Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees learns that the rootin'-tootin'est wildcat can be tamed by a man and a corset. But not a man in a corset.
Warner Bros.' sky-highest, smile-widest, wild 'n' wooliest musical of 'em all!
For its new Doris Day boxed set, Warner Bros. has re-released this rootin'-tootin' 1953 musical with a real keep case, a new package design…and not a gol-durned thing else to set it apart from the 2002 DVD release. As Calam herself says in the course of the film, "I got a feelin' somebody's bein' hustled."
Facts of the Case
My worthy colleague Appellate Judge Michael Rankins has laid out the facts beautifully in his own review, but for those whose memory needs refreshing, I'll recap the action. In the rough Western town of Deadwood, Calamity Jane (Doris Day, Teacher's Pet) has acquired a reputation for sharp shooting and spinning tall tales. Her best friend and severest critic, Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), tells her to quit stomping around in buckskin trousers and act (and dress) like a lady, but she's too busy yearning after handsome Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey)—and rescuing him from vicious Injuns—to pay him any mind.
When the Golden Garter saloon imports what they expect to be a Chicago actress who turns out to be a man (the enjoyable Dick Wesson), Calamity once again rushes in without thinking through the consequences. She swears she'll bring none other than the luscious Adelaide Adams to Deadwood. However, the woman Calam thinks is Adelaide is actually her maid, Katie (Allyn McLerie), who seizes upon Calam's mistake as an opportunity for the stage career she has longed for. The town is pretty riled up when they think Calam has pulled a fast one on them, but they soon warm up to pretty Katie. Katie even takes Calam under her wing and transforms her into a knockout, but unfortunately the lieutenant is too busy getting an eyeful of Katie to notice. In fact, both Bill Hickok and Lieutenant Danny begin to vie for her affections—and Calam can make things pretty hot for anyone who steals away "her" man. Trouble is, is she fighting for the wrong fella?
Calamity Jane is a great choice for this boxed set of Doris Day films, since Day often cited it as her favorite among her film roles. At the same time, though, it's disappointing that the disc hasn't gotten any new treatment aside from the redesigned packaging. The ex-English teacher in me is glad to see that the spelling error on the original cover blurb has been corrected, but c'mon, folks, is that all? It would have been nice to see a new restoration or at least some better extras. But we get the same slender selection of extras, the same menus, the same adequate audiovisual quality as before. Plus, now we've lost the chapter list along with the snapper case. Would it have been so hard to have provided it as an insert?
That's not to say that this isn't still a worthwhile movie for musical lovers and fans of the delightful Day. First-time viewers of Calamity Jane may well be surprised at how uncharacteristic Day's performance here is, since she's playing against her usual screen persona. Calam is scruffy, cantankerous, and, well, kind of a mess compared to Day's usual characters. Day even lowers and hoarsens her voice to accord with her character's swaggering, tomboyish demeanor. What's remarkable is how well Day pulls it off. She doesn't hold back—she throws herself into the catamount Calam with gusto and nimble athleticism, creating a comically exaggerated yet lovable persona. It's an impressive example of an actor sinking herself into a role, eschewing vanity for the sake of the characterization. She's also simply radiant when she recognizes her love for Bill Hickok; the look on her face is breathtaking. It's a bravura performance all around.
The energy and gusto of Day's performance make this film hers, but she's assisted by some strong fellow actors. Howard Keel's Bill Hickok is a lot less rambunctious than Calam, but when roused to anger, he conveys impressive strength and power. The fact that Calam is usually the one that gets him angry naturally leads us to understand that they're meant for each other—that, and the fact that they sing together so beautifully. Keel's rich, robust voice is a great counterpart to Day's bright, clear tone. Allyn McLerie's Katie is a charming second female lead, with a pert, winsome appeal, and she can certainly keep up with Day in the dancing department. Dick Wesson, as dance-hall performer Francis Fryer, is a hoot in his drag number, "Hive Full of Honey." Alas, the second male lead, Philip Carey, has only one distinguishing characteristic: looking good in a uniform. His character is seriously underdeveloped, and he goes from being simply dull to being a real jerk as the story unfolds. His proper romantic partner would be a mirror, not a sweet girl like Katie—let alone a wildcat like Calam.
