Let me just begin by saying that this is the campiest western I’ve seen so far. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) rushes into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) casino and accusing her of hiring the Dancing Kid for a stagecoach ambush that killed her brother. They throw empty threats about each other’s gunnery or gunship or whatever that will make Joan Collins pale in comparison. Emma throws remarks that eventually reveals her secret desire for the Dancing Kid and resentment of Vienna’s plans to introduce a train line to the insular town. McIvers (Ward Bond), who is in Emma’s team, instates a law to ban gambling and drinking outside town limits, crippling Vienna’s business. That’s just the first scene.
Then the Dancing Kid robs a bank because he thinks it’s a good idea.
This is the first time I notice the colour black in costume to pop out in a western. While Emma and her people wear the dusty browns of typical Western costume, Vienna wears black. She seems like the villain in this part of the film. She’s also more showy in her affluence, also wearing pants to show one of her employees’ endearing quips about being more manly and making him feel like less of one. The next day shows an inversion of that duality. Vienna has a few costume changes while the mob keeps wearing their mourning black and staining it while hunting for their usual suspects. Vienna’s a woman who has to transform herself because of her past, present and future, the mob keep on to old grudges and bring with them a wave of revenge and death.
After the bank robbery come the best scenes of the film, for my shallow and subjective reasons. Vienna lights the oil lamps of a chandelier, wearing a white dress that looks like she’s hosting a ball in Europe instead of closing shop in the West. Then one of the Dancing Kid’s collaborators, Turkey, totters into her saloon. Despite the hallowed Lightbox screening, I gasped loudly ‘No!’ Don’t ruin the dress.
Thank God. Vienna shows us a BAMF move, playing a piano peacefully despite of Emma’s shrill (sorry) accusations.
The lynch mob tries to finish off Vienna but she escapes. The red dust of the West doesn’t even touch the dress. My eyebrow is raising.
Vienna and the titular Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) escape to a mine shaft under the former’s now burnt down saloon. A little burning wooden beam falls down on Vienna’s dress. Finally.
Despite of how well some of her contemporaries have aged, it’s still strange to see Joan Crawford try and succeed to pull off something like that. But then it’s not like the film was trying to hide her age. As Vienna, she has a history, but she knows how to take care of herself.
I’ll make a last sartorial note about the film about the final showdown. Vienna and Johnny escape through a waterfall to the Dancing Kid’s lair. The Kid offers her dry clothes – Turkey’s. Vienna shoots Emma wearing Turkey’s yellow shirt, although she looks like she cans hoot a gun better than Turkey would. In a way, she helps him get a revenge he may have asked for.
Johnny Guitar is part of TIFF’s 100, a strange choice for the campy movie being championed by critics today. TIFF’s write-up of the film touched on the movie having the two strongest female characters in film history. I agree in a way that it took me four years and this movie to know that there’s a movie out there that has two women in opposing ends of gun mobs. And yes, the men in the film are as useful as the guns themselves, rarely opposing the women who lead them. They do subvert stereotypes of good and evil, virgin and whore. And of course, Vienna and Emma are better than many female characters today. But are these female characters only strong in comparison?
Johnny Guitar, directed by pot-stirrer Nicholas Ray with a supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine, is on again at the Lightbox on November 20th at 6PM.
A film known for its memorable songs and emotional valleys, George Cukor’s 1954 musical remake of “A Star is Born” is also an effective parody of the Hollywood machine. Its circular events calendar and more circular narratives, lack of willingness to open doors, the 1950’s craze of finding the most groomed instead of the most able (I’m looking at you, Grace Kelly), vampire-like treatment of its talent whom they perceive as expendable, lack of respect for its talents’ privacy in dire times, absolute falseness, exoticization of the rest of the world and disseminating that information into the American household, misguided and hateful press agents (Jack Carson), how it separates loving couples. I suppose Norman Maine shouldn’t drinking that much or that his problems aren’t caused by Hollywood, or that Esther Bloodgett/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland), but Hollywood still looks bad.
It also looks bad because Esther, one of its victims, has so much humanity and pathos. She gets discovered by alcoholic superstar Norman Maine (James Mason), and her soaring career coincides with his self-destruction. I can’t pick out her shining moment in the movie. While she’s in the car with Norman, she seems to belong to her big city present with hints of the small town little girl of her past. As she’s in between the musical movements of “In the Trunk,” she goes from caramel-voiced actress then breaks out into song, holding back tears of joy and gratitude. In her dressing room, still in a jolly costume as an androgynous newspaper girl, she tells Oliver Niles of how she hates Norman for failing but says it with sorrow and remorse, and brings audiences to tears.
James Mason gets a moment too. It’s the last movie played in his retrospective, and what other way to end it than with his performance in this movie. Playing opposite Garland takes a lot of subtlety. But my favourite scene for him is when he ‘Kanye’s‘ his wife at an Academy Awards ceremony. He tells those who are attending the banquet that he knows them by their first name, convincing authority from a man who is there to beg. It’s horrible for him to do, but we still feel his pain. I also just inexplicably like it when actors stutter at the right moments. Both Mason and Garland play off each other well in this scene, even if they don’t look like a good couple in a few other scenes. And his “Why do you disgust me” in the first scene brings laughs too.
The movie’s a circular one, beginning and ending both in a Hollywood benefit show. Esther returns to the place where she met Norman, filling his place. She appears to her audience as Mrs. Norman Maine, positioning herself as a traditional wife, as one of Hollywood instead of just being a newcomer. As she belts out in one of her numbers, the show must go on.
Oh and if you like Mondrian, you’ll love this movie too.
A good ten minutes of “A Star is Born ’54” are just monochrome film stills accompanied. Those ten minutes seemed thrice its length, almost ruined the experience, I wanted to walk out and get my money back. I should have known that film executives cut it up because the original three hours was apparently too long by test audiences at the time. Thankfully the last inserted parts of the film ended by the 70th minute, and the meat of the film and its musical numbers are intact. I was eavesdropping other people’s conversations after the screening, women in their forties strongly saying that the stills added nothing to the film. I hope to hear the other side of the argument someday.