Doris Day is an actress who I’ve always known about but only recently really become aware of. I seem to be saying that a lot lately. Remember John Barrymore? It’s rather strange really, because Doris was not only admired by my gran, but also has the distinction of being the biggest box office draw in the early 1960s, and is still the sixth highest box office star in history. As recently as 2011, her album My Heart, which featured new songs, shot to the top 10 in the UK. On the 3rd of April, she turned ninety seven years young, and is the last living main cast member of the film I am discussing today, Calamity Jane (1953).
Although Doris is seen in pop culture as the representation of white, corn fed upper middle class mid America, her image isn’t as squeaky clean as one may think. In the late 1950’s and early 1960s, she became the symbol of female liberation. Sure, she was never exactly a Betty Friedan, but Doris was no Betty Crocker either. She played sexually mature career women, who although having marriage firmly on their mind, wanted some excitement and adventure before they walked down the aisle. She was also incredibly stylish, with her perfectly colour coordinated outfits, blonde crop or bob, and her thick black lashes.
While Doris is pretty much the ultimate symbol of fashionable femininity of the 1950s and 60s, along with the likes of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood, she was never a shrinking violet. Calamity Jane is a departure for Doris in terms of its sharp emphasis on her character’s flouting normative gender roles, but it isn’t a departure in terms of playing a spunky female lead. The film was Jack Warner’s answer to the smash hit Annie Get Your Gun (1950) that MGM had released. He was so intent on capitalising on the success of Annie Get Your Gun, that he hired the previous film’s leading man, Howard Keel, and structured the film around another legendary woman of the Wild West and Frontier Country. Although the film is largely fictional, it does feature Wild Bill Hickok, another mythologised figure of that era.
The real Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Yes they look rather different to Doris and Howard.
Before I go on, I’ll address the borderline racism in the room. Calamity Jane does not portray Native Americans in a positive light. They are either mute and curious like children, or savage and dangerous, as the Sioux Tribe. And there are several discussions of Native Americans being killed by white settlers. Jane acknowledges that she understands why the Native Americans are so intent on keeping their land, but she says it’s because it’s beautiful, whereas we know it’s because it’s home. I won’t force any social commentary on a very airy musical, but I didn’t want to go on without at least mentioning this aspect of the film. It’s a mark on an otherwise lovely film.
A Not So Secret Love
The film begins with Jane protecting the stagecoach that is journeying to the small Dakota Territory town of Deadwood. Once in town, she relates to the townspeople (which consist almost entirely of frontiersmen and women who may or may not be working girls) what wonders she has brought back from the city, such as handcrafted hats and snake oil. She goes on to boast about her protection of the stagecoach, which is undermined by the driver. Jane lassos him with her whip and he quickly changes his tune.
She is then told that Lt. Daniel Gilmartin, with whom she is madly in love, has been taken hostage by Native Americans. After lambasting Danny’s travelling companions for leaving him to die, she rides off and saves him by scaring off his captures. She once again exaggerates the story, but Danny is too thankful to contradict her. Although Wild Bill Hickok does, causing Jane to shoot the floor between his legs. Jane is also highly unimpressed when Danny gets a picture of Adelaide Adams, a vaudeville star, in his packet of cigarettes.
Disaster strikes when Francis Fryer turns out to be not a curvaceous singing beauty, but a travelling hoofer. The owner of the only saloon in town, Henry Miller, forces Francis to perform in drag, which, unsurprisingly, ends very badly. The men are about to swear that they will never darken the saloon’s doors again, when Jane says that Henry has booked none other than Adelaide Adams. The men are overjoyed, but Jane, Henry, Francis and Bill all know that Adelaide Adams would never come to Deadwood.
Despite this, Jane travels to Chicago (which she calls Chicagee) to persuade Adelaide to perform in Deadwood. Unfortunately for Jane, Adelaide is leaving for Europe, as she feels that Chicago is entirely uncivilised and backwards. She leaves all of her old costumes to her maid, Katy, who she calls a mediocre talent. Katy is upset, but tries on one of Adelaide’s costumes, whereby she is mistaken for Adelaide by Jane. Katy quickly agrees to perform in Deadwood. The journey is fraught with Sioux attacks, but despite some fainting and hat migrating, Jane and Katy arrive in town in one piece.
Jane is thrilled that she has managed to not only bring the great Adelaide Adams to Deadwood, but also to humiliate Bill, who said he’d dress up like a Sioux squaw with a “papoose” if Jane managed such a feat. But things fall apart quickly, and Katy admits she is not Adelaide, causing all the men to once again descend into boos. Although it isn’t easy, Jane convinces the men to give Katy another chance. She then gives a wonderfully risqué performance, and wins over the men’s hearts, including Bill and Danny’s.
