This campy 1950s Western is one of the great historical examples of queer coding

Joan Crawford in a scene from "Johnny Guitar."
Joan Crawford in a scene from "Johnny Guitar." Photo: Screenshot

There’s nothing quite like Johnny Guitar. Its tone is feverish, delirious. It subverts conventions of Westerns at every turn and has plenty of ambiguity that makes it more aligned with contemporary cinema than the 1950s (specifically 1954, when the film was released). 

One of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Joan Crawford, was attached to star—in fact, she had purchased the rights to the original novel in hopes to help revive her ailing career.

Crawford, however, hated the initial script and threatened to walk, which would have tanked Republic Pictures. She demanded her character Vienna became a great deal more prominent, which turned out to be a brilliant choice. Crawford, always a commanding actress, is absolutely sublime as a vengeful saloon owner. 

Co-stars Mercedes McCambridge and Crawford allegedly despised each other and were both apparently struggling with alcoholism, often showing up to work drunk, which certainly added to the fury of their performances. Simply put, you could easily have a sequel to the Ryan Murphy series Feud and have it take place on the set of Johnny Guitar

But Johnny Guitar was mostly met with head-scratching and laughter from American audiences, who were expecting a Western and were baffled by what they witnessed. European audiences, particularly in France, adored the film, which has helped shape its modern perception as a masterpiece. 

What makes the film so special these days is the riches it unveils when looking at it through a queer lens. In short, Johnny Guitar is a fascinating example of queer coding. Queer coding is exactly what it sounds like: subtextually coding a character to make them queer and to avoid outwardly saying the character is anything but heterosexual. 

Queer characters were more commonplace than you may think in early Hollywood cinema—and in Europe, they were further ahead of the curve. Germany’s Mädchen in Uniform sensitively portrayed a lesbian relationship in 1931, while Michael (also German) explores a painter’s obsession with his male model in 1924. 

In America, queer characters existed, but were often overtly derogatory, playing up every stereotype in the book. There were exceptions: Films like Queen Christina featured a romantic kiss between two women in 1933.

Considering that, it should be no surprise that Hollywood, fueled by moral outrage, developed the Hays Code in 1934. It was an enormous shift for American movies, taking the free-wheeling, anything goes movies of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s and regulating them to a remarkable degree. 

The code prohibited things like profanity, nudity, and graphic violence, and it outlawed “perverse” subjects like—gasp!—homosexuality. There were, of course, ways to circumvent such draconian restrictions.

Queer coding was one of the most effective, and filmmakers would do whatever was necessary to suggest their characters were queer, rather than state it explicitly, as those films never would have made it through censorship otherwise.

This brings us back to Johnny Guitar

The film, directed with gusto by the tremendous Nicholas Ray, follows a fiery, strong-willed saloon owner named Vienna (Joan Crawford). Her saloon is home to some of the region’s unfriendliest fellows, including the notorious Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his fellow gang members.

After a heist ends with somebody dead, the townsfolk, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) come to take down the gang and Vienna with them—even though there isn’t a shred of evidence. 

Honestly, the plot doesn’t really matter much. It’s largely ridiculous. The film mostly focuses on the relationship between Vienna and Emma, two women that despise each other. While the film suggests this hatred stems from power struggles and Emma’s desire to prevent the change that Vienna represents, the subtext suggests something very different: these two women greatly desire one another. 

Emma and Vienna’s first encounter in Johnny Guitar is rife with sexual tension. Emma and the townspeople storm through Vienna’s saloon. Vienna stands at the top of the stairs, the camera practically bowing down at her, exalting her power. The men carry in the body of the man who died in the robbery—Emma’s brother. Looking up at Vienna, eyes burning, Emma shouts “Take a good look, Vienna.” But from the searing eye contact and passionate delivery, it feels like Emma is asking – no, pleading – for Vienna to look at her instead.

