The Best of Everything

Back to Johnny Guitar page


Johnny Dearest

from, October 2003

When Joan Crawford arrived in Sedona in fall 1953 to shoot her new movie, Johnny Guitar, she was one of the world's most glamorous stars. By the time she left, she had given her director morning sickness, littered Hwys 89A/179 with her costar's clothes, stolen dialogue written for her leading man — and, much to everyone's surprise, left us with the enduring work of art we celebrate on this golden anniversary.

Fifty years ago this month, a production crew from Hollywood set up in Sedona to begin shooting Johnny Guitar; 44 days later, they carried away the raw footage of a cowboy movie that eventually would be revered as a postwar cinematic masterpiece, a bold reflection on the darkening political storms of 1950s' America — but only after first being reviled, by critics and even more vehemently by its own stars, as a garish, talky, incomprehensible mistake.

The story of the Johnny Guitar company's visit to Sedona is as wild and wooly, as colorful and complicated, as the movie itself proved to be; the saga of this famously troubled production, played out in our hometown, is a real-life slice of local lore with juicy ingredients equal to the most over-the-top movie melodrama: raging divas, jealousy, anxiety, starstruck locals, rejection and, ultimately, redemption.

In the shadow of Coffee Pot Rock in West Sedona (then called Grasshopper Flats), Johnny Guitar's cast and crew assembled to begin work on Oct. 19, 1953. While their next six weeks in town would unfold into a steady stream of dramatic clashes, the project that brought them here was born from a series of business deals that could hardly have been cozier. Joan Crawford received the western novel by Roy Chanslor, a former newspaperman and "B" movie screenwriter (1943's Tarzan Triumphs), before its May 1953 publication and snapped up the film rights. She later resold the rights to Republic Pictures with the stipulation she would star in the movie. Johnny Guitar was thus delivered to Republic as a package deal by Lew Wasserman, the dictatorial president of MCA, which was then Hollywood's most powerful talent agency. MCA sewed up jobs for clients Crawford, Chanslor, director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan to make the project happen. (MCA would get even mightier by buying Universal Pictures in 1962; Wasserman's personal power eventually would reach all the way to the White House, as he was an instrumental behind-the-scenes force in the political rise of his former client Ronald Reagan.) Naturally, the agency collected a 10% commission at every turn for its efforts.

Crawford was the key to the whole deal. To audiences of the '50s, a movie was only as enticing as its star, and Johnny Guitar had one of the brightest. Today, most people think of Crawford as the notorious "Mommie Dearest," subject of the scandalous tell-all book written by her adopted daughter, Christina, in 1978. The memoir, turned into a campy 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway, chronicled the alleged terrors Crawford's children endured at the hands of a ruthless, alcoholic, child-abusing mother more concerned with her own fading career and love affairs than their well-being and happiness. These revelations (which have been disputed by two of Crawford's other adopted children) now overshadow the achievements of her career, which stretched from 1925 to 1972.

Such skeletons in the closet were inconceivable for moviegoers in a pre-TV era when Crawford was the very definition of a movie star: beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated. In the eyes of her public, she was a goddess; behind the scenes, she had a reputation as a driven, ambitious, perfectionist who was incredibly competitive. Paradoxically, she also could be warm and cordial — when she wanted to be.

Like all image-conscious movie queens then and now, she retained contractual control over how she would be photographed. Before Johnny Guitar's production began, she approved Oscar-winning director of photography Harry Stradling, cinematographer for classics such as Easter Parade in 1948 and 1964's My Fair Lady, in a contract rider dated Sept. 22, 1953 (see document at right). At the same time, she OK'd the use of Republic's own overwrought "Trucolor by Consolidated" as his film process, a decision that unwittingly stamped the movie with a surreally stylized oversaturation of color. Combined with its '50s-style art direction, it gives Johnny Guitar an intriguing, uniquely modern-looking "old West." Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (director of Dead Man, shot in Sedona in 1995) once called Johnny Guitar "the only western that looks like it was shot inside a '50s ski lodge."

