Camping with the Stars: Joan Crawford's First Time at the Rodeo

Joan Crawford
Johnny Guitar Joan Crawford

Crawford puts down the wire hanger and picks up her six shooters in the Western film that has become a cult and auteur classic.

Toward the end of her life, Joan Crawford was asked to comment on the 1954 film Johnny Guitar. She answered that she thought she was wrong for the part and she wished she hadn't made the film. I'm glad she did -- and so are a lot of fans of Crawford and the Western genre. 

Johnny Guitar has a camp sensibility that is a rare find in Westerns. The fact that it stars Joan Crawford (in perhaps her last significant film role as a true movie star) just adds to the cult mystique. Crawford plays Vienna, an aggressive woman with a past who runs the saloon in a windswept Arizona town. She's at odds with just about everyone in town, including Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna for being what she isn't -- a woman with a past.

In an article in the "Journal of Film and Video" (Spring-Fall 1995), Pamela Robertson describes the camp and feminist themes that infuse the film, "The first time we see Joan Crawford as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, she wears black jeans and a fitted black shirt, buttoned at the throat and laced up with a string-tie. Her hair is short and severe. Shot from below, the framing emphasizes her power. From a balcony above Vienna's gambling house and saloon, she barks orders to the men who work for her before she disappears into her boudoir at the top of the stairs.

"In case we didn't notice, Sam, one of the dealers, explains: 'I've never seen a woman who is more like a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes she makes me feel like I'm not.' "

The last movie that Republic Pictures filmed in TruColor, it is a lurid, color-saturated Western fantasy. It was an admired film of French director François Truffaut, who described it as, "The Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream." Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar pays homage to it in his film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

In 2008, this classic, camp, cult film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". (from Wikipedia). 

Just re-released on DVD, Denver Public Library caps their film series Westward the Women with this amazing film. Showtime: 6 p.m. on Tuesday, August 28.

More info and full Fresh City Life schedule here.

Watch some gorgeous clips from Johnny Guitar that includes the title song written and sung by Peggy Lee. It's a spectacular movie, hope to see you there.

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