Calamity Jane (1953)

CalamityThumbby Brad Nelson   1/10/14
It’s a boastful, buckskin-clad, man-like Calamity Jane stomping ’round the Wild West in the old town of Deadwood. But this Jane is not to be confused with (severe language alert) Joanie Stubbs of HBO’s Deadwood series.

Despite the three layers of grime, there’s no mistaking the beautiful Doris Day under all that masculine bravado. But what covers her most is the hammy, over-the-top, pseudo-male pantomiming. She’s a sharp-shooting, Indian-fighting, loud-talking dynamo. And in this campy musical comedy, she works it quite well, stringing together many funny slapstick moments.

The weakness of this movie is that her male co-stars are a bit dull. Wild Bill Hickok, the good friend of Calam (as she’s called), could have used a few lessons from Keith Carradine in his memorable portrayal of Wild Bill Hickcock in HBO’s Deadwood. Even for a light comedy, Howard Keel is nondescript.

His performance is blandly bookended by that of Philip Carey who plays Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin, a somewhat milquetoast rival of Wild Bill’s for the affections of certain ladies.

What makes this movie work are the entertaining musical sequences, particularly the ones featuring Doris Day. She’s a thousand watts of energy as she leg-kicks, elbow-jabs, and face-smirks her way through the songs. Of note are the numbers, The Windy City and I Can Do Without You, the latter a duet with Wild Bill. But my favorite is A Woman’s Touch, a scene she plays with the mildly entertaining character, would-be dance hall singer Katie Brown, played by Allyn McLerie. The song itself is almost secondary to the clever staging.

Don’t expect too much from the plot. But’s it’s at least more than paper-thin. The owner of the local saloon is in a predicament, and the willful and always-helpful Calam volunteers to bail him out which means going to Chicago to try to acquire the headline singer, Adelaid Adams. Things don’t play out with complete predictability, which is nice. But there is some expected romantic squabbling before the climax which ends, of course, with everybody getting who and what they want as Calam rides off into the sunset. But it’s enough to hang the songs onto.

This film was generally a success, and according to IMDB.com, the song Secret Love was a chart-topper in 1954. The soundtrack LP was successful as well and went to number two on the charts. Day considers this one of her finest films.

And, indeed, she carries this picture completely on her shoulders. Although some of the characters around her are a bit plain-Jane, Calamity Jane herself more than makes up for this in her unique and stylized hamming. Let’s just say that this is not your father’s Doris Day. I hadn’t seen her in anything quite like this before. But one viewing is certainly a must for fans of old musicals and/or fans of Doris Day.

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It’s the late nineteenth century in Deadwood, located in the Dakota Territory. Jane Canary – better known as Calamity Jane or Calam for short – is a sharp shooter who takes it upon herself to protect the area, especially the stagecoach, from the marauding Sioux. Her skill and fearlessness is matched only by Wild Bill Hickok, with whom she has a friendly rivalry, but who she still considers her best friend. Calam shows no signs of femininity, despite being in love with a soldier, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin. Despite having been saved before by Calam, Danny only sees her as one of the guys and has no idea that she loves him. There is a dearth of females in the area, and as such, Harvey Miller or Milly for short, the proprietor of the local saloon called the Golden Garter, brings in actresses to perform whenever he can to entertain the men who are starved for female companionship. So when Milly’s latest attempt to bring in an actress doesn’t turn out quite the way he expects, Calam takes it upon herself to bring in the most famous Chicago actress, Adelaid Adams, to keep the peace in Deadwood. Calam’s attempt to bring in Adelaid starts a series of events which make Calam examine her feminine side, and what it may take to get Danny to propose. But in doing so, Calam may ultimately realize what she really wants in life. More »

Available on widescreen DVD ($7.49 new, $7.13 used) or Amazon Instant Video ($2.99 rent, $8.99 buy). Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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2 Responses to Calamity Jane (1953)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    A fun little movie. My housemate picked up on videotape years ago, and eventually we got around to playing it. One thing I will mention is that I had always thought the pounding sound in “Secret Love” reminded me of hoofbeats — and then I saw the movie (which I hadn’t known the song appeared in) and found out it was.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    Having had a schoolboy’s crush on the lovely Miss Day well into my middle age, I dare say that she will always be perky and beautiful to me. She has always charmed me with her considerable talents, and forever will.

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