The man who called the shots, director Nicholas Ray, had just completed seven years under contract to Howard Hughes' RKO Radio Pictures in 1953, and was searching for the creative freedom denied him while working for the eccentric billionaire. Ray had helmed a number of recent RKO hits, including Flying Leathernecks (1951) with John Wayne and The Lusty Men (1952) with Robert Mitchum. And Ray would spread his wings soon enough with his signature work, 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, the teen-angst drama that made a legend of James Dean.

Ray, who took no credit for it, cowrote the Johnny Guitar screenplay with Philip Yordan, whose career now sits under a bit of a cloud. During the McCarthy era, he worked as a "front," putting his name on scripts by writers who had been blacklisted as communist sympathizers; the basement of his Paris home was often filled with exiled writers working in cubicles, churning out "Yordan" screenplays. Because of this, questions about which films he actually wrote dog his legacy; listed among his credits are 1951's Detective Story with Kirk Douglas, and Houdini (1953) with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

There seems little doubt, however, that Yordan cowrote Johnny Guitar. He and Ray discarded novelist Chanslor's draft of the script, which was more of a straightforward cowboy movie. Chanslor would go on to write another western novel with a lead female character, Cat Ballou, which was made into a movie starring Jane Fonda in 1965.

In their rewrite, the duo turned Chanslor's story inside out, coaxing from it an ambiguous study of character, emotional repression and mob mentality wrapped in the holsters of a "B"-movie sagebrush saga. They labored on the script well into September 1953, and continued to tinker with it even during filming. At its simplest level, the story is about Vienna (Crawford), a saloon/gambling hall owner despised by the locals, who plans to build her own town once the railroad comes through. Vienna's lover, an outlaw known as the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), previously had spurned Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a venomous local cattle rancher. When the Dancin' Kid tries to rob the local bank before fleeing to California, Emma seizes the opportunity to get her revenge on both Vienna and the Kid. Meanwhile, Vienna's old flame, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), returns to protect her from the vengeful townspeople.

Ray assembled a first-class cast in Sedona to bring Johnny Guitar to life: McCambridge, the 1949 Oscar winner as best supporting actress for All The King's Men, perhaps best known today for providing the voice of the demon in The Exorcist in 1973; Hayden, tagged "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" by Paramount Pictures' publicity department, who was returning to Sedona for the second of three westerns he would ultimately film here; Ernest Borgnine, who would win the Oscar as best actor for Marty in 1955; character actor John Carradine, who would appear in almost 250 movies over half a century; and Ward Bond, longtime member of legendary western director John Ford's repertory company.

Republic Pictures, a small studio known for churning out low-cost westerns, serials and action movies, was probably the last place anyone in Hollywood would have expected to find all this high-powered talent. Republic was formed in 1935 when Herbert J. Yates' Consolidated Film Laboratories merged with Mascot Pictures and Monogram Pictures in an attempt to corner the market for "B" movies. Monogram soon pulled out of the deal, but Republic thrived anyway, quickly establishing itself as king of the low-budget studios.

Headquartered at the old Mack Sennett Keystone lot in Studio City, Calif. (renamed CBS Studio Center in 1963), Republic specialized in the crowd-pleasers it called "Jubilee Pictures," which were typically shot on a speedy seven-day schedule for an economical $30,000. But Republic also produced the occasional prestige film, which it released as "Premiere Pictures." Budgeted at $1 million and allowed an entire month to shoot, they were meant to give the studio a touch of class. Some of these "Premiere" productions are now considered classics, including Orson Welles' Macbeth (1950) and John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952). As for Johnny Guitar, it's been reported that studio chief Yates told Yordan his only concern was that Crawford, his high-priced star, the former Queen of MGM, "be happy during filming."

