Starring: Doris Day, Howard Keel
Director: David Butler
Mood: If the world has worn you down to a sad little puddle of sadness and you need the perfect movie to lift your spirits and don’t mind that you’ll have the songs stuck in your head forever.
I thought for sure that I was going to hate Calamity Jane.
The only musical Western I’d seen before was Paint Your Wagon, which is painfully awful. I love musicals, don’t get me wrong. I even “starred” in one. In fifth grade I was in the chorus of Going West, which I only found out just now was a totally made-up production. That sucks because there was a clever song I could have shared where three women debate which will make you happier: men, horses, or money.
Anyway, I thought the musical Western genre was a no-go for me. Then I watched Calamity Jane.
HOLY SHIT, I LOVE THIS MOVIE!
Calamity Jane is obviously about that rootin’, tootin’, tall tale tellin’ Old West figure, Martha Jane Canary aka Calamity Jane. The movie kicks off with ‘Calam’ (Doris Day) racing home to Deadwood while belting out ‘The Deadwood Stage’, a ridiculously catchy number that has now been stuck in my head for two days.
Calam is a total firecracker, and a badass tomboy to boot. She regales the men at the Golden Garter saloon with vastly exaggerated tales of her escapades, and exchanges barbs with her BFF, Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). But when the Garter’s owner promises the locals a ‘real actress’ and mistakenly hires a man, Calam has to save the day by galloping off to Chicago to retrieve a real lady.
Little does she know that the actress she brings to Deadwood is an impostor, and that once in town she’ll earn the affections of Calam’s secret love interest!
Calamity Jane is like the ‘50s musical Western version of those ‘90s flicks like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man that were based on Shakespeare’s comedies. And I say that as a compliment – I love a silly, lighthearted rom-com, and I f*cking adore this movie.
It’s got the hilarious unrequited love angles, the predictable but thoroughly enjoyable plot twists, plus plenty of slapstick, zingers, and gender-bending.
I’d never seen Doris Day in anything before, but she had me here from the moment she opened her mouth. What a set of pipes! I’m not even kidding – she started singing and this massive grin broke out on my face. I wrote, “I have no idea why but I’m already obsessed with her” on my laptop, and then got so swept away that I took no more notes.
From her physical comedy and choreography to her affected manner of speech and fantastically over-the-top moods, Day dominates this movie.
Having seen Calamity Jane, I can now totally feel Day’s influence in many of my other favourite performances, from Sandra Dee in Gidget to Robin Weigert’s masterful turn as Calamity Jane in Deadwood.
- Fun Fact: Doris Day’s Calamity Jane was the inspiration for cowgirl Jessie in the Toy Story movies.
I could keep going off about Day’s performance, but there are other awesome characters who deserve attention.
Allyn Ann McLerie nails it as Katie Brown, the former maid to the great stage actress Adelade Adams who dupes Calam into bringing her to Deadwood. Katie is a semi-straight role to Calam’s comedy, but McLerie managed to pack a fine mix of sass, strength, and vulnerability into her scenes.
Dick Wesson has a small role as actor Francis Fryer, with only one full scene of his own, but he quickly steals the show and had me laughing the entire time. You can really feel him enjoying himself.
Howard Keel was obviously a strong leading man in his time, and he does do a good job in Calamity Jane. His characterization is definitely more stoic crooner than frontiersman, but it works.
Still, I can’t help but be irked at anyone who plays Wild Bill and does nothing to look the part – there’s no moustache or long hair, or even Hickok’s signature Prince Albert frock coat. I suppose they decided that look wouldn’t work for the script, a dandy man teasing a tomboy. Although if you think about it, how much more fun would that have been?
Calamity Jane is a little bit Grease, with all the singing and dancing and the woman having to change herself to land a man – because hey, that’s every gal’s mission in life. But there’s this achingly relatable subtext, with Calam constantly being told by everyone in Deadwood that there’s something wrong with her because she has short hair, wears men’s clothing, and can outshoot the boys.
There’s also a strong storyline about female friendships, which has been read by many viewers as a mutual attraction between Calam and Katie. And there’s just a hint of Victor Victoria camp when Frances/Francis Fryer performs ‘Hive Full of Honey’ in drag.
Yup, there’s no surprise at all that Calamity Jane has a huge LGBTQ+ following. It was screened at the 2006 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Oscar-winning song ‘Secret Love’ has been dubbed by Out magazine as “the first gay anthem”.
- Fun Fact #2: George Michael sang the lyric “You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day” in his famous song ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’.
Calamity Jane does have the cringe-worthy Native American references and costumes typical of a ‘50s Western. With that said, actors Charles Soldani, William Wilkerson, Augie Gomez, and Beulah Archuletta who played the four Native Americans were all actually Native American.
As if Day’s dazzling performance and the infectious songs weren’t enough, I found out that the Golden Garter’s interior was designed by Harper Goff, who also designed the Golden Horseshoe Saloon at Disneyland, which has always been a favourite pit stop of mine because they used to have can-can performances and they serve what’s basically pub food.
The whole time I was watching, I was thinking, “damn, this would be awesome for live theatre!” It turns out there IS a Calamity Jane musical. Carol Burnett starred in the 1961 Kansas City theatre production, and then in a televised version in 1963.
I wish I’d seen Calamity Jane years ago. Sure, it’s loose on historical fact. I don’t even care. It warms your heart like a Disney flick, but even better because it’s a Western.
This movie is now be a part of my ‘I need cheering up everything is f*cking awful’ rotation. I’m infatuated. If you don’t instantly fall for this movie, you probably also hate puppies, rainbows, and joy in general.