Ann Crumb and Judy McLane inJohnny Guitar(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ann Crumb and Judy McLane in
Johnny Guitar
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Johnny Guitar is Nicholas Ray's stately-paced, low-budget western in which the square-jawed, square-shouldered Joan Crawford and the square-tongued Mercedes McCambridge square off for control of a small corner of Southwest territory that's about to be crossed by a railroad in what's shaping up as New Mexico. Cineastes who hash these things out might view the cult fave as one of those pre-feminist documents that set in motion femme-dominated works leading to today's Kill Bill strain of male-pandering chick flicks.

Now, composer-lyricist-director Joel Higgins, co-composer Martin Silvestri, and librettist Nicholas van Hoogstraten have had some fun in camping up the old Republic oater, which was soberly committed to celluloid in 1954. (Or was Ray's tongue embedded somewhere in his cheek during the filming?) The creators have noticed that Crawford, playing a pants-wearing woman, and McCambridge, playing a man-hungry repressed lesbian (!), might be good for a few hearty yocks. And, since the movie was a horse opera, why not add songs and high-style swagger?

Why not, indeed? They've corralled Judy McLane to walk the stiff Crawford walk as upright saloon owner Vienna and to sing some Patsy Cline-like ditties in a Patsy Cline-like manner, with an emphasis on the first syllable in "manner." They've teamed McLane with Ann Crumb as Emma, who licks her chops over anything in trousers -- and that includes McLane, of course. They've brought in Steve Blanchard for the eponymous Sterling Hayden role of a man who got away from the clench-jawed Vienna once but comes back for more. The men behind the adaptation have given the three main wranglers -- and the rest of the versatile cast, which boasts Robert (Jekyll & Hyde) Evan as the Dancin' Kid -- a large percentage of the lines in the original script, and Kaye Voyce has garbed the players in clothes closely approximating the wardrobe that Sheila O'Brien designed for the film.

Some of the lines written by Philip Yordan for the film are humdingers and need only slightly different inflections to serve as knee-slappers. "How many men have you forgotten," Johnny asks Vienna; not skipping a beat, she replies, "As many women as you've remembered." Jason Edwards as Eddie, one of Vienna's loyal employees, says, "Never seen a woman who was more like a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not one." Oh yes, film fans; screenwriter Yordan, working from Roy Chanslor's 1952 novel, bent gender until it cried "uncle!" Director Higgins and bookwriter Van Hoogstraten have mimicked his understated style and go a step further in reversing traditional roles when they have Johnny prepare a breakfast that the reunited lovers share just before the final Vienna-Emma shootout. (In the movie, it's Vienna who scrambles the eggs and puts the shells in the weathered coffee pot for better brewing.)

Throughout the musicalization, there are numerous amusing touches. Backup singers (cow)poke their heads into scenes when they're not expected. A musical motif is inserted whenever the name "Johnny Guitar" is mentioned, and there's a funny gag when the guitarist in the onstage band eventually misses a cue. (This picks up directly from the movie and makes a mockery of the conceit.) The melodramatic emoting of the cast reaches its peak when leading man Blanchard goes for broke and rips his shirt open in a ditty titled "Tell Me a Lie." It's also a kick when McLane, gowned and wigged like a cabaret chanteuse, sings the show's panting title tune. (Victor Young, who wrote the film score, penned the song with Peggy Lee, who murmurs it over the movie's final credits.)

Yet this Johnny Guitar is only intermittently funny. The creators miss as many opportunities as they grab, if not more. The trouble begins with McLane's performance, which catches some of the Crawford mannerisms but doesn't go as far as, say, Carol Burnett did with her achingly funny Mildred Pierce send-up, Mildred Fierce. Voyce could have done more with the costumes as well; when Vienna goes all demure for a finishing-school-lady-at-her-pianoforte scene, there's a chance for a truly overdone frock, but that chance is passed up.

Judy McLane and Steve Blanchardin Johnny Guitar(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Judy McLane and Steve Blanchard
in Johnny Guitar
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
One of the crucial plot turns in the scenario is Johnny's rescue of Vienna when Emma has contrived a hanging. As van Hoogstraten writes it, Johnny fires a shot at the fatal rope from off-stage. Since this is Johnny's most daring act on Vienna's behalf, it seems as if he should be seen in stealthy motion. And what about Evan as the Dancin' Kid? Challenged early on to demonstrate how the ornery galoot came by his sobriquet, the Kid does a few awkward steps; in a musical spoof such as this, a rib-tickling dance sequence is clearly called for. (The movie has Scott Brady hauling Mercedes McCambridge around the floor in a gawky waltz; why wasn't that sequence lifted and exaggerated?)

Later, Silvestri and Higgins slip past an obvious duet for Johnny and the Dancin' Kid, who are both supposedly competing for Vienna's firm hand. The unnoticed cue comes around the time when Johnny utters the deathless line, "I never shake hands with a left-handed draw." Maybe it's not a reviewer's job to say what authors should have done, but when so much comic potential goes unexploited, it's difficult to keep quiet.

Acting this tall-in-the-saddle tale, McLane, Crumb, Blanchard, and Evan are swell but for the scanted possibilities cited above. Also contributing droll characterizations in several capacities are Ed Sala, Robb Sapp, Jason Edwards, and David Sinkus; under Ed McCarthy's lights and surrounded by Laura Grace Brown's big sound, these men are up to the thumbs-hooked-in-pocket duties required. Also in the production's plus column is Van Santvoord's set, which cutely reduces the saloon, mountain-range, cabin and wide-open spaces that cinematographer Harry Stradling shot for the film.

Incidentally, Mercedes McCambridge died in the La Jolla area of San Diego on March 2. There's no truth to the rumor -- started here, just now -- that the natural causes to which her death were attributed involved news of this production. On the contrary, the no-nonsense woman who called Crawford "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady" in her memoirs might have found this cheeky enterprise a hoot.