It was during pre-production that it was decided location shooting would take place in Sedona, most likely because Republic already had a permanent western street set at its disposal here, built in 1946 for John Wayne's Angel and the Badman. The principals moved into the old Cedar Hotel (now the Cedars Resort on 89A), while the rest of the cast and crew bunked at a converted CCC Camp, rechristened the Sedona Lodge, where the King's Ransom Inn now sits on Hwy 179.

All looked peachy to outsiders at the beginning, judging from a letter written by local resident Ruth Jordan, unearthed at the Sedona Heritage Museum, which provides one contemporary first-person account of how Joan Crawford handled herself in public during her time here. In Mrs. Jordan's view, Crawford became "a respected and beloved person in the little settlement of Sedona. For nearly a month she lived among us as neighbor and friend, talking with us, allowing her children to play with our local children — thus fitting herself and family into our community life.

"She came early in October so that she might have a few days vacation before starting work on Johnny Guitar. She did not permit a publicity manager to come, for during those days she only wanted to live a normal life — dress in jeans, go to the stores, do her own shopping, pick up the mail, and be friendly with everyone, as is her natural disposition."

Mrs. Jordan described a chance meeting between Crawford and a young local birthday girl. 'Here's something to start your bank account,' she said, handing the child a folded $20 bill, 'but I want to give you something personal, too,' she added as she took a small vial of green grass perfume from her purse."

Early in production, unit manager John Grubbs suffered a heart attack and was admitted to Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Cottonwood; Crawford apparently paid the expenses for her own doctor in Hollywood to come to Sedona to check on his condition. But her own blood pressure, and those of most everyone else around her, was soon about to rise.

When filming began, Crawford was the consummate professional; always punctual and cooperative, whether reading dialogue when she wasn't in a scene or taking her place so the crew could set up lighting. In a scene filmed on a frigid Sedona morning, Vienna and Johnny had to escape a pursuing posse by wading in Oak Creek. Rather than using stand-ins, Crawford and Hayden completely submerged themselves under the freezing water. After calling "cut," Ray thanked his stars by giving them each a bottle of brandy and sending them back to the hotel to dry off.

In her letter, Ruth Jordan describes this Oak Creek scene: "While coats were being put around her, several spectators asked for permission to take pictures, which was allowed, even though she was shaking with the cold, and her teeth were chattering. Then, as she struggled up the rocky hill to dry clothes and warmth, one visitor even stopped her and asked for and received her autograph. It is easy to understand why her double, Sylvia LaMarr, has stayed with her eleven years, and thinks the world of Joan Crawford."

But for all the good will Ruth Jordan saw, others stuck around to recount a less wholesome story. The next scene was of McCambridge forcefully addressing a posse; on the third take she gave an impassioned performance that drew loud applause from the director and crew. (Ray later described McCambridge's portrayal of the nasty Emma as the screen equivalent of "sulfuric acid.") Intently watching the proceedings from the top of the hill was a livid, trembling, competitive Crawford, who turned and stalked away. Ray later recalled, "I should have known some hell was going to break loose."

McCambridge was Ray's choice to play Emma, not Crawford's; she preferred Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Claire Trevor for the role. But Republic was already paying Crawford $200,000--a bankroll that could finance four "Jubilee" westerns — and couldn't justify another big salary.

Tensions between Crawford and McCambridge had been simmering almost since production began. In a curious twist on Johnny Guitar's fictional story, McCambridge had been teasing Crawford because she was married to a former boyfriend of Joan's and took every opportunity to remind her of that fact. At the same time, McCambridge had been infuriated by rumors that Crawford was having an affair with Ray, assuming this would earn her preferential screen treatment; curiously, Joan suspected that Ray was giving Mercedes extra coaching on her role behind her back, giving her costar a chance to upstage her. It probably didn't help matters that Crawford decreed McCambridge's hair had to be died jet-black to contrast with her own warm russet-brown.

