Calamity Jane (1953)
Last week was all about pirates in Captain Blood, so now it’s time for cowboys in “Warner Bros.’ Sky-Highest, Smile-Widest, Wild’n Wooliest Musical of Them All!”
Calamity Jane is an exuberant, highly fictionalized story of that famous cowgirl and scout, Martha Jane Cannary, alias Calamity Jane. This movie is not a truthful historical document by any means, and WB felt no qualms about adding some blonde pizzazz and sparkle to the Wild West, never mind the songs!
The movie is very, very loosely based on Calamity Jane–it takes place in Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill Hickok is in it, and Calamity shoots and rides. But I doubt everyone was so clean, so attractive, or so smilingly white-toothed. Also, I doubt the real people in Deadwood sang quite as well or as often as they do in this movie.
One truth is that Calamity Jane did know Wild Bill, though the historical record is fuzzy about just how close the relationship was. Calamity claimed she had married Bill and even had a child together, but no one’s quite sure about that.
Calamity Jane was known as a teller of tall tales, and she really started spreading the news about her relationship with Bill after he died…so who knows? Of course, the movie’s love story is a great deal more obvious–no questions here!
Here’s the real Calamity Jane, and the movie’s version, played by Doris Day:
Apparently, Warner Bros. had wanted to get Day, their star musical actress, into buckskins for a while. Originally, Warners wanted Day to play Annie Oakley in a movie version of Irving Berlin‘s “Annie Get Your Gun.” That show had starred Ethel Merman on Broadway, and it had toured with Mary Martin. Warner Bros. thought it would be perfect for Day, and she wanted to play Annie desperately, but Warner Bros. was outbid by MGM, who paid the astronomical sum of $650,000, for the movie rights.
MGM bought it intending to star Judy Garland, but she didn’t get along with director Busby Berkeley, and was very unwell, so MGM suspended her and replaced her with brassy Betty Hutton. (MGM gave Garland another chance with Summer Stock (1950), but it would be her last film for the studio. For more on that saga, check out my review of Summer Stock.)
Annie Get Your Gun was released in 1950 with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel in his first film role. Keel later wrote that “In hindsight, after working with Doris Day, I thought Doris would have been a much better Annie [than Betty Hutton].”
Fun fact: Although Day was disappointed not to play Annie, she did record the songs from the show for an album released in 1962.
Warner Bros. and Day finally got their chance with another Wild West heroine, and borrowed strapping bass-baritone Howard Keel from MGM to play Bill.
If your image of Doris Day tends to the sunny, perfectly coiffed, gloves-and-matching-purse-phase of her career…
…you might be surprised at how awesome she is as Calamity Jane, a hard-ridin’, Indian-fightin’, cavalry officer-rescuin’, tall-tale-telling, sarsaparilla drinkin’, sharp-shootin’ tough gal. With that glorious voice, of course.
Fun fact: During an appearance on “The Tonight Show,” Day told Johnny Carson that after watching the early dailies, she realized that she sounded ridiculous using her normal speaking voice while galumping around in fringed buckskin and boots. So she lowered her voice to match the rest of her tough, tomboy performance.
The film opens on a stage coach bumping through the plains with Calamity Jane singing “The Deadwood Stage” with its catchy onomatopoeic chorus: “Whip-crack-away!”
Fun fact: Day was thrilled with Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s score for this film. She said that the first time she heard it, “I just about fell apart…I was just dancing around the house.”
The stage arrives in Deadwood, and Calamity leads a group of men into Deadwood’s saloon, The Golden Garter. In one lovely long take, lasting one minute and a half, Calamity sings a song of helpful introduction to the saloon, the proprietor, and most importantly, Wild Bill Hickok. You can watch the opening scenes here.
Howard Keel was 6’4, Doris Day is 5’7. Their big personalities and voices play well together in this movie. Here is Day filming in The Golden Garter:
Once Calamity gets her sarsaparilla (a Root Beer-type drink), she starts regaling the other customers with her daring exploits on the stagecoach. According to Calamity, they were attacked by a war party of 100 Indians! Behind her, and unseen by Calamity, the stagecoach driver signals that there were actually only five attackers. He does the same thing when Calamity says that she killed twenty, holding up two fingers while the assembled crowd laughs.
But that time Calamity sees him. She doesn’t like being called a liar, so she lassoes him with a whip and gets him to admit that her version of the story is the truth. You don’t mess with Calamity!
Then Calamity turns her attention to this man’s ecstatic reaction to finding a certain picture in his cigarette pack. It’s a gimmick like a prize in a cereal box.
