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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Ray and Republic Play Johnny's Guitar --- Part One

There'd never been such a cracked western as Johnny Guitar when Republic got it out for Spring and summer 1954 dates. Was this another of that company's singing cowboys? One look at Nicholas Ray's finished merchandise disabused notions of Johnny's guitar being like ones Rex Allen lately plucked. Hadn't Republic closed B west accounts earlier that year with Allen's last ride, Phantom Stallion? From here forward theirs would be westerns with money, plus whatever genres could lift them to major studio category ... only it was late, as in too late, for reinventing Republic as a dealer off A-level decks, theirs a brand then and forevermore associated with what filled Saturday schedules.

Republic Moving On Up to "A's" For a 1954 Releasing Season
Johnny Guitar was a cult favorite almost from being new, first with Euro's embrace, then coming ashore later to dazzle Nicholas Ray's congregation (plain folks had liked it right off in first-runs ... this was Republic's big score for '54). Ray dropped around for latter-day screenings, brought to the pulpit slowly by admirers who finally satisfied him that JG was a great and highly personal work. Had boxoffice been sole criteria, Ray might have put Johnny among favorites from the start, but his directing experience by all accounts (including NR's own) was pretty miserable, so despite fan assurance, it was hard for him to look back upon anything other than disaster where Johnny Guitar was concerned.

Is it me, or does Joan Crawford look ready to spit in director Nick Ray's eye?
First and foremost this was a Joan Crawford western, a specimen not seen before (modern dress Montana Moon in 1930 didn't really qualify, and was forgotten besides). She was still a meaningful name and more so for recent Sudden Fear, a thriller hit Crawford produced and sold 'cross country like a demon. This star had plentiful juice left by 1953, when Johnny Guitar began shooting (October) and didn't shrink from exercising it. The feuds precipitated by, and inflicted upon, Crawford would be stuff of memoir/interview legend for decades to come. Even now, conflicts off Arizona location are aired by survivor Ernest Borginine, whose entertaining book of last year tattled on diva Joan and opponents long gone. 1953-54 press told of wells poisoned, for Crawford had gone to mats with co-stars Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and director Ray, with whom JC had been intimate (but no more!). Such heated gossip fanned interest and anticipation for what shaped to be a sexy western we'd not confuse with tame ones Republic had made prior.

This 1954 Ad Promises a "Panoramic Screen" Experience For JG Patrons
Studio is currently mulling whether or not it (Johnny Guitar) will be shot in wide-screen and color, said Variety's Inside Column in July 1953. Many films were tabbed for 1.85 projection by mid-'53, if not anamorphic lensing 20th Fox was soon to unveil, then license to rivals. Trade reviews indicated Johnny Guitar was a 1.66 ratio release, clearly a wider-than-high presentation, though videos, and even a Region 2 DVD introduced by Martin Scorsese (sourced from UCLA's restoration), are full-frame. I assume most audiences in 1954 received Johnny Guitar wide, evidently the way it was meant to be seen. Can anyone report on how JG is rendered for current archival screenings?

Trucolor was Republic's patented rainbow affect. Bosley Crowther's Johnny Guitar review said its hues were slightly awful. You could call Republic's the rope cigar of color processes, but the studio wasn't for enriching Technicolor's coffer when their own lab could get out something at least a tenth as good. Trucolor does suit overall weirdness of Johnny Guitar. Nicholas Ray would tell The Independent Film Journal, "I like Trucolor. It has tremendous clarity." That was in February 1954, months ahead of JG's May release, and perhaps an instance of Ray good-sporting for a next job. NR fell out soon enough with Republic over a full producer's credit he'd counted on. They drew a line at "Associate Producer," which Ray called a short-pants credit. Associate is an office boy equivalent, said the director, so rather than submit to it, he'd accept no producer credit at all.

Joan Crawford had a percentage of Sudden Fear and made a pot-full. For Johnny Guitar, she got straight salary at $200,000, reflection of juiced-up value in her name thanks to Fear's success. Despite not being in for a % this time, Crawford tub-thumped, gratis as Variety put it, on Johnny Guitar's behalf. Her swing was through Texas theatres, four city stops and mob scenes in all. JC's fan base was thicker than Lone Star cattle ... they'd amount to droves everywhere she went. Crawford's attention to club chapters made her following by far the most organized and loyal any star had. Receptions they'd arrange made personally-appearing Joan Crawford look like Cleopatra stepping off her barge.

Part Two of Johnny Guitar is HERE.


Anonymous Chris said...

Great post, John, and I'm looking forward to reading more about this movie and other Ray movies, nearly all of which I hold in extremely high regard. Along with this movie, BITTER VICTORY and LUSTY MEN are probably my favorites.

That picture of Crawford surrounded by her fans is priceless. THANK YOU.

10:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Your kind words much appreciated, Chris. I'd also mention here a fine new bio of Nicholas Ray by Patrick McGilligan. GPS highly recommends this one!

