Of Stamps and Stars

The US Post Office is an embarrassment of riches these days. Edgar Allen Poe (finally, a genre writer gets respect!) and the next in the classic actor series (subtitled “Turner Classic Movies–the Reason I Subscribe to Cable”). I rushed right out and bought my Bette Davis stamp. The one sheet is young Bette from Jezebel, the stamp itself the more mature Bette as Margo Channing (arguably her greatest role).

Thinking about Bette, of course, made me think about Joan Crawford. The two were serious rivals, on and off the screen. Both superb actresses–though, in my opinion, Joan was the more naturalistic of the two, more suited to film, and far less mannered. I like both. You can, you know … this isn’t a “John or Paul” kind of thing.

Anyway, in the few minutes I carve out every week for thinking about absolutely nothing important (crucial for a writer–it’s like clearing the cache on your browser), it occurred to me that Joan will probably never get a stamp. And that’s tragic. If Bette gets one, Joan should get one, Mommie Dearest be damned. The world needs to get over Faye Dunaway’s wire hangers.

Case in point … a bizarre film called Johnny Guitar (1954). Two fifths western, one fifth Douglas Sirk melodrama, and two fifths noir, it’s what’s known as a camp classic, but deserves to be taken seriously. Hey, anything directed by Nicholas Ray, the man who gave us one of the greatest noirs of all time–In a Lonely Place–and helped define the genre with They Live by Night–and was married to the indisputable Queen of Noir, Gloria Grahame–well, let’s just say he’s the Black Amex of noir cred.

Gender is the main theme of Johnny Guitar, though apparently Ray was also trying to create a metaphor for the lynch mob mentality of the Witch Hunt (best evoked in the noir film The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me). The final shoot-out–and really, all the enmity in the movie–is between two women, the saloon-owning bad girl with the heart of gold, Vienna, who only wants to hold on to her palace long enough for the railroad to come through and make her rich (so she can forget all the men she had to bed in order to pay for the building) — and Emma Small, played with demonic glee by Mercedes McCambridge (best known for voicing Satan in The Exorcist).

Joan wears pants and guns and early on is described by one of her male hirelings (and this was before The Catwoman and her male hirelings on Batman) as making him feel like she was more of a man than he was, or words to that effect. But when former gunslinger/lover and now musician, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) shows up, flames rekindle, and Joan starts wearing dresses … at least until she has to face down Mercedes, who is out to string her up.

There are some juicy lines in this amazing mish-mash … when Emma leads a gang of men (including the usually virile Ward Bond), trying to get them to attack Vienna, Joan faces them down on a stairway … just her and a revolver.
Emma (shrill): “You’re nothing but a railroad tramp! … You can’t kill us all.”
Vienna (Crawford raises an eyebrow, smirks as her lips turn downward): “Two will do.”

Mercedes is waaay over the top here, and leaves no doubt as to the sexual basis of her animosity. Whenever she gets a chance to do Joan wrong, she gets as orgasmic as it was possible to be in 1954. The script suggests that it is jealousy over a rather lacklustre ne’er do well, named the Dancing Kid (yeah, no one had real names in the Wild West), who’s got the hots for Vienna and not the shrimpy Emma Small.

But really … everything about her performance and the film suggests that it is Vienna she loves/hates, not the Dancing Kid. And interestingly, Mercedes went on to co-star in Giant, where she played Luz, a decidedly epicene character (Adarene Clinch: Why Luz, everybody in this county knows you’d rather herd cattle than make love. Luz: Well, there’s one thing you got to say for cattle… boy, you put your brand on one of them, you’re gonna know where it’s at!), and later gave a memorable turn as another androgynous threat to womenkind in Touch of Evil, where she menaces Janet Leigh.

I’m sure there have been dissertations written about Johnny Guitar, but above all, it’s entertainment … with John Carradine and Ernest Borgnine in memorable roles, what’s not to like? And though apparently Joan was going through rough times when she made this movie–and literally fought with Mercedes behind the scenes–her performance in this, one of the strangest films of a strange decade, is but one example of why she should get her own stamp.

Hey USPS … you listening?

I’m getting ready for the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book at the end of the month … but will be back next week with more noir … in between deadlines. 🙂