Considered one of the rare westerns featuring two women headlining, “Johnny Guitare” has had a number of backstage adventures. Starting with the real spat between the two main actresses Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge.
Johnny Guitar : a feminist western
Nicholas Ray is probably part of some of the most underrated directors of post-war Hollywood cinema. Indeed, the director allowed to magnify the figure of anti-hero, with completely marginal characters and constantly out of step with their time. Multiplying genre films (film noir, peplum), he tackled the western in 1954 by delivering the most striking production of his filmography: Johnny Guitar.
The feature film follows Vienna, the owner of a saloon she had the intelligence to build in an area that should soon be served by a railway line. This tough-headed woman must watch her enemies, especially Emma, a wealthy landowner who possesses a sickly hatred against Vienna. Accompanied by her musician Johnny Guitar and her lover Dancing Kid, the owner will do what she can do best: fight.
To note that Johnny Guitar is filmed during the terrible era of the McCarthy commission, during which a veritable cabal was launched against artists suspected of being Communists by the American government. In the eye of the storm for its supposed link with communism, Nicholas Ray decides to transcribe this period of “witch hunts” in his film. With time, Johnny Guitar has become one of the mythical feminist westerns. In addition, several great directors have multiplied the nods to the film, such as Jean-Luc Godard in Pierrot le fou, François Truffaut in The Mississippi Mermaid, André Techiné in Barocco or Pedro Almodóvar in Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
In Johnny Guitar, Vienna and Emma are engaged in a fierce battle. However, this hatred which transpires on the screen, is also due to the authentic animosity which existed between their respective actresses on the set: Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Thus, the premiere was considered one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the time. However, McCambridge was the rising young actress. Jealous and feeling threatened by her, Joan Crawford completely derailed during filming. So the hatred of the actress was so strong that one evening she destroyed all the costumes worn by Mercedes McCambridge in the film. It should also be remembered that the latter was the wife of producer Fletcher Markle, ex of… Joan Crawford.
The legendary actress didn’t stop there as she threatened to quit the film if she didn’t get more extra scenes. To meet his request, the screenwriter Philip Yordan was then hired. The latter, under pressure from Crawford, decided that the male lead role which was that of Johnny Guitar, become feminine! This is how the character of Vienna was the protagonist of the feature film, which brought the film into a true feminist dimension. Results : the title role of the film took a back seat, in the face of the Vienna-Emma rivalry, which ended with a victory for the owner over the owner (to the delight of Joan Crawford).
Nicholas Ray subsequently vowed never to work with the actress again, thedeeming it completely crazy and totally unmanageable. When we know the mad war that Joan Crawford had waged with another legendary actress Bette Davis (rivalry transcribed on the small screen in the series Feud), we will not be surprised.