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I read the new bio of Ray and he seemed a very troubled guy from all accounts. I especially liked the chapters on his Samuel Bronston years.

As for JOHNNY GUITAR, my favorite review is in Truffaut's FILMS IN MY LIFE. I have read that he was so impressed with TruColor that he wanted to film FAHRENHEIT 451 in this process. This was nixed by Universal which had it own in house Technicolor facility. I would be interested to know what aspect ratio this was shown in. (Love that panoramic widescreen ad)

And finally---when are we to ever get a good dvd of this in the U.S? From what I understand Paramount now owns the Republic catalog and is not showing any interest in releasing it.

11:48 AM  
Blogger George Prepared said...

After years of running JOHNNY GUITAR at 1.37, a projectionist friend suggested it was actually intended 1.66. Tried that, and I definitely agreed once it hit the screen. In no way could it be cropped further, but 1.66 seemed to give it a very Ray-like composition even in the modest amount of width.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joan's legacy has endured--for all the wrong reasons, I'm afraid. Certainly, her dikey performance in JG made an otherwise weird movie even weirder. However, I rank "Torch Song" as possibly the most unintentionally horrific role of her career. When Joan's on-stage in blackface, I hide behind the couch and tremble.

3:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot, George. This was just the sort of info I was hoping someone could supply. Glad to hear that "Johnny Guitar" plays well in 1.66, making it Ray's first venture into wide (or at least wider)-screen filmmaking.

3:49 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, I agree with Jim Cobb! Where in the world is a DVD of "Johnny Guitar"? The film has NEVER been released to DVD (and I don't think it ever got released to laser-disc either!)If Paramount indeed owns it (and the Republic library) then "Johnny Guitar" and "The Quiet Man" (which looks absolutely AWFUL on DVD) need full restorations and releases.....


9:17 PM  
Blogger Arizona's Little Hollywood said...

Nice post, John. JOHNNY GUITAR was not shot in any type of authentic widescreen process. Beginning in 1953, Republic issued their features in a 35mm format it called Vast-Vision. Scenes and title cards were simply composed for a median aspect ratio of 1.66:1 to safely accommodate the image being cropped to fill screens of various sizes. By the way, it doesn't look like we'll be seeing a pristine copy of JOHNNY GUITAR on American DVD anytime soon. A Paramount official has told me that the studio struck new prints a couple of times over the past 10 years with less than perfect results. Apparently, the original elements they inherited from Republic's various owners are just not up to snuff. So barring a major (and expensive) reconstruction, the UCLA restoration may be the best version we'll ever have.

12:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for that information, Joe, especially Paramount's answer to why "Johnny Guitar" hasn't turned up in a first-quality DVD.

Your "Johnny Guitar" chapter in "Arizona's Little Hollywood" has the best coverage of the location filming I've ever read anywhere. Of course, that's only one part of a wonderful and lavishly illustrated book that I would strongly recommend to all GPS readers.

12:42 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I used to see this great film on Saturdays afternoons when a television station from Buenos Aires (LS84 TV Canal 11) would play a weekly marathon of action films, with THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, frequently turning up again every 15 days! (THE LONGEST DAY, would be repeated almost as much.)

The print has an adequate, but always unwelcome, dubbing from Mexico starting from the seventies on. But once it original English soundtrack became available, the film became a true pleasure to watch.

Although in Spain it was released with its original title, I prefer the one adopted in Argentina (and probably all of Latin America): MUJER PASIONAL, which can be translated as passionate woman.

Here are press clippings for its premiere in Spain (which compares it with COLT 45):

And here are posters from Argentina.

This one follows the standard ones:

But this one is the very best of all, a complete original:

1:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer checks in on "Johnny Guitar":

I love that expression of yours, "Trucolor, the rope cigar of color processes," though there was other "weed" being smoked then that was about as rough, like Cinecolor or Vitacolor. What's curious, though, is that the critics have found such thematic significance in Nick Ray's color schemes for Johnny Guitar without ever considering that it was photographed in Trucolor, when Trucolor lies. But what can you expect of the kind of western Tennessee Williams might have written, which is to say that it's peopled by characters such as never walked the earth or the heavens, speaking dialog riper than a two-week old banana. "Laugh, Vienna, and be happy. It's your wedding day!" shouts Sterling Hayden to Joan Crawford as a preface to getting out of Dodge or whatever the town's called. Vienna, Johnny Guitar, Emma Small--they're all strange, truncated metaphors, but stranger still is casting Scott Brady as something called "The Dancin' Kid." With his ferrel face and hulking physique, he could be many things, most of them depraved, but a Dancin' Kid? Not hardly. Emma, you can have him, if that's what you really want.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great post!

10:55 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Fred Allen once defined an Associate Producer as "the only one in Hollywood who was willing to associate with the producer."

12:27 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Jim Cobb: From what I understand, the Republic Pictures video rights are owned by Lionsgate, so it's them that you have to pester to get Johnny Guitar on DVD or Blu-Ray (or-even dare I hope for it-4K.)

3:12 PM  

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