"She's rootin'-tootin', sure as shootin'!"
It's singing! It's shooting! It's how the West was sung!
Facts of the Case
Plucky Martha Jane Canary (Doris Day, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Pillow Talk), better known to her friends as "Calamity Jane," or "Calamity" for short, or more often than not just "Calam" (but you doesn't has to call her "Johnson"), protects the stagecoach from Native Americans (or Indians, or "Injuns," or in the parlance of the day "redskin naked heathens," social tolerance not yet having expanded its borders to the Dakota Territory) on its 100-mile trek from the nearest train station to the prairie hamlet of Deadwood.
Calamity's an uncouth, sarsaparilla-swilling, gun-slinging frontierswoman who can shoot, scuffle, and spin tall tales as well as any man alive. Her best pal and friendly rival is Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel, playing an eerily similar role to his Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun): "We're like the seven-year itch to each other, but it's a lot of fun scratchin'." Calamity and Bill hang out with the boys at the Golden Garter Hotel, the lobby of which serves as Deadwood's de facto community center. Every now and again, Calamity has to abandon her sarsaparilla on the Golden Garter's bar to go tearing off into the wilderness to do battle with the local Sioux nation or to rescue handsome Union Army lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), for whom she carries a secret torch.
When the newest headline talent on the Golden Garter stage turns out not to be exactly what the paying customers anticipated, Calamity makes a rash boast that she can bring a real star to town: Adelaid Adams, whose pulchritudinous likeness on a cigarette-package trading card is the hottest commodity in Deadwood. Calamity travels all the way to Chicago (or "Chicagee," as Calamity likes to say) to corral the famous Miss Adams. Unfortunately, Calamity is no theater critic, and she winds up inadvertently landing an impostor, Adelaid's handmaiden Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), who wants to perform in the worst way—and she does exactly that, on her first night in Deadwood.
But Katie improves rapidly, as do the heretorfore dormant libidos of Wild Bill and Lt. Gilmartin, both of whom are smitten at their first sight of the comely chanteuse. In a manner familiar to aficionados of Shakespearean comedies, the love quadrilateral between Calamity, Katie, Danny, and Bill leads to (you knew this was coming) calamity. In a manner familiar to aficionados of Broadway musicals, much singing and dancing ensues. And of course, in a manner familiar to aficionados of both these classic entertainment modalities, it all works out by the end of the third reel. (You thought it wouldn't? Come on, man…this is Doris Day!)
Musicals aren't for everyone. By its very nature, even an excellent musical requires a greater suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience than the average film does. It also presumes an enjoyment of (or at the very least a stomach for) that form of popular music known as the show tune. In addition, one must be willing, in the case of a period musical, to accept historical accuracy being scattered to the four winds. Westerns aren't for everyone, either—there are always viewers who can only relate to the present time and place. Neither musicals nor Westerns possess much cachet in Hollywood today, and many contemporary film fans can't stand either one. (Though I'm old enough to remember a time when a far higher percentage of the American filmgoing public was fond of both genres.) So I'd imagine many people will shy away from a musical Western—and from reviews of same—altogether. If you've read this far, I will presuppose that you like either musicals or Westerns or both, and if you do, you're sure to enjoy Calamity Jane.
Let's start with Doris Day herself. She bursts onscreen with a confident, energetic performance and embraces a character who could easily degenerate into an irritating caricature. Spending the bulk of the movie in what essentially constitutes male drag, Day completely convinces us that she's a rough, tough tomboy. The Doris Day spunky sunniness to which we're accustomed translates here into a rowdy, boisterous joie de vivre that's both engaging and infectious. It's surprising to see how comfortable Day is looking unglamorous (okay, I'll be blunt: looking butch)—even when cleaned up and in a party dress, Calamity retains her ungainly, stiff-shouldered, quasi-masculine body language. Day's immersion into Calamity's persona is remarkable, and should alleviate any question as to whether she could really act. And yes, she sings great too.
Every bit as good as Day, if not perhaps a shade better, is Allyn Ann McLerie (billed sans middle name here) as the maid-turned-starlet Katie Brown. McLerie lights up the screen whenever she's on camera—it's a tragedy that she never got the opportunity to become a major player in Hollywood. Howard Keel is fine, if a mite too laid-back, as Hickok (who was never this pleasant a fellow in real life), and man, could he belt out a song! Dick Wesson has some outstanding comedic moments as Francis Fryer, the song-and-dance man whom everyone expected would be a song-and-dance woman. (When Francis makes his first appearance on stage in full drag to perform "I've Got a Hive Full of Honey," Wild Bill comments, "She ain't every good looking." To which Calamity, all too familiar with genderbending from first-hand experience, replies, "That ain't all she ain't.") The one off note in the cast is Philip Carey—this guy's so bland and personality-impaired that I couldn't figure out why Calamity and Katie would fight over him.