The evening of the Oak Creek incident, Ray found his reeling star (Crawford biographer Bob Thomas wrote she had traveled to Sedona with 20 cases of vodka) at a gas station near their hotel, angrily yelling into the payphone. "Goddammit," she shrieked, "I want you to call the limousine service and have a limousine here for me first thing in the morning, get me out of here!" Ray also saw that Crawford had gone into the adjoining cabin at the Cedar where McCambridge was staying, removed her costumes and threw them all over the road. She eventually staggered back to the hotel and Ray quickly retrieved the strewn wardrobe.

The following morning, Ray switched cabins with McCambridge in a bid to separate the two actresses, but it didn't do much to cool down the situation; that afternoon Crawford demanded rewrites on the script, as well as five new scenes to beef up her part. Ray figured that making the changes Crawford had in mind would add about $600,000 to the film's budget; knowing full well that tight-fisted studio boss Herb Yates would hit the roof, Ray sent an urgent plea to Hollywood for help.

Scriptwriter Yordan was in Sedona the next day, having flown to Arizona with Joan's agent on a plane chartered by MCA chief Lew Wasserman. Crawford informed Yordan that Vienna was to be the lead role, and that she had a limousine ready to take her back to Los Angeles if she wasn't accommodated.

Yordan had been ordered by the studio to keep production going, so he agreed to Crawford's demands. Later, he went to Ray to report the outcome, reminding him that Wasserman would not stand for the movie to be canceled. So the script for Johnny Guitar was reworked to soothe Crawford's objections; much of the dialogue originally written for Sterling Hayden was given to her character; as a result, Vienna became more aggressive, while the Johnny Guitar character became softer and more ambivalent. The deal cost Republic $220,000 in added expenses.

Ironically, Crawford's power play would account for the film's most remarked upon characteristic: the kinky masculinity of the film's lead female characters and the passivity of its males.

The Johnny Guitar set remained tense. Seeking publicity for the film, studio press agents arranged for a reporter from The Arizona Republic to come to Sedona to interview Crawford. Strict guidelines were set for the article; only Joan's chosen photographer would be allowed to take her picture, and The Republic couldn't run any shots unless she approved them first.

When Maggie Wilson, the Republic's reporter, arrived on the set from Phoenix on the prearranged day, Crawford's staff informed the writer that their boss had changed her mind about being interviewed, but would do it the following Tuesday.

Wilson had other plans. Her story ran as scheduled on Oct. 23, under the headline "That Trip Necessary? We Ask After Seeing Joan At Sedona" and was a sarcastic recounting of the star's rude behavior. Wilson never spoke to Joan, so she simply wrote about the "diva" attitude she encountered on the set. "Another trip to Sedona to see Joan on Tuesday is about the most unnecessary thing anyone can think of," she declared.

"So we won't be writing about what a sweet and gracious person The Star really is once you get past that lineup of cigarette-lighterers, door-closers, car-drivers, etc., who run interference for her.

"The rest of the cast is simply Sterling (as in Hayden) and untoWard (as in Bond) and they were Up as in set about Joan's Up as in staging."

Crawford was reportedly furious when the article came out, suspecting McCambridge was involved because of the praise lavished on Hayden and Bond. To counter this negative publicity, the studio placed a display ad in the rival Phoenix Gazette on Oct. 27, which said in part:

"We have worked with this great lady [Crawford] in a wide variety of circumstances, in oftentimes difficult and exhausting situations, at all hours of the day and night, and in all kinds of weatherÖand we are prepared to testify that if there is a more co-operative, charming, talented, understanding, generous, unspoiled, thoughtful, approachable person in the motion picture business, we have not met him or her."

