The Real-Life Feud That Gave Joan Crawford's Johnny Guitar A Vicious Edge

While he may not be as well-known today as Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, director Nicholas Ray had a fantastic run during the '50s working across a range of genres from film noir ("In a Lonely Place") to war saga ("Flying Leathernecks"), coming-of-age teen angst ("Rebel Without a Cause") to westerns, the strangest of which is undoubtedly "Johnny Guitar." Shot in gaudy Trucolor, it stands apart from other studio westerns of the day, maybe because it isn't really a western at all — It's more like a twisted gothic psychodrama that just happens to be set in the Old West.

Although the title refers to Sterling Hayden's nonchalant protagonist, Mr. Guitar takes a back seat for much of the movie, just one of many of Ray's subversive twists to the standard western formula. Instead, the main focus is the bitter rivalry between Vienna (Joan Crawford), a steely saloon keeper, and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) a malicious busybody who just wants to run her out of town.

"Johnny Guitar" is a gripping series of escalating confrontations, pitting the formidable Crawford against the redoubtable McCambridge, both Oscar winners in the '40s. Towards the end comes a chilling study in hatred from the latter: As Emma watches Vienna's livelihood go up in flames, she turns to the camera quivering with an expression of spiteful glee. McCambridge was a terrific actor, so it might just be a great performance; but when you take into consideration the real-life enmity between her and Crawford, you get the sense that a little of that reaction might have been completely genuine.

So what happens in Johnny Guitar again?

Johnny Guitar (Hayden) arrives at a newly built saloon on the promise of a job from his old flame, Vienna (Crawford). Vienna's place is deserted, but she is ahead of the curve; she built the joint in the knowledge that the railroad will arrive soon, placing a new boomtown right on her doorstep. This doesn't go down well with the townsfolk of nearby Red Butte, practically owned by wealthy cattle rancher McIvers (Ward Bond), and her most vocal opponent, Emma Small (McCambridge).

When Emma's brother is killed during a stagecoach hold-up, she is quick to blame the roguish Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a former lover of Vienna's who Emma holds a begrudging candle for. Vienna refuses to give the Kid and his gang over to McIvers' posse, but the rancher gives them all 24 hours to get out of town or hang. Vienna, who is waiting for her fortune to come by on rolling stock, has no intention of going anywhere.

Things escalate when the Dancin' Kid, angry about being accused of the stagecoach incident, robs the town bank to fund his getaway. Vienna is once again caught in the middle, but this time, Emma, McIvers, and the mob are in a murderous mood.

"Johnny Guitar" was not a success at first; Martin Scorsese argued that American audiences "didn't know what to make of it, so they ignored it or simply laughed at it." Released during the paranoid era of Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunts that resulted in many Hollywood figures being blacklisted during the second Red Scare, Ray's film was an indictment of persecution and lynch mob mentality, as well as thrumming with Freudian subtexts. To top it all off, you had the one-megaton clash of personalities between its two stars.

Joan Crawford's talent for trouble

Joan Crawford has one of the toughest reputations in Hollywood's Golden Age. Raised in poverty, she muscled her way to stardom by any means necessary, starting out as a dancer and chorus girl in the '20s before becoming a leading lady to rival Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Jean Harlow in the '30s.

She went through four husbands and several high-profile affairs, developing a ruthless attitude towards her perceived rivals on her way to the top. Her long-standing feud with Bette Davis began in 1933 when Crawford scuppered Davis' publicity campaign for her first starring role by announcing her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. the same day (via Harper's Bazaar). Years later, she jealously trashed Marilyn Monroe's dress sense as the future superstar received an outstanding newcomer award (via Private Lives):

"Those of us in the industry were horrified at Marilyn's display. It was like a burlesque show. The audience yelled and shouted and Jerry Lewis, the funny guy, got up on a table and whistled. I shuddered."

Crawford's reputation as a mean-spirited diva didn't get any better by the publication of "Mommie Dearest" by her adopted daughter Christine, posthumously portraying the actor as an abusive alcoholic. Further damage came with Faye Dunaway's unhinged performance in the film adaptation

Crawford's multiple controversies and monstrous behavior often tarnished her legacy, but when you look back at some of her best performances, you can see how she poured every drop of her grim determination into stamping her authority on the screen. Standing just five feet three inches, she seems to tower over everyone in "Johnny Guitar;" everyone apart from Mercedes McCambridge, that is.

Crawford vs McCambridge

If Joan Crawford's fearsome reputation was long established before "Johnny Guitar" began filming, Mercedes McCambridge was also developing her own standing as a strong-willed character both onscreen and off. The beef between the two began when it was revealed that Crawford had once dated McCambridge's husband, causing jealousy on McCambridge's part.

The envy was reciprocated when Crawford felt that McCambridge was getting more praise and attention from director Ray. In classic Hollywood diva style, she responded by throwing all McCambridge's clothes and costumes onto a nearby highway. The feud probably wasn't helped by the fact both women were heavy drinkers, and McCambridge later referred to Crawford as co-star "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady." She also claimed that her career suffered after the film due to Crawford's attempts to get her blacklisted and stated (via Private Lives):

"I am ashamed of myself because I have lacked the courage to tell the world what Joan Crawford really is, what she does to people in the studios. But she destroys those who oppose her."

McCambridge wasn't the only cast member to have difficulties with Crawford. Sterling Hayden wryly joked:

 "There isn't enough money in Hollywood to make me work with Joan Crawford again. And I like money."

All this animosity certainly benefited the film. It was rare for a western in those days to focus on two powerful women who left the guys standing on the sidelines, and the bitterness between Crawford and McCambridge radiates from the screen. They only have a few scenes together, but their malign chemistry dominates the whole film, culminating at that moment when Emma turns away from Vienna's burning saloon with a look of sheer malicious delight. It's almost as if McCambridge herself had dealt a decisive blow against her hated co-star.