Every man in the place hopes to find that picture, an image of stage star Adelaid Adams. Calamity can’t understand it, but Bill tries to explain the appeal:
Almost from the beginning, Bill tries to convince Calamity to be more feminine. He is oddly irked by her masculine attire and behavior, but she has no interest in his helpful advice. You be you, Calamity!
Meanwhile, Milly (Paul Harvey) the owner of The Golden Garter, is searching for Frances Fryer, an actress he hired who was supposed to be on that stagecoach. Well, Milly is unpleasantly surprised to find out that his actress is actually Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson), an actor. Milly is worried because he promised his customers a beautiful actress. Now what will he do?
We return to Calamity, leaving Milly and Francis to concoct a plan. Two men stumble into the saloon with news of an Indian attack. As the two survivors galloped away, they thought they saw Lieutenant Daniel Gilmartin, (Lieutenant Dan!), go down. Calamity is furious that they left Danny behind. Turns out she has a thing for the Danny. So off she goes to rescue him all by herself. And of course she is successful!
She returns to The Golden Garter and tells another tall tale of the rescue, exaggerating her enemies’ numbers and her exploits just as before. When Bill questions her story, she gets mad and goes for her gun. But Bill doesn’t scare easily. He shoots the gun out of her hand, thus ending the argument. This is the first of many “shooting-things-out-of-people’s-hands.” Apparently it was the favored method of settling arguments in the Wild West.
Then everyone settles down to see lovely Miss Fryer on the stage! Milly’s brilliant plan is to dress up his actor as a woman. Dan (Philip Carey), Calamity, and Bill notice that something is a little off…
Francis is nervous at first, but he gains confidence and everything might have been okay if only his wig hadn’t gotten caught on the trombone!
Fun fact: this is the first of several cross-dressing moments, which is one reason that this film has been embraced by the LGBT community. You can watch Francis’ performance here.
The furious audience is about to string Milly up when Calamity intervenes. She promises to bring an even bigger star to The Golden Garter. The problem is that the only actress that Calamity knows is Adelaid Adams, who is an international star and would never perform in a podunk Western town. But Calamity doesn’t know that, so she promises to bring Miss Adams to Deadwood herself!
Bill questions Calamity’s ability to complete her impossible mission, and their argument leads to this classic song, “I Can Do Without You,” a near copy of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun. I prefer this one, though. It’s a bit more ferocious, and the lyrics are full of funny Wild West insults. And it doesn’t have that long held note–you know the one. It’s Doris and Howard flinging each other around and being cleverly mean.
You can watch this fun performance here. Of course, when two stars sing about how they can’t stand one another, it’s a good clue that they will end up in a romantic embrace before the credits roll.
As a parting shot, Bill makes a bet with Calamity that he will come to Miss Adams’ performance dressed as a squaw if she succeeds. So off she goes to “Chicagy” to fulfill her part of the bargain. Once she arrives, the movie wastes no time playing “City Mouse/Country Cowgirl.” She’s comfortable with the horses, confused by a woman’s bustle, thinks a wig store is full of scalps, and she draws her gun on a wooden Cigar Store Indian.
But she finds the theater where Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins) is playing her final performance before leaving for Europe. Bit of a coincidence, eh?
Calamity stands in the way back of the theater and doesn’t get a good look at Miss Adams’ face. You can watch Adelaid’s performance here.
After the show, we follow Miss Adams to her dressing room where we meet her maid, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie, a ballerina, Broadway actress, and later television star.) Fun fact: McLerie was married to lyricist and writer Adolph Green from 1945-1953.
Katie longs to be on the stage, but Miss Adams laughs at her and says she isn’t suited for it. Then she gives Katie all of her old costumes, and says how thrilled she is to get out of backwoods Chicago and go to Europe!
As soon as Miss Adams leaves, Katie wastes no time trying on the costume Miss Adams just took off.
She is singing in front of the mirror when Calamity Jane walks into the dressing room.
At first Katie screams and then slaps Calamity, whom she mistakes for a man. (Another moment of gender confusion, though it’s how Calamity always dresses). Calamity laughs, but then realizes that it isn’t so funny. Maybe she should try to look more like a woman…But they put a pin in that and Calamity asks the woman she believes is Adelaid Adams to come to Deadwood and perform at The Golden Garter.