The fact that Emma doesn’t take her eyes off of Vienna (except to shout down men, immediately returning her glance after) throughout the entire scene says a lot. 

The pair continue to jostle and hurl insults at one another. At one point, Emma demands everyone look up at Vienna (so they can see what she sees?), and then shouts that the men drag her down to their level. Perhaps Emma wants to slap Vienna, or claw her eyes out, or shoot her dead on the spot.

That’s what the dialogue would have you believe, but that endless eye contact and derision towards all the men around her suggests something very different indeed: Emma is madly in love with Vienna, and she hates herself for it.

Both Emma and Vienna have purported lovers in the film, though they feel established to serve the exact opposite idea—that neither woman has much of an interest in men.

That’s especially true of Emma, who virulently denies any such attraction to the Dancin’ Kid. Vienna implies she’s in love with him, but she quickly rejects it: “I wouldn’t spit on him,” she says. At the end of the scene, Vienna finally descends the stairs. Emma, mere inches away from Vienna’s face, lustfully claims “I’m going to kill you.” “I know,” responds Vienna, “If I don’t kill you first.”

In every scene Emma and Vienna are in together, they can hardly look away from each other. Every ounce of sexual tension lies between the two of them, men be damned. Their fervent determination to kill one another stems not from a genuine desire to see the other dead, but a furious denial of their innermost truth. Coming out in 1954 was incredibly difficult, but decades before, when Johnny Guitar was set, it was damn near impossible.

Conversely, Vienna’s great love is apparently Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) himself. While Emma is coded as a lesbian, Vienna’s coding suggests she’s bisexual. She does admit to having feelings for Johnny, and the pair kiss a number of times. He’s returned after five years—the last time he saw Vienna. He presses her about how many men she’s been with during their time apart, and Vienna slyly responds “Enough.” Whether that’s a complete dismissal of his question or an admission is entirely open to interpretation. 

Vienna covets masculinity and the idea of being a man. At one point, she says this directly to Johnny: “All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. It must be nice to be a man.” 

For someone else, that could be a throwaway line, but Crawford imbibes the line with such longing it’s clear that Vienna isn’t entirely satisfied with her life. Her masculinity is even clear to others; a bartender tells Johnny, “I’ve never met a woman who was more man.”

In the initial confrontation between Emma and Vienna, even Johnny himself seems to realize that perhaps the ship has sailed when it comes to his romance with Vienna. After getting a cigarette and a coffee in the saloon, he remarks “When you boil it all down what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.” Surely most heterosexual men would desire a lover too, but Johnny seems to understand from watching the two women stare at each other that there’s no real place for them in this love story.

Repressed queer desire is nothing new, but Johnny Guitar gives it thrilling life through its operatic, colorful Western. This attempt to hide openly queer desire even manifests itself in the film’s setting; the only way Emma and the men can get to Vienna and the gang once they’ve taken off is through a fabulous waterfall. How delightfully camp. To even get to the waterfall, they travel through various tunnels and other diversions, a symbol for the challenges of coming out as queer if there ever was one.

Johnny Guitar joyously toys with gender expectations, especially through costuming. Both Vienna and Emma dress in more masculine attire, preferring trousers over frilly dresses and sensible shirts adorned with bows that effectively mirror the ties the men wear.

In fact, the one time Crawford’s character wears a dress (a glorious white gown), she’s nearly killed. It’s a not-so-subtle suggestion that in order for Vienna to thrive, she’s best off in the masculine clothes she feels most herself in. She also practically performs a piano recital in the gown, for seemingly no other reason than the sheer flamboyancy of it all, further evidence that queer coding is rife in the film.

Johnny Guitar is many things: a thrilling Western, a sensational showcase of two phenomenal actresses at the peak of their abilities, and a film that challenges conventions at every possible turn. It’s also, most importantly, one of the great historical examples of queer coding. The Hays Code wouldn’t let Emma and Vienna be openly queer, but that didn’t stop Johnny Guitar from trying.

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