Thursday, September 11, 2008

Calamity Jane (Warners, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a DVD I’d bought at Sam Goody’s of the 1953 film Calamity Jane, made at Warners by director David Butler (who’d made two important musicals in the early years — Sunnyside Up at Fox in 1929 and Pigskin Parade, also at Fox, in 1936; Sunnyside Up was historically important and quite advanced for the day, and Pigskin Parade is a pretty dull movie but noteworthy for the feature-film debut of Judy Garland, who already at 13 outsang everyone else in the cast! — and who had also directed Day before in Tea for Two, Lullaby of Broadway and By the Light of the Silvery Moon) from a script by James O’Hanlon. The project actually began as a sort of consolation prize; when the musical Annie Get Your Gun was a hit on Broadway, among the bidders were MGM (who wanted it for Judy Garland), Paramount (who wanted it for Betty Hutton) and Warners (who wanted it for Doris Day).

Irving Berlin decided to sell the show to MGM even though they were offering less than Paramount or Warners because he wanted Judy as the star; when Judy had one of her spectacular nervous breakdowns and was fired from the film — and Hutton was chosen to replace her — Berlin had a hissy-fit and withdrew the film from circulation as soon as the rights reverted to him in 1975 (and it took another quarter-century and Berlin’s death before his estate once again allowed the film to be shown), not surprisingly since had he wanted Betty Hutton to play Annie — which he hadn’t — he’d have sold the rights to Paramount and made himself more money. Meanwhile, Jack Warner wasn’t going to take being defeated in a rights battle lying down; if he couldn’t star Doris Day in a film of Annie Get Your Gun he’d just develop something similar for her, using the legend of Calamity Jane instead of the legend of Annie Oakley and even hiring the same male star, Howard Keel, as MGM had used in Annie. He hired the team of Sammy Fain (who’d made records in the early 1930’s as “The Crooning Composer”!) and ex-Ellington lyricist Paul Francis Webster to write the score (including a duet for Day and Keel called “I Can Do Without You” that’s an all too obvious knock-off of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”); used David Buttolph and Howard Jackson as score composers (though most of their work is based on Sammy Fain’s melodies); bathed it all in luscious Technicolor (Wilfrid Cline was the director of photography) and came up with a marvelously insouciant, gender-bending movie that actually turned out to be more entertaining than the final film of Annie Get Your Gun.

The plot: Calamity Jane (Doris Day) is stagecoach driver for the town of Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory, whose duties regularly include firing guns from the stage to ward off Indian attacks; when she’s not doing that she’s holding forth in the Deadwood saloon, owned by her friend Henry Miller (Paul Harvey), out-butching every man in the place (she’s dressed in buckskin and denim and sports a Union army cap on her head) and telling tall tales of her exploits that far surpass the on-screen reality, in the best tradition of Sir John Falstaff and W. C. Fields. She’s also in complete command of her body — even when she takes a pratfall off a bar rail one can see Doris Day is an excellent physical performer (and choreographer Sam Donahue has done a great job getting her to dance, a skill most people who came to movies from vocalist gigs in big bands didn’t have).

Indeed, what makes Calamity Jane a joy more than anything else is how convincingly butch Doris Day is — she’s always named this her favorite of her own films and it was seized on by the odd cult that grew up around her in the early 1970’s of feminists who saw her playing assertive roles in films like this and decided she was one of the movement’s foremothers. At times this almost seems like Sylvia Scarlett: The Musical, even though Day (unlike Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett) isn’t trying to pass herself off as a man, she nonetheless crashes through the gender-role ceiling and leaves it shattered on the barroom floor — even though we’re also supposed to believe she’s upset because she’s so butch the guy she’s got a crush on, Army lieutenant Bobby Gilmartin (Philip Carey), won’t look twice at her.

She’s also upset because the men who hang out at the saloon (which is everyone there except her!) are all buying packs of cigarettes (at a time when "real men" smoked cigars) just to get photos of “actress” (actually music-hall performer) Adelaid [sic] Adams (Gale Robbins), whose dress in the photo puts Calamity Jane off and makes her mutter about “girls who get their pictures taken in their underwear.” Henry Miller has sent for a New York performer, Frances Fryer, to entertain at his saloon, but when the person in question arrives he’s unpleasantly surprised that it’s really Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson), a mousy little guy and hardly the luscious bit of womanhood the crowd at the Deadwood Saloon were expecting. Fryer dons drag and goes on anyway, only to get “outed” when his wig gets caught on the trombone slide and lifted off his head; and to stave off a riot that could destroy the saloon, Calamity promises to go to Chicago and bring back Adelaid Adams herself.