“Me?” says Katie Brown, bewildered. But then she figures out Calamity’s mistake. But Katie really wants to be an actress…so she doesn’t tell Calamity that she’s really Miss Adams’ maid! She agrees to come to Deadwood and they immediately start packing up her costumes! It all seems so easy. Too easy? Calamity turns to the camera in the only instance of direct address in the film:
It’s you, Calam. It’s you.
Although it was actually about 900 miles from Chicago to Deadwood, they seem to make the journey very easily and casually. Except for an Indian attack, but Calamity has that under control.
Calamity is hailed as a hero when the arrive in Deadwood, and no one seems to suspect that “Adelaid Adams” is really a nobody named Katie Brown. Nobody except for Francis Fryer, who knows the truth, but keeps it quiet.
As Katie gets settled, Calamity entertains the crowd with the song, “Just Blew in from the Windy City” about all the miraculous modern miracles in Chicago. It’s a physical, energetic performance on the floor, the bar, and even up in the balconies at The Golden Garter. You can watch it here.
Everyone is breathlessly awaiting Adelaid Adams’ first performance, but when Katie gets on stage, she seems very different from the confident, full-voiced Miss Adams the crowd was expecting. Everyone is confused, and Bill, in his squaw outfit, is livid when Katie admits her true identity.
Calamity steps in once again to save Katie and Milly from the furious mob. She swears that she didn’t know who Katie was, and she begs them to give Katie a chance.
So they do, and Katie is terrific once she stops trying to be Adelaid Adams and sings the song her own way. You can watch it here.
But Bill was hoodwinked into dressing up like an Indian woman (cross-dressing #3, if we count Calamity’s masculine attire), so he strings Calamity up from the rafters. It’s a bit like in grade school when little boys and girls “flirt” by punching each other.
Fun fact: In Day’s memoir, she remembers that she almost passed out while filming this stunt because the rope was too tight and she couldn’t breathe.
The town isn’t mad at Calamity anymore, and they’ve fallen hard for Katie. But Katie decides to leave the hotel and go live with Calamity in her cabin. Apparently they are the only two women in Deadwood? (Must have been the only Wild West town without a brothel and saloon girls.)
Calamity feels protective of Katie, especially because every man in town is interested in her. Bill is particularly sad to see Katie leave.
Once Calamity and Katie drive away, Bill wanders around The Golden Garter and sings a love song to a portrait of Katie. You know, just like the real Wild Bill Hickok did in his spare time. You can watch it here.
Fun fact: Howard Keel started on Broadway in “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” before MGM snatched him up for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun. He was in a lot of movies in a short period of time, including such great musicals as Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1953), and Kismet (1955) and other less well known movies like Lovely to Look At (1952) his second of three films opposite tiny Kathryn Grayson, and Pagan Love Song (1950), Texas Carnival (1951), and Jupiter’s Darling (1955), opposite my fave Esther Williams. He was also on the TV show “Dallas” from 1981-1991.
Bill was sad to see Katie go, but now it’s Katie’s turn to be sad when she sees Calamity’s cabin. It’s a bit rundown, shall we say.
The inside is dusty and dirty with broken bits of wood nailed over the windows and nasty furnishings. Calamity sees it through Katie’s eyes and realizes that it is utterly unsuitable for a “lady.” But Katie says that all the cabin needs is “a woman’s touch!” Calamity doesn’t know where to begin, but thankfully Katie is a “real” woman who knows how to tame Calamity and her nasty, masculine lifestyle! This dichotomy of Katie as real woman and Calam as false woman/man is set up from the moment they meet, and gets stronger as the film goes on.
Lyrics like “a woman and a whisk broom can accomplish so darn much!” and “with a mop-mop here and a mop-mop there, you can give a cabin glamour!” accompany the overhaul.
Poor Calamity is rather bewildered, as am I, because it seems as though they did everything in one day, including growing gorgeous roses and completing some major structural repairs. But by the end of the song Calamity is in a pretty dress and the cabin is sparkling! You can watch “A Woman’s Touch” here.
The cross-dressing and gender confusion added to the whole premise of two women moving in together and singing this song, are two more reasons this movie has been embraced by gay audiences. Here’s a short essay on queer readings of this film if you’d like to know more about its cult status and varied interpretations. You can definitely watch this movie as a heteronormative film, but there is a subtext for the finding.
Here are McLerie and Day rehearsing in the cabin set and recording the music with music director Ray Heindorf.
So now the sad little cabin is a beautiful home with pale yellow doors and a cheerfully smoking chimney.
