haunting.
In 2008 Johnny Guitar was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry because it was considered to be culturally, historically and aesthetically significant. I can quite see why it was. It isn’t the greatest Western ever made, in my opinion, but it was unusual and it certainly made an impact on me.