For Your Consideration: Calamity Jane (1953)
By Alex Cranz
Alliteration aside, the words women and western do not generally find a great deal in common. The Western is a decidedly “manly” form of entertainment. Its original intent was to respond to the overwhelming moral restrictions of Victorian culture. Over the years that initial goal has been pushed onto the audience and trampled by the creators, but its raw theme of unbridled masculinity has remained strong. Thus it is a small wonder that women and western are not synonymous and share little relation.
The fact of the matter is women are not supposed to belong in the Western except as an example the civilized East. Women are the domesticator just out of sight. So when a woman like Calamity Jane comes along and exists so solidly as a non-Victorian woman? Sparks fly. She shoots, rides and curses just as well as the men, and she happens to be a woman.
In Deadwood she’s reviled for her alcoholism and skittishness in the face of evil, but respected for her talents on a horse and with a gun. It’s the most honest portrayal of Jane to date, but it’s inaccurate. The woman who was married, had children and worked as a brothel madam is desexualized. She’s not a woman. She’s some odd creature that straddles the gender line. It’s even reflected in her one romantic relationship. It’s not a man that sees the woman lurking beneath filthy deerskin. It’s a woman.
But nothing that happens in Deadwood can compare to the creature created in the 1953 Calamity Jane. In 1953 MGM was still reaping the rewards of their popular adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun. Warner Brothers wanted a piece of that action, so they went out and appropriated their own Western heroine. They even cast Howard Keel in the exact same role he played in Annie! Unfortunately the 1950s were a time where men and women’s roles were almost as rigid as they were in the Victorian era, and a tough talking gal simply would not do. As in Annie the writers make an effort to tame the woman.
In the traditional Western the East was the enemy and the West was the hero. In Calamity Jane (1953) that tenet holds true. Jane, or “Calam” to her friends, is a rude, crude, and somewhat socially acceptable woman. She is a gunner for a stagecoach and a pretty good singer. She also has a crush on a local Army man, Lt. Danny. When she finds out Indians have kidnapped him, she heads out and rescues him herself (but not before insulting every man in the saloon).
This rescue does not sit well with the lieutenant. He feels emasculated. He argues with her and leaves. The relationship reveals an interesting note found in Westerns. Two Westerners cannot love and be successful. One must be domestic and docile and one must be strong and outspoken. As the Army man of Jane’s affection is clearly not in the mood to be docile it is left to Jane. As luck would have it the opportunity for Jane’s impending domesticity arrives on the noon coach.
The female singer from Chicago turns out to be a man and it is up to Jane to find a real woman to come perform. So she travels to Chicago (the East) and finds Kate, a maid turned performer. The two hit it off and return to Deadwood (the West). It is at this time that Jane begins her real battle with the East. She must choose between the freedom found in the West and the romance found in the East.
The first clear indication of Jane’s losing battle is found in the song “A Woman’s Touch.” Jane and Kate move in to Jane’s old cabin and Kate begins to sing about how a happy and clean home can make a man care more for his wife. They paint the doors in bright feminine colors, whip up a cake (it’ll catch them a man) and dress Jane in a dress. The insinuations of previous Westerns become outright announcements in this one song. Women do not belong in the West and if they are there they should be in their traditional homemaker role.
Later Lt. Danny and Wild Bill Hickok have an argument over who gets to take Kate to a social event. The loser gets Jane. Wild Bill loses and is royally peeved. But sly little Kate tells him to wait. She wants him to see the feminine thing she’s molded Jane in to. Alas one hilariously sexist song cannot fix Jane. She returns covered in mud and Bill is regretting his arrangement.
Thankfully the social event is scheduled for the next day and beneath Jane’s army coat is a pretty gown. The ugly duckling has shed her feathers and turned into a swan. It’s a big transformation. This isn’t the obviously hot chick letting her hair down and taking off her glasses. Doris Day has paraded her way through the whole film with her chest stuck out and her arms away from her body like her breasts are some foreign appendages latching onto her front. She still moves a little oddly, but her dress, combined with her funny little strut, turns her into something alluring Lt. Danny and Bill both see her and are amazed by the transformation. Yet only Bill actually pines over her.
There are a number of reasons for Danny not to pine. The most obvious is he wants a woman devoid of Western notions. Jane, even when “Easternized,” maintains some of her Western charm, but Kate stays Eastern through and through. As Lt. Danny is a refined gentleman and somewhat effeminate (Jane rescued him) it would seem natural for him to desire and “win” the more feminine and Eastern woman. More frankly, Jane is just too much man for him. Fortunately for Jane, Wild Bill Hickok likes butch women.
By the end of the film Bill and Jane and Kate and Danny are enjoying a double wedding complete with two couples on the wedding cake. Jane’s journey from cowgirl to homesteader wife is complete.
But Jane is a transgressor. She is a woman but she dresses in buckskins and rides shotgun on the stagecoach. She manages to be a Westerner and an Easterner. Somehow she defies conventional logic and succeeds as being a woman in a Western without being a prostitute or dancing girl.
Calamity Jane for all its sexist and offensive language, for the trite romances and the brightly colored dressed, allows Jane to be a transgressor. Does she feminize herself in the end? Yes. She even gives up her gun when she puts on that wedding dress.
But she stays, at her core, the same woman we saw at the beginning of the film. A butch little dynamo who won’t take s**t from anyone. And Wild Bill knows that when he marries her. He accepts her for all her quirks and fashion choices.
When I first saw Calamity Jane I was struck by how sexist it was. “A Woman’s Touch” is a relic from another era. Jane and Bill regularly refer to “woman’s talk” in a derogatory manner. Character after character begs and pleads with Jane to put on a dress. It’s like watching a time capsule and I loved it because it served as a Technicolor reminder to how far we’ve come.
But the years have passed and I find myself still returning to the film. And noticing the undercurrent of rebellion. Jane and Katie share a home together and they’re friends. They’re friends for the sake of friendship before the boys come along and break them apart. Their early scenes? Actually pass the Bechdel test!
And when they reunite it appears, on the surface, that it’s because they no longer need to fight over a man, but Doris Day and Allyn McLerie bring a passion to the reunion that supersedes dumb boys. Their friendship, if only for a moment, feels genuine.
Doris Day doesn’t get enough credit for her performance here. She allows Jane to change. Her singing voice shifts from folksy twang to the warm familiar tones of Doris Day. It’s a slow shift that reflects the character’s arc. And Day provides more than just posturing and a talented voice. The change in Calamity is is there is her face, in the slow glow that overtakes her when she realizes she’s found a man who’ll accept her and in the fiery anger that leads her to draw a gun–on multiple occasions.
It’s not the Calamity Jane Robin Weigert gave us. It’s not meant to be. This is Jane sanitized for the fragile audience of the early 1950s. A rebellious little creature that shows you that you can be yourself and still get the guy–even when the social mores of the 1870s and 1950s are against you.