Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.  In the film, Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, returned to this estranged lover Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, who owned a disreputable bar.  A stage robbery occurred in town, and a banker was killed.  The dead man’s sister Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, convinced a wealthy rancher John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, that the crime had been committed by the Dancin’ Kid, Corey ad Young Turkey, when they were innocent.  Small was jealous of the Dancin’ Kid’s attraction to Vienna.  The accused trio decided to rob a bank since they were being forced to flee the area anyway.  Small made the bank teller swear that Vienna was involved in the robbery.  In response, a posse rode to Vienna’s bar and burned it down.  The posse hanged the injured Turkey who was hiding there.  Eventually, the posse learned the truth about Emma and stood back while Emma and Vienna shoot it out.  Vienna killed Emma and rode off with Johnny.

The plot had all the elements of a standard western plot, even a final shootout, yet it can be read as a political film.  The outlaws can be seen as communists who were blamed for every wrongdoing in town.  Critic Michael Wilmington argued that former gun-man Johnny, represented an ex-Communist called before the HUAC.  Wilmington saw Vienna as a fellow traveller and Emma as a vindictive witness or a politician who used the investigations to destroy the careers of rivals.  McIvers represented big business or law enforcement authorities which, while basically good, had succumbed to the pressure of McCarthy’s tirades.  The townspeople were the American middle class.[1]

Lynching was a key theme in Johnny guitar. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wilmington’s argument can be taken further, Turkey was promised that he could be saved when he was caught by the posse if he would point an accusatory figure at Vienna.  For Ray and writer Yordan, this was the dilemma of the witnesses before the HUAC investigators.  The fact that he was hung was a reminder that informing did not guarantee survival.  Critic Danny Peary contended that Emma’s attack on Vienna was similar to the techniques used by McCarthyite investigators who assumed that social deviance of any kind was an indication of communism.[2]

The personal political viewpoints of the actors were also interesting. Ward Bond, who was one of the leaders of the lynching party, was President for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which helped HUAC weed out communists in Hollywood.  Sterling Hayden, who played Johnny Guitar, testified before the committee and regretted it all of his life.  Hayden wrote in his autobiography about his testimony that: ‘Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he despises.  I subscribed to a press clipping service.  They sent me two thousand clips from papers, east and west, large and small, and from dozens of magazines.  Most had nothing but praise for my on-shot stoolie.  Only a handful – led by the New York Times – denounced this abrogation of constitutional freedom.’[3]  This casting may have been deliberate or accidental.  Yet the end result was to have actual participants acting out their roles in a political allegory.

Ina Lonely Place, also directed by Ray, did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Apart from Johnny Guitar, Ray had already attacked the investigations in In A Lonely Place (1950).  James W. Palmer, writes about in  ‘In a Lonely Place: Paranoia in the Dream Factory’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, 1985, No. 3, pp. 202 – 210.  The film did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.  The film focused on a writer Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, who had been rejected by the Hollywood community.  Since returning from the war, he had been unable to write and his drinking and aggressive behavior had led to him become an isolated figure in the Hollywood community.  At the beginning of the film, he invited a hatcheck girl back to his apartment for her to tell him the story of a book which he might turn into a movie.  Dixon sent the woman home and the next morning, her body was found brutally murdered.  Steele was considered to be a prime suspect by the police.  After being questioned and then released by the police, Steele was further isolated by the Hollywood community who saw him as guilty.  Bu the end of the film, Steele, who was a violent man, became a borderline psychotic.  After succumbing to the pressure, he attacked his fiancé and his life was ruined, even though he was eventually cleared of the murder charge.  Steele with his persecutions and paranoia can be read as a symbol of the Hollywood Ten.

This group were a part of the Hollywood community until accused of the ‘crime’ of communism.  Eventually they were abandoned by the community to their own fate.  Film critic James W. Palmer noted that everybody in the film was guilty of not supporting people in need.  He wrote that the real crime was the undermining of human trust through a process of social exclusion.

Ray’s allegorical attack against HUAC in Johnny Guitar probably would have gone over the heads of its audience of the time.  No evidence exists in any reviews of Johnny Guitar that anyone considered it anymore than an interesting western with strong performances from both Crawford and McCambridge.  Indeed Nora Sayre in her survey of cold war films, mentions it only in passing as a light entertainment.[4]  A member of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr. had never heard of the film,[5] although Ray has insisted that contemporary audience got the message about the lynching party being a McCarthyite investigation.[6]

Previous version of this blog at:

https://kevinbrianton.com/westerns-huac-johnny-guitar-1954/


[1] Michael Wilmington, ‘Johnny Guitar’ Velvet Light Trap Spring 1974 in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, pp. 171-172.

[2] Ibid, p. 172.

[3] Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, Knopf, New York, 1973, p. 366

[4] Nora Saryre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, p. 173.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at a Public Seminar of the Australian Film Institute on 6 March 1991. (Notes taken by author).

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’, Take One, Vol 5, No. 6, (January) p. 11.

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