They say imitation is the cheapest form of flattery. While fanciful daydreams about the American west have been the stuff of novelists and playwrights for some time, the untamed wilderness experienced an unanticipated resurgence in popularity immediately following the Broadway debut of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! There was never any shortage of colorful characters to crib from in the old west. But in the wake of this play’s critical and financial success came an army of pretenders, both on the stage and – eventually – the movie screen, destined to take a rifle shot at the tired old tin can. Of these, David Butler’s Calamity Jane (1953) remains uncharacteristically joyous; the perfect western foil to counterbalance Michael Todd’s then recent ‘big’ announcement, he and American Optical would be bringing R&H’s Oklahoma! to the big screen (eventually released in 1955). While Oklahoma! interprets its frontier romance without levity for the most part, Calamity Jane is a richly satisfying and unapologetic parody of two celebrated figures from the western pantheon; Wild Bill Hickok and our title heroine, Calamity Jane.
Calam’, born Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary, depending on the source referenced) is a fascinating caricature of the atypical frontier woman, perhaps due in no small way to the fact she was primarily responsible for fabricating tall tales about her own daring do. This ‘dark-eyed’ gal who worked her way up from dishwasher, cook and dance hall hostess, to legitimate nurse and eventual ox-team driver; who reportedly bed, then wed the wily gunslinger/gambler, James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok, and later, went after his murderer with a meat cleaver, could hardly lay claim to as notorious a pedigree as some of her male contemporaries like Jesse James or Wyatt Earp. In fact, what little outside history is known about Calamity has her pegged as a benevolent old soul, administering compassionate care to the sick and needy, while standing tall against local Indian attacks on the wide-open frontier.
Presumably, the name ‘Calamity Jane’ was bestowed upon Martha Canary by Captain Egan after a skirmish with Indians at Goose Creek. Describing how she saved Egan’s life by transferring him to the front of her horse in midstride during an Indian ambush in which Egan was badly wounded, Egan supposedly proclaimed in gratitude, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” This episode in Calam’s parodic self-aggrandizement is ever so slightly reconstituted and ebulliently played out early in James O'Hanlon’s buoyant screenplay; O’Hanlon unable to resist the implication Calamity, by similar means, rescues her potential love interest, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (who doesn’t even know she is otherwise alive and played with wooden disregard in the film by Philip Carey). It would behoove the reader to reconsider there are contradictory accounts to suggest Calamity never served as an assist to the U.S. regimented army; that she never saw action – or even a lynching – and ultimately never participated in such Indian attacks. Whatever the truth, Butler’s film isn’t particularly interested in puncturing the balloons of Calam’s hypocrisies; rather, embellishing them for the purposes of pure undiluted musical entertainment. However, O’Hanlon’s screenplay does afford a counterpoint to Calam’s florid accounts in Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), who takes immense pleasure in debunking her version of events whenever he can. When Calamity challenges Bill’s not so subtle hint she is lying to impress, proving her point by shooting a shot glass near him at the bar, he retaliates with lightning quick precision in kind, knocking the pistol right out of her hands, before condescendingly suggesting she ‘fix her hair’.
Calamity Jane is a featherweight musical first and foremost, using the patina of the musical merely as a crutch on which to fabricate its entertainment value. Those in search of the real Jane and Bill from this western mélange should seek them elsewhere. Still, there is much to admire herein. For starters, the picture is imbued with a superior score from tunesmiths, Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. In the annals of such musicalized bios, Calamity Jane effectively towers as a playful, lighthearted vamp on some time-honored truths and half-truths, all of it neatly situated into a snug-fitting scenario written with gusto by James O’Hanlon. The plot treads lightly on traditional musical fare. We never have to strain to know everything will turn out alright in the end; this expectation further enhanced by having Doris Day cast as the title character. Day’s career was on an incredible upswing in 1953 to continue unabated for nearly a decade in feature films. Her best work was still ahead of her in 1953, but Calamity Jane reasserts the actress’ willingness to take chances with that plucky and sanitized image concocted by Warner Bros. and the gumption necessary to succeed where others were all too quick to suggest she might just as easily fail. No one could accuse Day of ever assimilating as the homely frontier tomboy. But she nevertheless gives it her all; in exceptionally fine voice (no surprise there) and doing a wicked lampoon of Betty Hutton besides. There is, to be sure, a camp element to Day’s performance herein, tempered, then offset as she eschews her buckskins and gunpowder for more feminine duds, flower pots and that trademarked/Teflon-coated studio image.
