Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

It’s unsettling to read modern reviews of the Doris Day film Calamity Jane (1953) and find that critics use terms like “sexist,” “racist,” and “Sapphic” applied to this innocent musical entertainment.
None of those terms were used then, and the public found favor in Calamity Jane, making it one of the year’s biggest grossing films.
Doris Day stars as the eponymous heroine, but at first she is just barely recognizable under the grimy buckskin clothes she wears. She’s the rootin’ tootin’ facsimile of a Billy the Kid, but with a winning smile. She can outshoot any man in the Dakota territory – all except one, that is. Her friendly rival Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) is number one in that department, but he allows Calamity Jane (she goes by the name Calam) to continue struttin’ and spittin’ and riding shotgun on the Deadwood stagecoach, from which she regularly shoots down dozens of Sioux warriors. (She calls them "redskin naked heathens.")
She’s brash too, at one point bragging to the local saloon owner that she can travel to Chicago, Illinois, and snag the biggest musical star around, one Adelaid Adams, and bring her back to perform in the Deadwood saloon, known as the Golden Garter.
Calam does get to Chicago, and visits Adelaid's (Gale Robbins) dressing room. Unfortunately, Miss Adams has left for Europe, and the girl Calam finds in that room is Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), Adelaid's maid and assistant.
Now there is a double deception, and it's delicious. Calamity thinks Katie is Adelaid, and Katie looks at this dusty person in buckskin and thinks it's a man. Calam laughs heartily at Katie's confusion, then suddenly realizes that maybe it ain't so funny, bein' took fer a feller. That's the beginning of Calamity's sexual awakening. For the rest of the movie, she becomes more feminine by the reel.
Katie goes with Calam to Deadwood, and appears on the Golden Garter stage in front of an SRO crowd of rowdy cowpokes, eager for a look at the pretty chanteuse from the big city. At first, Katie sings off-key and is just awful; but after she tearfully tells the audience that she isn't Adelaid Adams, the star they had expected, she lets them know that she's just Katie Brown, a working girl hoping for a break in show business. The cowpokes' bitterness and disappointment is almost palpable. Calam jumps on stage and encourages Katie to sing the way she wants to -- as just Katie Brown instead of an ersatz Adelaid -- and Katie pulls out the stops, sings and dances in her own style, and scores a major hit.
A hit in more ways than one. Katie is now an artiste, but she's also charmed the hearts of the two best-looking guys in Deadwood: Bill Hickok and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), an officer stationed at the fort nearby. Both begin wooing her, and once again Calam has to step in... because she's been secretly in love with Lt. Danny all along.
The score of Calamity Jane is filled with hummable tunes, all sung by Doris Day, Keel, and Miss McLerie. Miss Day proves herself an able hoofer, too, in her soft-shoe solo to "Windy City," danced partly on a bar room floor covered in salt.
The four principals -- Calamity, Wild Bill, Katie, and Lt. Danny -- go to a fancy-dress ball, and for the first time ever, Wild Bill gets a look at his friend Calamity Jane wearing a (gulp!) dress! She's still pining for her shiny lieutenant, though, and hopes to snare him before the ball is over. But then she spies him kissing Katie Brown, and Katie enthusiastically kissing him back. Furious over this "double cross," Calamity challenges Katie to a gunfight... until Wild Bill talks some sense to her, saying "Who are you to tell people who they can love?"
It's good advice, but at the same time Bill's heart is breaking, for he craved Katie's love for himself. To console each other in their grief, Bill and Calamity kiss. We surmise it's their first kiss ever.
Here is where Doris Day, singer and popular recording star, earns her acting laurels. As Bill and Calam break after the kiss, we see her lovely face as we have not seen it before. Her expression is one of wonderment, of ecstatic realization. Can it be? Can this man who has always been like a brother to her actually be the man she will love for life?
This, of course, leads to Miss Day's most enduring hit song, "Secret Love." If you hear it on a record or on the radio, it sounds like a nice tune. But hearing it here, in the film where she discovers the man of her dreams was right next to her all along, gives it a charm we never suspected. Her secret love's no secret any more.