As a musical, Calamity Jane has other notable strengths. The jaunty, high-spirited score and the songs by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster are great fun, with particular highlights being "The Deadwood Stage" (the main theme), Katie's saucy music-hall number "Keep It Under Your Hat," and "The Black Hills of Dakota," which spotlights the beautiful harmonizing of Day and Keel. Day's ballad "Secret Love," which she recorded in one take, was an Oscar winner and a hit single, but I actually prefer Keel's love song, "Higher Than a Hawk." Many of the songs benefit from clever lyrics, such as the paean to domestic chores, "A Woman's Touch," in which Katie coaches Calamity in a woman's true vocation: housework.
That takes us into the intriguing theme of gender roles that runs throughout the film. The film carries the not unexpected message that girls shouldn't act like boys, and Calamity is the object of mockery for being so unfeminine. As in many films from the '40s and '50s that feature a "blossoming tomboy" plot, as soon as she ditches her guy-style duds and puts on something pastel with a skirt and a girdle, it's presented as a triumph. One of the funniest things about the scene in which she puts on the low-cut pink satin gown is that she still acts like the rough-mannered tomboy she was before—yet everyone is still goggling at her as if she's turned into Helen of Troy. Such is the power of clothing! The film reinforces the prescriptive message about gender-appropriate clothes through other characters, as when Francis Fryer is exposed as a man while trying to pass himself off as a woman on the Golden Garter stage, and when Bill Hickok dresses up as an "Indian squaw" as a gesture of public humiliation. Both men are made to look absurd for wearing women's clothes. There's also a more subtly developed theme about clothes and perception when Katie dresses in Adelaide Adams's costumes but still can't fool the Deadwood audience into believing she's Adelaide. There seems to be a parallel here to Calam's sartorial habits, perhaps to suggest that her trousers can't hide her true, womanly nature. Clothes can't change who you are underneath, any more for Calamity than for Katie.
We can, of course, see the process by which Calamity outgrows her tomboy ways as an example of familiar '50s-era repression. So much for the freedom she possessed in living alone, in wearing pants, in ignoring everyone else's standards for proper—and, more specifically, feminine—behavior. In this sense, the happy ending for this former free spirit is actually, as in the supernatural romantic comedy Bell, Book, and Candle, a story in which the irrepressible heroine becomes, well, repressible. When Kim Novak trades in her bare feet and pedal pushers for high heels and a shirtwaist dress, it's the same knuckling under we see when Calamity discards her buckskins. In a sense, both women give way to the pressure to conform, and take the docile, subservient role of marriageable woman. Fortunately, though, this development isn't as grim here as it is in Bell, Book, and Candle. Day has presented Calamity as living in her own little world—a world in which "her" lieutenant loves and needs her, in which she can do whatever she wants with no unpleasant consequences—and she's going to have to wake up to reality at some point. Essentially, she's growing up: She's learning that the world, for both better and worse, doesn't operate by her rules, and to avoid terrible unhappiness she'll have to learn how to cope with that. And since this is a romantic comedy, waking up to reality means waking up to the fact that a much worthier beau awaits her than the wooden soldier she has cherished an adolescent crush on.
Notice, too, that after she's awakened to true love, she doesn't automatically conform to her femininity by putting on a skirt; instead, she wears her most interesting costume yet. When she sings her ballad "Secret Love" and goes on to save the day (and the plot), she's wearing a suede trouser outfit with a man's string tie—a masculine-style suit, but clean, trimly tailored, worn with a soft, unstructured shirt, and topped off with a rakish wide-brimmed hat. The ramifications of this outfit fascinate me. It's not a wholehearted acceptance of her role as woman, but it's definitely more soigné than her old buckskins. It shows that she's started to care about her appearance, but it doesn't constrict her the way corsets and petticoats do. In this outfit she seems to truly come into her own, and that undercuts to some extent the film's conformist message. It's a darn shame she doesn't get to wear an ensemble like this for her wedding—but I guess a wedding in which both bride and groom wore trousers wasn't in the cards in 1953. The fact that she carries a pistol tucked into her white satin wedding gown is encouraging, though. Even though in some respects Calamity Jane is reiterating the '50s party line about a woman's proper role, Calam is one woman who will never completely conform.
If you already own the 2002 DVD release of Calamity Jane, there's no reason to purchase this one. But if you haven't added this high-spirited title to your DVD library of musicals or Doris Day films—or if you're debating whether to invest in the new Doris Day boxed set—you owe it to yourself to check it out. Even with its slight plot, repressive undertone, and historical inaccuracies galore, Calamity Jane is a rollicking fun time.
Contrary to precedent, this town is big enough for two of 'em. Not guilty…but Warner Bros. had better round up some better extras if they plan on returning to Deadwood again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Newsreel: "Western Style Premiere"
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