In hindsight, the movie would be nothing at all without her. It is impossible to imagine any other actress deriving so much pleasure from feigning such overtly gender-bent masculinity, only to sacrifice it all to that radiant fresh face and for the man she ultimately surrenders to for the sake of true love…or rather ‘Secret Love’. The song, ‘Secret Love’ was a major, if unanticipated, chart-topper in 1953. But Calamity Jane is so rife with hummable tunes it behooves us to pause a moment and reconsider the perfection writ by Messers Fain and Webster. Their score ranges from the ebullient ‘Whip-A-Crack-Away’ (a.k.a. The Deadwood Stage), to the melodic ballad, ‘Higher Than A Hawk’. In between, we’re given eight additional examples of the team’s prowess. The influence of another stage musical, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, recently turned into a colossal hit at MGM in 1950 is evident in the confrontational duet, ‘I Can Do Without You’; a transparent riff on Berlin’s ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’. Under the rubric of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, I suppose this song works, although in hindsight it appears unnecessarily to draw out some sort of inbred competition between these rival studios for chest-thumping rights over which has made the better musical. Berlin would possibly agree Warner had the upper hand with Calamity Jane. He positively despised what Metro had done with his celebrated stage hit.
The plot, in a nutshell, has Calam’ throwing her heart to one man – Gilmartin – but ultimately, and hopelessly falling for another – Bill Hickok. No one, it seems could be more surprised by this unexpected turn of events than Bill; used to regarding Calamity as ‘one of the boys’ in this dusty backwater populated by rugged men, his heart soaring ‘higher than a hawk’, his love sinking ‘deeper than a well’ as he gradually comes to realization he is in love with Calam’s truer self. But first, this must be unearthed from beneath those grubby buckskins. Calamity’s transformation, from frontier tomboy to lady of the valley, is hastened by the arrival of Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), herself an imposter of Chicago’s grand chanteuse, Miss Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins). Like Calamity, Katie desperately desires to be something she is not. And just like Calamity, she will fail in her endeavors until she becomes true to herself. At the crux of O’Hanlon’s screenplay is the suggestion both woman want to be thought of as frilly baubles, desirable to men – a stereotypical fifties aspiration for women, herein carried to its extreme lampoon when fellow thespian, Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson) is mistaken by saloon keeper, Henry Miller (Paul Harvey) as a female act for his Golden Garter saloon; a glittery palace in the heart of Deadwood City. Miller forces Fryer to don a corset and wig and perform as though he were a woman, the ruse gone rancid when a trombone accidentally snags Fryer’s fake blonde tresses, exposing him to ridicule or worse, and, thus, setting the rest of the plot’s complications into motion.
Calamity elects to quash the town’s lynching of Fryer by bringing back Adelaid Adams to Deadwood for a reprise of her sellout act in Chicago. In tandem, Adelaid is shown performing on her last night in Chicago before embarking on a world tour. As a parting gesture, she makes a present of all her old costumes to maid, Katie Brown. Arriving too late to see the act, Calamity stumbles upon Katie after Adelaid has already gone; Katie sizing herself up in these hand-me-downs. Mistaking Calam’ for a man is only the beginning of their problems. Katie is taken at face value to Deadwood as Adelaid. But Fryer, who had previously seen the real McCoy, inadvertently offers a word of encouragement to quash Katie’s opening night jitters by calling her real name. Katie suffers an attack of stage fright and confesses who she is to the rowdy crowd. In Katie’s defense, as well as her own, Calam’ encourages her to do Adelaid’s act her own way. Katie does just that and is an unexpected smash. Her newfound popularity is not without complications; chiefly, Danny Gilmartin and Bill Hickok vying for her affections.
