Johnny Guitar

johnny guitar joan crawford

For this week’s film, it seems like I am focusing on the wrong gender; for clearly, it is the women of Johnny Guitar who take center stage (making the title and its male hero-focus somewhat ironic), with no little thanks to the mercurial Joan Crawford, who had the script and her character radically altered (and whose own star image and reputation make this film very interesting), and to the absolutely diabolical Emma, played by Mercedes McCambridge.

However, the men have their interesting points too, though what remains most exciting to me is the way in which the women, the female characters, take on and act out the traditional iconography, dialogue, and exchanges expected of a Western: the stand-offs, the shoot-outs, the white- and black-dressed confrontation between the diametrically opposed Good versus Bad.  It is Emma who seeks revenge and personal gain, who rallies up the mob and literally leads the posse, who even has to whip the horse to hang Emma when all the men bow out around her.

And in one last comment about the women of Johnny Guitar, which will serve as a nice segue into masculinity, I want to look at Vienna’s devolution into wife from sexually-free, independent, man-paying and –controlling boss of her own saloon and house (which would normally be owned by a man), once Johnny comes back into the picture.  She is all too eager to build a conventional life with him and to let him save her; she even changes from wearing the literal pants to wearing a long, lady-like skirt and more feminine necktie after her “wedding night” romance with Johnny.  This scene is incredibly interesting, for it utilizes the Ray theme of enacting (fictional) roles so as to appear like “normal” American families or so as to embody “normal” relationships, like Jim and Judy and Plato playing House in Rebel.  Here, the play-acting viscerally outlines the fiction inherent in (cinematic) romances, the role and personality demanded of both the man and the woman if they are to be united into that all-desirable couple: The man just has to have his pride, as Vienna says in her condemnation of the drinking, whoring, violent male types who dominate Westerns (and much of Hollywood cinema in general); the man just has to care about the purity of his woman (which somehow becomes a reflection of him) and the woman has to remain sexually pure while waiting for her man, end of story.  Of course, neither Johnny nor Vienna have upheld the required fictions, and so they cannot reunite on a more even, a more realist, a new common ground after their five year separation, a common ground which incorporates and recognizes the struggles each have gone through in those five years, the people they have become because of their break up.  Instead, they must “lie” as Johnny as Vienna to do to him; they must dream into reality a future for themselves, a scenario for their romance which they act out in fantasy, with Vienna’s final cries of “I waited for you” ringing with her desperation for them to be true before she “weds” Johnny and seals the dream with a honeymoon-starting kiss in her own saloon which has magically been renamed and thus transformed into the hotel of their past romance.

Ultimately, this is a particularly disappointing progression for Vienna because of the way she was characterized as masculine, strong, and independent in the beginning of the film, in the way that she, more than any of the men around (below, underneath) her, embodied many of the Western values of masculinity.  She stood in the apex of her home, framed by the roof’s Heaven-reaching peak, a God in her own dominion, lording over all she had built, over the men working for her (including Johnny), and the men who come to enjoy her establishment.  Though her miniscule feminine waistline is accented by the slantedly-slung belt of her holster, it is immediately apparent that she is wearing pants and that all-important phallic symbol of masculine, patriarchal authority, the gun.  She orders one man to light a lantern and another to spin the roulette wheel, despite the absolute lack of customers, just because she “likes to hear it spin.”  This is her world, and she is master (or mistress) of it.  Indeed, the film makes this masculine characterization and its impression on these men quite plain: one employee explains to the newly-arrived Johnny Guitar, though he addresses us, the spectators, through a direct gaze into the camera as he talks, that he’s “never seen a woman who was more of a man; she looks like one, talks like one, more than me.”  Of course also referencing Crawford’s own rather “masculine” star text, this overt characterization shows not only the particular notions of masculinity in Johnny Guitar generally, but also those circulating around and within the Western genre as a whole tradition, which the film is directly acknowledging, playing with, and somewhat deconstructing, especially in filling such traditionally-male roles with women.

Finally, I would like to point out that it is not necessarily anti-feminist to have your main female (masculine, independent) character get married or to form a couple, especially if the man and the woman can come together on somewhat equal footing, which Johnny Guitar strives towards; yet it ultimately fails at this, and returns the power and prowess of traditional norms of heroic, active masculinity (as epitomized especially in the Western genre and ideal) to Johnny, the man and now pseudo-husband.  Though it is indeed Vienna who fatally shoots Emma, that does not seem to redeem her much, for Johnny is still there trying to save her, as he did from the hanging, and because, as Emma’s partner McIvers says, “its been their fight all along,” referring to the two women, the fight which all the men have been co-opted and dragged into.  But coupled with Vienna’s willing, sacrificial, passive yielding to Turkey’s incrimination of her and to the mob’s noose, Vienna returns to the role of cared-for woman that the Western has been known for: the triumphant couple kiss under the waterfall, and the final song’s lyrics play over their dual image and undo much of the agency she might have shown in this final shoot-out (especially considering Vienna was always anti-gun and anti-killing): “There was never a man like my Johnny, the man they call Johnny Guitar.”  These lyrics might be left over from the original man-privileging story line, and yet now, given the focus on Crawford/Vienna and the fact that it really is the story of a fight/struggle between two women, these final words reflexively and ironically comment on the legend of the male gunslinger which persists and which is traditionally formed (like around Jesse James and Ray’s gangster characters like Bowie and Keechie) in light of this female-centered action.


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