As Katie tends to the garden, Calamity goes to tend to a sick neighbor in her pretty yellow dress. It does seem a little odd that Calamity would so easily give up the convenience of her trousers, but she seems to enjoy playing the “lady.”
Just after Calamity leaves, Bill and Danny arrive to court Katie. But she knows that Calamity has a crush on Danny, so she tells the two men how much Calamity has changed, and tries to interest them in taking Calamity to an upcoming ball at the fort.
Trouble is, Katie rather likes Danny, but she still acts like a good friend and pushes him at Calamity. I think Bill’s fringed buckskins are a clear indication that he should be with Calamity. They could match! But he wants Katie.The two men decide to draw straws over the women, and Bill “loses.” He has to take Calamity to the ball, and Danny gets Katie.
Katie waits expectantly for Calamity to return so that she can show the men how lovely and feminine Calamity has become. But her plan goes horribly awry because as soon as Katie turns away from the window, Calamity face-plants in the creek right outside the house. She enters the cabin cursing and covered in nasty mud.
They didn’t really throw Doris Day in a muddy creek to get this shot; instead, she wiggled around in a muddy trough:
Soon it’s the night of the ball! Calamity drives the foursome’s buggy, a nice touch, I think. She may be dolled up for a ball, but she is still literally “takin’ the reins!” Bill tells her that she looks pretty, but he wishes she’d worn a more feminine wrap:
Then they sing one of my favorite songs from the film, “The Black Hills of Dakota.” Calamity and Bill lead it, but soon the entire train of wagons and buggies joins in. For two people supposedly in love with two other people, Bill and Calamity sure sing well together! You can watch the scene here.
After this lovely song they arrive at the ball. Calamity is all wrapped up in Custer’s coat, and Bill gets a glamorous surprise when she finally removes it, revealing a princess-pink gown with yards of tulle and satin. The tulle train even has a bustle studded with roses that match the pink bow and roses in her hair!
Bill is stunned, and his jaw-dropping reaction is echoed by just about everybody at the ball. They’ve never seen Calamity looking so beautiful and so very feminine! Costume designer Howard Shoup really outdid himself on this candy confection: Calamity as 1880s Barbie!
All the ladies look lovely in their ball gowns, and the men look dapper in their tuxedos. (Leon Roberts designed the men’s costumes.) It’s all 100% accurate. There were many balls in Deadwood, so everyone had their own gorgeous formalwear, especially perfectly polished Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Anyway, things are going great. Suddenly, all the men are very nice to Calamity, and her dance card fills up quickly. Men are apparently shallow creatures who are suckers for rosebuds and tulle. But the one man whom Calamity really wants to dance with seems otherwise occupied. Danny is out in the garden asking Katie to marry him. She says yes as Bill and Calamity watch in horrified silence.
Despite her fancy dress, Calamity is still Calamity, so she puts on Custer’s coat, grabs a gun and shoots the glass right out of Katie’s hand, splattering her with punch.
Friendship over. I love that Calamity puts her big coat over the pink dress before she shoots, as if to cover up Katie’s handiwork and re-establish her identity as tough Calamity Jane.
Calamity rushes home with Bill and rips off her female trappings as soon as she can, badmouthing Katie all the while. She can’t get the dress off by herself, though, so helpful Bill steps in.
In a weird error, once Calamity slips off the gown, she storms around in a ruffled chemise and corset that would have been very visible under the dress, and especially so when she was undoing the back just a few moments ago. Compare:
Anyway, Calamity feels betrayed by Danny and Katie, but she focuses her rage on “the other woman,” as so often happens. She comes to The Golden Garter and glares at Katie on stage. Notice how Calamity is slightly cleaner and has lost the knotted bandanna in favor of an impossibly clean white shirt. She’s back in her buckskins, but with a subtle difference reflecting her recent “civilizing” by Katie.
In front of the entire Golden Garter audience, Calamity warns Katie to get out of town. But Katie isn’t the scared maid anymore. She borrows a gun and dares Calamity to hold up her sarsaparilla. The audience crouches down under their tables, clearly not very confident in Katie’s marksmanship. No one sees Bill unholster his own revolver and shoot the drink out of Calamity’s hand. Sneaky!
Although most of the time this movie focuses on “feminizing” Calamity, it seems that a little “masculinizing” of Katie is in order, too. She’s applauded for beating Calamity at this manly contest of shooting things out of people’s hands. You can watch the scene here.
While everyone congratulates Katie, Bill keeps his eye on Calam. He follows her out of the saloon and throws her in his buggy. Off they go to a quiet, moonlit spot.