Calam’ is determined to have Gilmartin for her own. But Gilmartin is easily swayed to pursue Katie behind her back. To stave off the prospect either man will have his way with her, Calamity moves Katie into her log cabin on the outskirts of town; the pair endeavoring to make it a home for two with ‘A Woman’s Touch’ – Fain and Webster’s cloying attempt at a Disney-esque ‘Whistle While You Work’ song. Hickok and Gilmartin are particularly impressed by the cabin, refurbished from dingy and dilapidated outpost to a quaint hamlet of bucolic domesticity, complete with curtains on the windows and flower boxes clinging to its sills. In the process, the girls become very good friends; an alliance put to the test when Katie and Gilmartin pair up as a couple for the annual ball held at the local frontier fort, forcing Bill to act as an escort for Calam’. On route, the foursome reminisces about the Black Hills of Dakota; another gorgeous ballad, superbly rendered by Day and Keel with a choral assist. At the ball, Calam’ sheds the heavy coat given to her by Gen. Custer to reveal an unexpected attractiveness lurking underneath. Sheathed in a luxurious pink gown, Calam’ draws nearly everyone’s attentions askew, one hapless soldier declaring “I wonder what happened to her.” Nevertheless, Gilmartin prefers Katie to Calam,’ causing considerable friction.
Unable to resist reacting jealously to this affront to her own affections, Calamity takes Bill’s gun and fires a warning shot, shattering Katie’s punch glass. The crowd is horrified, but Katie is unmoved. Returning to the cabin, Calam’ tosses all of Katie’s things out, forcing her to take up residency at the local hotel. The town’s sympathies are entirely on Katie’s side; Calamity suddenly realizing her sway in the community is at a dangerously low ebb. At approximately the same moment, Bill recognizes two things; first, his own chances with Katie are practically nil (she obviously prefers Gilmartin to him) and second, he has begun to harbor genuine affections toward Calamity. Thus, when Calamity draws her pistols during Katie’s nightly performance at the Golden Garter, Katie elects to step up to the challenge by borrowing a pistol from one of the cowboys, ordering Calamity to hold up her glass to return the favor in kind. Katie fires and the glass shatters in Calamity’s hand. But the gunshot responsible for this expert hit has not come from Katie’s pistol, rather from Bill, who has taken refuge in a nearby balcony to teach Calamity a lesson. Unaware of this, Calamity believes her credibility in Deadwood has been irreversibly shattered. She storms out of the saloon in a hailstorm of tears. Alas, Bill does not agree, taking Calamity by force on horseback to a nearby clearing where he confesses his complicity in the shooting. Calam’ is bitterly wounded by his betrayal. But Bill explains riding Katie out of town would not stop Gilmartin from loving her any less.
Interestingly, Bill’s confession – that he desperately loved Katie too – is met with reconciliation from Calam’. And although she openly declares there will never be another man for her like Danny Gilmartin, Bill’s unexpected transference of his affections from Katie to her is met with a joyous embrace and cordial kiss. As the sun rises on Deadwood, Calamity rides into town, determined to make a mends with Katie, only to discover from a forlorn and very bitter Gilmartin that Katie has already left on the morning stagecoach. Racing after it on horseback, Calam’ explains to Katie she is no longer in love with ‘her lieutenant’; that Katie can have Gilmartin if she still wants him, and that she and Bill are slated to wed at the earliest possible convenience. Elated by this news, Katie and Calam’ bury the hatchet. Katie returns with Calamity to Deadwood and the foursome are wed in a double ceremony, hosted by Miller at the Golden Garter.
