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Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane(1953)

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teaser Calamity Jane (1953)

Calamity Jane (1953) was arguably the best vehicle enjoyed by Doris Day during her years as Warner Bros.' brightest singing-and-dancing star, and it certainly has the best original score of any of her musicals. Praised by Hedda Hopper and others at the time as "the best picture Doris Day ever made," the movie was ecstatically received in most quarters and lifted the sunny star's popularity to new heights. One of the songs in the delightful score by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, the tender ballad "Secret Love," would become (along with "Que Sera, Sera," "Sentimental Journey" and "It's Magic") a Day signature tune. The single, which sold a million copies, reached No. 1 on both Billboard and Cash Box charts, won the 1954 Academy Award as Best Original Song and in 1999 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The soundtrack album also made the charts.

Many saw Calamity Jane as a consolation prize of sorts for Day because she hadn't been able to play another role that had seemed a natural for her, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (1950). That screen musical, based on Irving Berlin's stage smash, also concerns a feisty, masculine-acting woman of the Wild West who discovers her feminine side after falling in love with a famous, handsome marksman (played by Howard Keel in both movies). Jack Warner had tried to secure the rights to Annie Get Your Gun as a vehicle for Day after it had run its course on Broadway with Ethel Merman and on tour with Mary Martin, but was outbid by MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who bought the property for Judy Garland. Day's hopes of playing Annie reportedly rose again after Garland was dismissed from the MGM film, but Warner would not approve a loan-out and Betty Hutton landed the plum part. In 1962 Day demonstrated to the world some of what it had missed by recording an album of the complete Annie score, with Robert Goulet singing Keel's role of Frank Butler. Keel later wrote in his memoir that, "In hindsight, after working with Doris Day, I thought Doris would have been a much better Annie [than Betty Hutton]."

Press reports of the day indicate that Calamity Jane actually had been in the works at Warner Bros. as a project for Day even before the possibility had arisen of her replacing Garland in Annie. As early as June 1948 Dorothy Manners reported in the Chicago Herald American that Warners director Michael Curtiz (who discovered Day for films and directed her in her first movie, 1948's Romance on the High Seas) was planning a musical about Calamity Jane and predicted that, for both director and star, the project would be "first up" on their schedules for 1949. When the movie finally was made four years after that, it was David Butler (helming his sixth and final film with Day), who directed.

The screenplay by James O'Hanlon (1946's The Harvey Girls) is loosely based on the adventures of the real-life frontierswoman famous for her exploits as a scout, Indian fighter and (possibly) lover of Wild Bill Hickok. Day, of course, looks nothing like the real Calamity, Martha Jane Cannery (1852-1903), who was large, dark-haired and homely in her photographs and further described as tough, weathered and soaked in alcohol. But Day threw herself into the spirit of the role wholeheartedly and with an almost reckless physicality, leaping, sliding, riding horseback and cracking a whip. In her memoir she tells of a traumatic episode while filming a sequence where she was lassoed and hoisted aloft, and almost lost consciousness because the rope was so tight she couldn't breathe. In 1953 she suffered a physical collapse that may have been caused in part by her exhaustion from making the film. Still, she always considered this tour-de-force role her favorite; in 1986 she told this writer, "That was the real me - just blasting off at everybody!"

The plot of Calamity Jane kicks off in Deadwood, South Dakota, where the rambunctious Calamity spars vigorously with Hickok (Keel) and promises the local citizenry that she'll head to "Chicagee" and enlist singing star Adelaide Adams (Gale Robbins) to perform at Deadwood's saloon, the Golden Garter. In a case of mistaken identity she returns instead with Adelaide's maid, Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie), who nonetheless becomes a hit as the saloon's new entertainer. As Calamity becomes more feminine with Katie's help, she discovers that the object of her affections, a soldier named Danny (Philip Carey), has fallen for her new friend. The romantic mix-up is straightened out happily after "Calam" realizes that her "secret love" is Wild Bill (no real surprise there).

The movie toys with the idea of gender and sexual identity in ways that seems daring for the 1950s. Muscular character actor Dick Wesson performs as a woman in the saloon-keeper's misguided attempt to give the locals some feminine pulchritude, and Day's Calamity is initially mistaken for a man by Adelaide. Calam find this uproariously funny at first but then realizes that, "Come to think of it, that ain't so funny!" When the two women move in together, Calam tells Katie, "We'll batch it here as cozy as two bugs in a blanket!" Some later analysts of the film have even seen a gay subtext in the lyric "Once I had a secret love..."

In addition to Day, all the principals are perfectly cast, and the supporting cast includes a number of character faces familiar from other Westerns. Joel McCrea, a Doris Day fan, broke his own rule of never allowing anyone else to ride his horse Dollar by turning over his trusty steed for her use in the film. "Secret Love" is of course the highlight of the score, but all the songs are memorable. "The Deadwood Stage" is as exuberant as "The Black Hills of Dakota" is lovely and quiet, and Keel's rich baritone soars on his romantic solo, "Higher Than a Hawk." Day and McLerie form a captivating pair as they celebrate "A Woman's Touch." Two other standout songs in the score seem influenced by tunes from other musicals. Day's "I Just Got Back from the Windy City" suggests "Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City" from Oklahoma! (1955), while her duet with Keel, "I Can Do Without You," is a "competition" song in the vein of "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun.

The film also was Oscar®-nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical (Ray Heindorf) and Sound Recording. Day herself adored the score and said that, when she first heard it, "I just about fell apart...I was just dancing around the house." By the time the awards rolled around in 1954, however, she was not up to singing "Secret Love" at the ceremonies and costar Keel appeared in her place to perform the number. A rather touching aspect of their onscreen relationship comes from the fact that Keel had a very weak left arm from a childhood injury and, if you watch closely, you can see Day unobtrusively protecting it and helping him cover the disability.

By Roger Fristoe

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