She then goes to stay in Jane’s cabin, which is in absolute disrepair. After Jane blubbers about this, Katy comforts her and they do a complete renovation on the little cabin, turning it into a place with a “woman’s touch”. Katy also helps Jane dress more like a lady, and Jane becomes quite beautiful, although it’s difficult for Danny and Bill to see this when she comes into the cabin covered in mud from the river. Danny and Bill fight over who will take Katy to the local military ball. Danny draws a long straw and wins, but Jane thinks is because she asked him to do her a favour.
At the ball, everyone is amazed by Jane’s transformation, as she looks lovely in a pink ballgown. But the evening is ruined when Jane sees Danny and Katy kissing in the garden, and Jane shoots Katy’s punch glass out of her hand. Bill is also disappointed, but he also chastises Jane for her behaviour. She ignores him and throws all of Katy’s possessions out of the cabin before breaking down into tears.
The next day, as Katy and Francis are performing at the saloon, Jane confronts her ex friend and warns her to leave town. Katy challenges Jane to hold up her glass so she can shoot it. Jane does so in order to avoid being accused of cowardice, but Bill shoots the glass instead while everyone is ducking, and lets Katy take the credit. Jane is utterly humiliated and leaves. But Bill catches her and barrels her onto his wagon and takes her to the woods (ooo dear). He reprimands her ridiculous behaviour and how she has thrown away the town’s respect over something so silly. He also tells her that Danny and Katy will love each other no matter her selfish actions. Bill and Jane then give into their long held, subconscious feelings for each other and kiss passionately.
The next morning, Jane is in bliss and sings Secret Love (which won Sammy Fain and Paul Webster their first Oscar for Best Song), as she journeys into town.
Once there, however, she is ignored by the townspeople, before she discovers that Katy has in fact left town because she wants Jane and Danny to be happy. Danny is distraught, and Jane apologises for her selfishness in a round about way, before riding after the stage coach to get Katy to return. When she catches up to it, Katy is not pleased to see her, until Jane explains that she is marrying Bill and that she wants Katy and Danny to be together as they should have been all along.
The film ends with a double wedding with Bill and Danny as the grooms and Jane and Katy as the brides. They sing a medley of songs as they ride away on a wagon that has “Just Hitched” painted on the back of it.
Doris the Delight
I had never seen Calamity Jane before, nor had I, surprisingly, ever heard any of the songs. But I am absolutely thrilled that I chose to write about the film for the blogathon. This is one of Doris’ best performances. Not only does she change her physical appearance, but she also changes all mannerisms and her singing voice. The way she walks and talks do not slip for a moment. While it’s clear that it’s Doris putting on a deeper voice and changing her gate to be more masculine, she does it in such a way that she makes it very clear that it’s also Jane putting on an an act. As she confesses to Katy, her whole life has been about trying to fit in with men.
Doris’ performance is well worth the Oscar nomination she received. I was absolutely boggled to discover that by the time this film was made, Doris, who had only begun her film career five years before, had already played the lead role in fourteen films. This proves what a talent she was right from the get go. The entire score of the film is also wonderful. There isn’t one song in the film that doesn’t add to the story and isn’t performed to absolute perfection. My personal favourites are “Just Blew In From the Windy City” and “Secret Love”, which show how the film manages to be funny, serious and wonderfully romantic.
The film’s supporting cast are also wonderful. From Allyn Ann McLerie, who is pretty, funny and so likeable as Katy. I adore her rendition of “Keep It Under Your Hat”, where she kicks the men’s hats off as part of her cheeky, and sexy, act. She and Doris are an absolute lark to watch together. Katy and Jane’s friendship is such an important and special part of the movie, and is handled so well by both actresses. Phil Carrey isn’t quite as memorable as Danny, but he is very handsome, and he and Allyn’s chemistry is really something. Dick Wesson is really hilarious as Francis. My mother and I were in stitches when he was dressed in drag, especially because his mouth looked like a sad clown mouth and then the trumpet dewigged him so spectacularly.
Finally, Doris and Howard Keel have incredible chemistry. I know that she and Rock Hudson are everyone’s favourite pairing, and I adore them, too, but I would have loved to have seen Doris and Howard in more films together. Their playful banter and then their unfolding love story is just so lovely to watch. I love how Bill is always tender to Jane, even when he’s making fun of her. And the way he looks at her, even before he says he loves her, with such affection and sweetness. When they do finally kiss, I was surprised their wasn’t a forest fire.
All in all, if you haven’t seen this movie, don’t wait like I did. Whip-Crack-Away to your local movie store or online store. And do listen to “Secret Love”. It’s a beautiful example of the gentle, mellifluence of Doris’ voice.
This is my contribution for the Third Annual Doris Day Blogathon being hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Please visit her blog for more info and to read everyone’s contributions.