Put bluntly, Calamity Jane is a load of bunk, yet carried off with such rambunctious aplomb it easily hits the proverbial bull’s eye with effortless charm. The film is heavily influenced by MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun, right down to the casting of Howard Keel as the lanky love interest. Yet herein, Keel seems far more at ease in his ten gallon and chaps; his romantic foil, the irrepressibly fresh-faced Doris Day, herself gearing up for a celebrated ride as the fifties undisputed pin-up gal and movie star. The majority of Day’s fifties’ output is linked to the movie musical. Yet, in hindsight, her tenure as a beloved star bears closer inspection in praise of its diversity; convincingly cast both in serious roles, as abused torch singer, Ruth Etting in Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) and tortured mother of a kidnapped child in Hitchcock’s exemplary remake of his own, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). By the end of the decade, Day would add ‘exceptional comedian’ to her growing repertoire in 1959’s bedroom farce, Pillow Talk and sexual tease in 1957’s The Pajama Game. Groucho Marx, who could usually be counted upon for acerbic witticisms, was quick to note a certain appeal to Day’s career, adding “I’ve been in Hollywood for so long I can remember Doris Day before she was a virgin!”
Both Keel and Day are in the midst of the Hollywood musicals’ final flourish; its fifties renaissance lingering for a time into the mid-1960s, though largely sustained after 1960 by its output of Broadway to Hollywood hybrids. Calamity Jane is therefore the last of a vanishing breed; a homespun/homegrown studio-bound entertainment; Warner Bros. assembling its talent from scratch and drawing on a wellspring of recently freelanced talent who could easily plug n’ play into the format with just a few weeks rehearsal. These kinds of talents no longer exist in Hollywood, making musicals a very rare breed indeed. What sets Calamity Jane apart from so many musicals churned out throughout the 1950s is its infectious chemistry between its co-stars. It’s rather obvious both are having one hell of a good time; Day in particular, lapping up the opportunity to be gregarious (a quality none of her other roles demanded). She doesn’t miss a trick or a beat, herein, and neither does Keel – whose gorgeous baritone remains the perfect complement to Day’s perfectly annunciated songs.
Shot entirely on slightly redressed sets on the Warner and MGM back lots, Calamity Jane is a minor miracle in screen economy. David Butler’s execution is unremarkable, as is Wilfred M. Cline’s cinematography. Nevertheless, it’s the stars that make this musical click; the show resting squarely on their shoulders rather than the staging of big and bloated musical numbers. And interestingly, Calamity Jane has none either to recommend or detract away from it. With few exceptions, the score is sung exclusively by Day and Keel, the screenplay’s structure carefully interrupting the dialogue at precisely a moment when a song is required; the lyrics and melody an extension of each character’s spoken thoughts. Such seamlessness is often taken for granted. But try it sometimes. There have been enough movie musicals badly mangled to prove otherwise. Mercifully, Calamity Jane is not one of them. In the final analysis, it sings its way into our hearts and manages, almost unintentionally, to remain a fond and lingering part of our cherished musical memories.
Warner Home Video has promised us a Blu-ray for March and we’ll certainly look forward to it after viewing their tired old DVD. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Calamity Jane on DVD except it fails to impress; its Technicolor looking slightly washed out and occasionally muddy. There are some minor mis-registration problems sporadically evident throughout this DVD transfer. I’m also not loving the exaggerated levels of grain that infrequently break apart the image while, at other points, seem to vanish as though grain itself was never an issue. True, Technicolor was a grain-concealing process, but there still ought to be some presence of filmic grain to recommend this transfer. Contrast is satisfactory, but fine detail waffles between moments of razor-crisp brilliance and softly focused footage. The audio is 1.0 Dolby Digital mono. It will be interesting to see if Warner gives us a 5.1 DTS stereo on the upcoming Blu-ray as an option, since Calamity Jane’s cast album was released in true stereo. Apart from the usual junkets Warner has tossed together, short subjects and trailers, we get zero in the way of extras – a pity. Bottom line: recommended only as a last resort. Hold out for the pending Blu-ray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)