Only when she gets there — and after some hilarious fish-out-of-water scenes in which she thinks the wigs in a wig-shop display are scalps taken by Indians and a cigar-store Indian is the bona fide brave who took them — Adams herself is bailing out of her career and going off to Europe. She gives her stage-struck maid, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), her costumes — which she packs in a satchel marked “Adelaid Adams” — and naturally Calamity thinks Katie is Adelaid and brings her back to Deadwood. Katie thinks she can get away with the impersonation because Deadwood is 200 miles from the nearest railroad station — only Francis Fryer saw the real Adelaid and is on to Katie immediately. Katie tearfully confesses on the stage of the Deadwood Saloon that she’s not Adelaid Adams, but Calamity forces the rest of the audience to listen to her at gunpoint and Katie finds her own groove as a performer and becomes a local star. She also attracts the attention of Lt. Gilmartin and also Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel), Calamity’s friend and needler.

The relationship between Calamity and Katie — which began when Katie, confronting Calamity in her (actually Adelaid’s) dressing room back in the Chicago theatre, screamed because she thought Calamity was a man — takes on decidedly Lesbian overtones after Calamity invites Katie to move into her cabin and Katie fixes it up and gives it a “woman’s touch” — she also paints “Calam & Katie” on the door. That doesn’t stop the (heterosexual) romantic rivalry, though, as Katie attracts Gilmartin and eventually Calamity realizes that she really loves Wild Bill and will have to wear dresses and act more “feminine” to get him.

Though the ending is the usual “she becomes a woman” cop-out (a pity Butler and O’Hanlon didn’t dare the marvelous ending of George Seaton’s The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, in which leads Betty Grable and Dick Haymes get together at the fadeout but do so as personal and professional equals), it’s forgivable because the rest of the film is so good and because Doris Day makes the transition with surprising eloquence. As the butch Calamity, she talks in a hillbilly accent that turns just about every terminal vowel into “y” (her favorite drink, sarsaparilla, beomes “sasparilly,” and “Chicago” becomes “Chicagy”) and sings in a broad, caricatured voice; as the femme version, she drops the affectations and sings the movie’s hit (and Oscar-winning) song, “Secret Love,” with wide-open vocal tones and eloquent phrasing that shows that, for all the associations of Day with the wholesome and square, within her style she was capable of real soul.

Calamity Jane is a truly great movie, a rambunctious romp that far outdoes its model (the film version thereof, anyway) and makes one wish that if they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) get a performance out of Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun, MGM would have gone after Doris Day instead of Betty Hutton (who simply couldn’t handle the sensitive ballads in Berlin’s score the way Garland or Day could have). Also, Day’s skills as a markswoman in this film (though undoubtedly simulated) make me wish Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much had retained the final shoot-out of the original version; on the basis of this film Day could have done at least as well as Edna Best in playing a woman who has to pick off the villain who’s holding her child hostage without hurting the child! It was interesting to note that a film this feminist in plot and theme also broke through in women’s rights off-screen; Doris Day’s stunt double was Donna Hall — at a time when stuntwomen were rare and actresses were usually stunt-doubled by men in drag.

According to, Day disliked her first rushes because, though she looked convincingly butch, her high, piping voice gave her away — so she dropped it a couple of registers lower — and when she pre-recorded “Secret Love,” she sang it in one take. As I mentioned, one accepts the semi-sexist ending (though at least Calamity gets to ride in pursuit of the stagecoach and bring Katie back after she’s fled, thinking Lt. Gilmartin and Calamity are a couple and not wanting to come between her boyfriend and her friend) and exults in the sight of Doris Day superbly playing butch. I wouldn’t call this the greatest Doris Day film — that would be Love Me or Leave Me, in which she gives the greatest dramatic performance of her career — but this is certainly one of her best and a far cry from the dreary “comedies” she turned out again and again after the success of Pillow Talk!