But what happened to Katie’s bullet, you may be asking? The bartender gets a confusing surprise when he notices one of his barrels leaking…
If you never thought you’d see Wild Bill Hickok giving love advice to Calamity Jane, then you’re in for a treat! Bill confesses that he shot Calamity’s glass; he says he did it because she had to lose that battle or she would have lost everything. Scaring Katie out of town wouldn’t make Danny love her, and it definitely wouldn’t make her any friends in Deadwood!
Calamity admits that she’d started thinking about settling down with Danny and having “younguns'” even though she knows it sounds silly. And Bill admits that he had a “hankerin”” for that himself with Katie! Then before we know it, they’ve transferred their attentions to each other! It seems that they’ve been in love this whole time and didn’t know it!
After some kissing and that fabulous face smash that they do in the movies so that both money-making faces can be seen, Bill asks an important question:
Aww! The next day, Calamity puts on her best suede suit and western bow tie, and heads into town. But first she has a song to sing! It’s “Secret Love,” a song that would become one of Day’s standards.
“Secret Love” was released as a single and became a smash hit. It sold one million copies and got to No. 1 on the Cash Box and Billboard charts. It also won the 1954 Best Song Oscar, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
It has also become something of a gay anthem with its lyrics about having a “secret love” and “my secret love’s no secret, anymore.” You can watch Day’s performance here.
Calamity rides into Deadwood excited to tell Katie her happy news, and to apologize for her boorish behavior. But Katie is gone! She took that morning’s stage back to Chicago! If only Calamity hadn’t stopped to sing!
So off Calamity goes to catch the stagecoach. She jumps on a different horse than the one she rode into town (in this version of the Old West, anybody can take anybody’s else’s horse whenever.)
Fun fact: the horse she jumps on isn’t just any horse. It was Joel McCrea‘s Quarter horse Dollar, who McCrea rode in over twenty of his westerns.
Usually McCrea didn’t loan his favorite horses to anyone else (he was concerned about their welfare long before PETA) but he made an exception for Day, a fellow animal lover. (Somehow I mention Joel McCrea no matter what movie I’m writing about…)
According to an Associated Press article from May 1957 that I found in Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle newspaper, McCrea even rode Dollar to work: “Most Hollywood stars drive to work every day in their expensive convertibles and limousines, all of them around 300 horsepower. Joel McCrea uses one-horse-power…Dollar.”
According to the article, McCrea bought the horse in 1951 and uses Dollar “in all his pictures.” The article goes on to say that McCrea is currently filming Stranger at Soldier Springs [released as Gunsight Ridge in 1957] at the Paramount Sunset Canejo Ranch, which just happened to abut McCrea’s own ranch. So naturally McCrea, who described himself as a rancher with an acting hobby, rode Dollar to work: “It’s just a two or three minute canter across the spread for McCrea and his Dollar.” Completely amazing.
Another fun fact: McCrea also loaned Dollar to John Wayne for the films The Shootist (1976) and Rooster Cogburn (1975).
Here is Day on Dollar as she chases the stage.
In an adorable scene, Calamity turns sharply around when she passes Bill on the road out of Deadwood. They have an on-horse kiss–adorable! before she gallops away again!
Of course Calamity catches up to the stage. Apparently they are no longer afraid of Indian attacks, because it is just the driver and Katie onboard! That seems odd, especially since they were attacked on their way to Deadwood, but don’t worry about it.
Calamity explains the situation to Katie and they hug it out. Turn that stage around!
It’s double wedding time! There’s a huge cake with brunette and blonde brides.
And songs by Calamity and Katie. The shots of each couple mirror each other in pleasing symmetry.
Then it’s off on the stagecoach! I can’t help but notice that this time Bill is driving…
I cannot even imagine what their lives will be like after they ride off into the sunset, but who cares? It’s a 1950s movie-musical. Maybe Calamity can keep protecting the stage and be a good little wife to Bill, and maybe Katie can continue fulfilling her dream on the stage and be a good little wife to Danny. Doubtful. I wish that Calamity had fastened her gun belt on over her wedding dress as they rode away, but you can’t have everything. She does try to smuggle her revolver in her bustle, but Bill spots it and hands it off to someone else before they leave. So that’s not great.
But cute how Calamity and Katie both work on the stage, right?
Calamity Jane is a fun musical western–Day said it was her favorite film and role, claiming “That was the real me– just blasting off at everybody!” The movie was nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical, Best Sound Recording, Best Sound Editing, and Best Song. “Secret Love” was the only winner.