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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Part Two --- Johnny Guitar

Co-stars of Johnny Guitar had to be separated for promoting gigs. As Crawford canvassed Texas, Mercedes McCambridge and Scott Brady made Broadway's Mayfair Theatre opening with Republic chief Herbert Yates. Decca Records threw them a cocktail party to stir embers for Peggy Lee's theme tune, and McCambridge/Brady judged a guitar strumming contest at Macy's. The pic was a surprise grosser even in this urban center. Reviews weren't helpful, but who needed them for a show like this? Something was in the air with Johnny Guitar, or maybe it was just the fact of fewer westerns among June '54's Top Ten to compete with it.

Herb Yates had wanted Johnny Guitar's cast to convene at his home for a live TV broadcast celebrating LA's opening, but that was like cats in a sack for angry barbs Crawford, Hayden, and McCambridge had been lobbing at one another. Crawford besides was forbidden by contract (so she said) to make vid appearances, owing to a net series that was imminent (didn't happen). The event was called on account of temperament.  Crawford meanwhile let off steam over an industry's indulgence of new generation stars and lack of discipline/decorum they showed. That last put Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe in crosshairs, among others. JC ridiculed what she called their whining to psychiatrists about childhood trauma, and revealed more about herself than was intended when she asked: Who grew up happy?

A nice aspect of Johnny Guitar was variety of ways you could merchandise it. Miami's Paramount Theatre was testing ground for which campaign clicked best. Approach "A" is the western action angle, reported Motion Picture Exhibitor, Miss Crawford as a glamour girl is played down, but she is sold as a gun-toting queen of a gambling house. The romance is played down also and the suspense and excitement angle are sold. The "B" side called for emphasis on Crawford in a daringly different role, and the impassioned romance is played up. To be soft-pedaled here was JC clad in black levis with guns and holster. Johnny Guitar had potential appeal to both sexes among ticket-buyers, and indeed broke out well beyond males that usually comprised greater support of westerns.

Action Man Nicholas Ray
 It was early enough in Nicholas Ray's career for the director to try on different labels. In Johnny Guitar's wake, he was dubbed a master of motion picture realism by The Independent Film Journal. Ray's fight scenes are considered some of the greatest in the history of the action motion picture, said an admiring trade. I don't like to use doubles, Ray remarked, I like to shoot close ... none of that "stagey look" others fell victim to. Was Nick trying to position himself as a next Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh? It wouldn't hurt to develop a rep for gunplay and slapping leather --- likely as not, Ray got his Run For Cover assignment based on promising vibes off Johnny Guitar.

June 1954 saw Johnny Guitar tucked among a nationwide Top Five, according to Variety's boxoffice survey. Republic was perhaps most surprised to see it capturing ... many smash to great playdates. In fact, JG was bettering biz done by The Quiet Man, Republic's till-then yardstick of sock receipts. Those Texas houses saw Johnny Guitar "running way ahead of "Quiet," according to the trade's round-up. Success in theatres would not be duplicated, however, come early 1958 and a combo of JG with The Quiet Man, both being prepped in any case for release to television that same year. Exhibitors were up in arms over Republic's wholesale dumping of post-48 features to the enemy tube. The company's deal with six NBC owned-and-operated stations called for 140 titles to be available for broadcast, Johnny Guitar making its vid premiere during May 1958 on New York City's affiliate.

Johnny Guitar Opens in L.A.
 ... with John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright
as a Co-Feature.
From here to cult immortality came courtesy Films, Inc. and other non-theatrical suppliers. The first of the baroque westerns, as Johnny Guitar was known at a peak of Nicholas Ray's auteur standing, could be rented in 16mm for between $35 and $115, depending on audience size and whether or not admissions were charged. A by-then down-on-luck Ray attended many of these college screenings and was initially nonplussed by youth's worship of a show he'd gone years disdaining, memories of cast feuding, Republic's interference, and their withholding of a producer's credit souring recollection of Johnny Guitar. Maybe it needed a new generation to reassure Ray that his creative instincts had been right after all.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer writes in with more on "Johnny Guitar" ...

One of the fascinating aspects of your site is how often you present some box office statistic which seems to belie whatever impression one might have had regarding a film's popularity. I would have thought that a film as weird and esoteric as Johnny Guitar could have appealed to a few critics, but would not have gone over all that well with the public. Instead, you've shown that just the opposite was the case, the critics being indifferent to it, by and large, while the public made it a substantial hit. As you pointed out, the timing of its release was crucial, there being no other big westerns out at the same time, while Joan Crawford's stardom probably made it seem more important than it would have been otherwise.

Today, its appeal is the reverse of what it was. To the public, it's another old film, but to film enthusiasts, it seems to presage the work of Quentin Tarrentino and others working today. To my mind, this reflects the essential decandence of their films, when morality and sentiment are as easily manipulated as sound and image, and to no better end than our supposed amusement. Death is a quip, tragedy a jest. Sterling Hayden's confession of love to Joan's Vienna would actually be rather affecting, as was David Carradine's for Uma Thurman's Bride in Kill Bill, save that, given the context, each is worthy only of a smirk.

8:28 AM  

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