Meanwhile, the production continued around town; the hidden waterfall entrance to the gang's hideout was shot at a tunnel on 89A using water diverted from the Jordan farm's irrigation ditch on Oak Creek; the hideout itself was actually in West Sedona, with the two separate locations edited together to look seamless on screen. Location shooting ended with the burning of Vienna's Gambling Hall, which was built close to the south side of the Twin Buttes at Little Horse Park, about four miles from town. Ruth Jordan, who like most of Sedona's population, was present for that final evening's work, marveled at the scene, writing of "...the awe-inspiring sight of the rugged red butte illuminated by the powerful lights.

"The next hour was a very interesting one for spectators, and a very busy one for Miss Crawford. Once when the story called for a change of costume, she went quickly through the crowd expecting to find her car, but for some reason it wasn't parked in the usual place. She gave a quick glance around, but wasted no time in anger. She even missed a legitimate chance for a tantrum such as we have heard temperamental actresses are supposed to have, but with no ill-feeling, she gathered up that long full skirt with a hand at each side and started running down the trail without the benefit of even a flashlight. As she disappeared down the hill, it looked as though her hair-dresser and wardrobe lady were hard put to keep up with her. In nothing flat she was back on the set dressed in a red shirt and blue jeans."

With location work completed, the company of 95 people returned to Hollywood for interior scenes at the studio. Crawford literally moved in when two large dressing room suites were combined to make a deluxe apartment for her; assisted by her personal staff, she slept and took her meals there every night. She also demanded the soundstage be kept freezing cold, despite protests from her coworkers.

"I don't even know what Johnny Guitar was about, and making it was an extremely difficult time for me. I was at war with my then wife in the evenings and with Joan Crawford in the days. Joan was making hell for everyone on location, plus I was trying to play Johnny Guitar and I can't play guitar and I can't sing." — Sterling Hayden, in a 1984 interview

Crawford's wrath was not limited to McCambridge; she had Hayden's wife, Betty Ann, ejected from the set. Mrs. Hayden was later quoted as saying, "Joan Crawford hates all women, except those who can help her. If I ever see her again, I'll probably strike her in the face."

Word of the feuding started leaking to the press. According to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, after L.A. Daily News writer Erskine Johnson printed an item in his "Hollywood Diary" about the banishment of Mrs. Hayden, he received a late-night telephone call:

"Is this Erskine Johnson?" a woman's voice inquired.

"Yes, it is."

"This is Joan Crawford. You're a shit." She then hung up.

An article in the L.A. Herald Examiner quoted Crawford as saying of McCambridge: "I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw a battleship." McCambridge told the Hollywood Reporter's Mike Connelly, "Joan Crawford is a movie queen. I had never met one before. I know now what I don't want to be."

To what must have been everyone's relief, Johnny Guitar finally completed principal photography in mid-December 1953, after shooting lasted 10 more days than Republic had scheduled.

Johnny Guitar opened on May 27, 1954, to almost universally negative reviews. "It proves [Miss Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else," declared Variety. Yordan and Ray's script, it added, "becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle." The Hollywood Reporter described it "one of the most confused and garrulous outdoor films to hit the screen in some time."

Even so, Johnny Guitar did well at the American box office, but was soon forgotten. Not so in France, where the young critics of Cahiers du CinÈma (several of whom would go on to make some of the most honored films as part of the '60s "New Wave") hailed Johnny Guitar as a masterpiece. Francois Truffaut raved it was "...dream-like, magical, delirious...a Trucolor Western from humble Republic can throb with the passion of l'amour fou or whisper with an evening delicacy." Eric Rohmer proclaimed, "Ray is the poet of love and violence," and Jean-Luc Godard wrote, "there was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."

Over the years, American critical opinion of Johnny Guitar has changed its tune. Constantly revived at film festivals, it is studied in film schools, has fan clubs and a loyal international cult following, and is shown regularly in museum programs; a restored print even was given a weeklong theatrical in New York City in 2003.

With the passage of time, the spirit of acrimony in which it was created just adds color to the film's achievement. Of all the films made in Sedona, it may be the most revered by film historians.