Director David Butler (The Little Colonel, The Road to Morocco) knows his way around musical entertainment. He does nothing fancy, just keeps the story clipping along between musical numbers. And those numbers, written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, include some genuine classics: "Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)," "Just Blew In from the Windy City," "Black Hills of Dakota," "Higher Than a Hawk," and the Oscar-winning "Secret Love." Day and Keel team up for "I Can Do Without You," a song similar enough to "I Can Do Anything" from Annie Get Your Gun that it's a miracle some savvy lawyers didn't milk a fortune out of it.
For a picture of its advanced age, Calamity Jane looks remarkably fine on DVD. The transfer in full frame (as originally filmed) is bold and bright from the opening titles. As is often the case with digitized Technicolor films, the colors weird out from time to time, especially the whites and other high-contrast hues, but overall the problems are minimal. One expects to see some evidence of source print damage in a fifty-year-old movie, and those expectations are satisfied. Occasional spots and specks whiz by throughout the film—some serious scratches materialize during the number "A Woman's Touch." Generally speaking, though, this is as capable a video presentation as one could hope.
The audio suffers from more age effects that the picture. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track renders both the score and dialogue clearly, but the entire soundtrack feels slightly tinny and lacks dynamic range. The track was also mastered at extremely low gain—I had to crank my sound system to astronomical levels just to be able to hear everything. However, both distortion and hiss have been reduced to a minimum, so turning the sound up loud doesn't cause the audio to become grating or dissonant. A French audio track is available, as are subtitles in four languages. For some unknown reason, neither the French subtitles nor the optional English captions include the lyrics to any of the songs, so if you're hearing-impaired, I hope you can read Spanish, Portuguese, or Japanese or you'll be wondering what in tarnation all those dancing people are saying.
There's a decent number of extras listed on this DVD. Numbers, however, sometimes lie. Not one of the supplements here amounts to anything. The Cast and Crew filmography isn't even a filmography: it's a one-screen list of the six featured actors along with the screenwriter, producer, and director. Hey, Warner—we all read the opening credits, okay? Only Doris Day is honored with a press-kit-style bio, and it consists of three scantily documented screens. Behind the Scenes is a three-screen blurb about the real-life Calamity Jane, and about the connection between this film and Annie Get Your Gun. Awards is a single screen advising us that "Secret Love" won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1953. To all of the preceding: big whoop.
Two vintage newsreel clips are a slight cut above the rest of these illusory "extras." The first clip includes footage from Calamity Jane's 1953 premiere in Rapid City, South Dakota. The second shows director David Butler and Doris Day receiving awards at a banquet sponsored by Photoplay magazine. Both archival snippets together are less than two minutes in length.
Finding contemporaneous material to accompany old movies is a challenge, I understand. But it's disappointing that such an enjoyable film as Calamity Jane couldn't be supported by more detailed and interesting supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and maybe it's a sign of the times in which we live today that it's an issue at all, but even the most naïve viewer can't miss the Sapphic subtext between Calamity Jane and Katie. Calamity comments more than once about how "pretty" she thinks Katie is. When the two women meet, Katie is wearing a bustier given her by Adelaid Adams, and Calamity is quite forthright about examining the garment (and the girl inside) and about wondering "how you keep that thing up." At the conclusion of the characters' first scene together, Calamity turns to the camera—the only time the "fourth wall" is broken in the entire picture—and says to the audience, "I got a strange feelin' somebody is bein' hustled."
Later, after Katie's initial performance at the Golden Garter, Calamity takes Katie to live with her in her backwoods cabin. As the women arrive, Calamity tells Katie about her close friendship with Wild Bill, then goes on to say, "My sparkin' taste runs to blue uniforms and shiny buttons." Katie assumes Calamity is talking about Lt. Gilmartin's Union Army togs, but Calamity is hesitant about confirming this assumption. At the time of the conversation, Katie is wearing a brilliant blue dress and hat, and a vest with gleaming black buttons. Then of course, there's the infamous sequence in which Katie applies "a woman's touch" to Calamity's home environment, that ends with Katie painting "Calam and Katie" on the front door like teenagers might carve their initials on a tree trunk.
Make of it what you will.
An enjoyable musical with a strong lead performance by Doris Day and songs that will rattle around in your head for weeks. Not as compelling as the truly great movie musicals and certainly not as accurate as the great movie Westerns, but Calamity Jane delivers a worthwhile entertainment experience. It's not high art, but it's fun. And in a world where we're all too often reminded that life is not always fun, that's a good thing.
Calamity Jane is found not guilty on all counts, with the exception of misdemeanor charges of playing fast and loose with historical facts and fobbing off skimpy text as "added content." She's free to go with time served. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Newsreel: "Western Style Premiere"
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