“The Plainsman” (1937) never lets an absence of fact stand in the way of telling us a good story. Director Cecil B. DeMille is in his element here, treading on history and myth with great flourish. Here Calamity Jane is part of the tapestry of the American West and not just a freak show refugee. We can thank Mr. DeMille for this, for if he bends the truth a bit, he at least makes the attempt, and most certainly Jean Arthur makes the attempt, at showing Calamity Jane to have angst and tenderness, humor and compassion, which were most certainly part of her character as much as the men’s clothes and bullwhip.
Other parts of her character were eliminated, such as the drinking and raucous behavior that occasionally landed her in jail in real life, and this is a shame, because we might have learned more about Calamity Jane if she had been allowed to be more than just Wild Bill Hickok’s girlfriend.
Not that DeMille’s Calamity Jane was fooling audiences at the time. The review in the New York Times by Frank S. Nugent charges DeMille with “taking history by the tail and throwing it out the window." I particularly like the line “ you frontier authorities will probably be confounded, and will confound Paramount for telling you the sweetest story ever told about Wild Bill and Calamity Jane...the changes that time and Jean Arthur have wrought! She doesn't chaw tobacco anymore. She doesn't cuss. She doesn't run around with the boys. She just talks low and husky, is cute when she's being tomboyish, and she loves Wild Bill so much, she almost faints when the Indians start torturing him..."
“The Plainsman” Calamity Jane is one of the trio of American West icons. Wild Bill Hickok, played by Gary Cooper, helps his pal Buffalo Bill Cody, played by James Ellison (who we’ll meet up farther down the trail in “The Texan and Calamity Jane” as her new prospective boyfriend), deal with a Cheyenne uprising and the scoundrels who sold them repeating rifles.
The movie starts in Washington, D.C. towards the end of the Civil War, where President Abraham Lincoln discusses the proposed transcontinental railroad. He wants the frontier to be made safe for the plow. Then he excuses himself from the meeting because he’s going to Ford's Theater. We covered what happened at the theater that night in this previous post on “Prince of Players” (1955).
Before we get too far, we might as well just forget picking out historical inaccuracies. There are too many of them. Suffice it to say in any movie about Calamity Jane, approach it as entertainment and not as a documentary on her life. Very little of what you see is probably true.
When we meet Wild Bill he is at the river landing in St. Louis, about to board a riverboat. He has just been discharged from the Army, and he runs into his old pal and fellow scout Buffalo Bill Cody and Cody’s new bride played by 19-year-old Helen Burgess (whose career was sadly cut short when she died of pneumonia the following year).
In a minute, we meet Herself, Calamity Jane. Not standing out in the crowd, only one of the Western menagerie. She is hitching a team of horses to her stagecoach. She wears loose buckskin trousers and shirt, and an army kepi. And, what appears to be quite red lipstick. Her short hair is brushed back off her face in a manner similar to the longish hair of Gary Cooper and Buffalo Bill Cody, making all three of them sort of resemble each other.
Calamity Jane, the Woman and the Legend by James D. McLaird (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) which we referred to in our first post on this Calamity Jane series on Monday here -- the real Calamity Jane had dark hair and was tall, at about 5'9" and about 170 pounds, which one of her contemporaries recalled many decades later, was “all frontier muscle." (Page 112.) Whether this is a picture of her in her 40s or her 20s, we don’t know, but it’s of course drastically different from the blonde, delicate-looking Jean Arthur who stood about 5'3".
But there is something in Arthur's characterization that seems so natural. Particularly when you compare it to other actresses who've played Calamity Jane that appeared more affected and stagey.
Author James D. McLaird quotes from a play written by Thomas Newson in 1878, only a couple of years after the incident in 1876 when Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall (I know this is a movie spoiler, but it's also history). Playwright Newson describes the character Calamity Jane in his stage directions: “Her movements are all free and unstudied, yet in no sense unbecoming. Her conversation is animated. She imitates no one; is an original in herself; despises hypocrisy; and is easily melted to tears. She is generous, forgiving, kind-hearted, sociable, and yet when aroused, has all the daring and courage of the lion or the devil himself..." (p. 103). This seems to be Jean Arthur’s take on her as well.
Calamity Jane was in her mid-20s, and she was already a celebrity, having dime novels and plays written about her. The darker side of Calamity Jane, her alcoholism, which caused her more than once to be thrown into jail for rowdy behavior is not mentioned in the novels or the play. That behavior, the other side of the coin, is left to the newspaper journalists of the day to illustrate in dry, ironic observations of the heroine of the plains, the so-called Queen of the Prairie. We are missing that description in this movie and in the rest of the movies in this series.
Jean Arthur carries no such baggage, and yet there is that angst about her which make us sense there is more to her than just buckskin leggings. There are certain aspects of the real Calamity Jane that are suggested in this movie. That they are only suggested and not portrayed is, of course, in part to do with the Production Code of the day. But, the Code was not entirely the obstacle of keeping the truth about Calamity Jane from the public. The truth is nobody really knew the truth, and the truth was made up of a lot of little slivers of fact, that never quite came together -- not in the media, and they never quite came together for Martha Jane Canary, and maybe that's what tortured her.
But this is the West and as Cooper tells Buffalo Bill Cody's frightened bride, “There's no Sunday west of Junction City. No law west of Hay City, and no God west of Carson City.”
Holding up curtains against her waist, Jean replies that it's pretty enough to be worn as a dress. Mrs. Cody asks, “Why Calamity, do you ever wear dresses?"
It was rather the eastern newspapers, the eastern writers, who made much of her, who turned her into one-part heroine and three-parts curiosity or sideshow freak. The Western journalists took her for what she was, good and bad and made no great fuss over her in a world where there were plenty of other wild characters. She is no more outlandish in her buckskin than Cody or Custer or the Cheyenne.
She goes off, brings back Custer, the cavalry comes in saves the day. Gary Cooper still has a score to settle with Charles Bickford and when he finally catches him and his gang, he holds them up in the saloon for the military authorities to come and take them into custody. While they're waiting, they play poker.
However, there are different versions of what this hand of poker actually comprised. In this version and the many versions of the story, he's holding black suits -- ace of spades, ace of clubs, a pair of black eights and the king of spades. Nobody really knows if that's what he was holding and other versions of the story had him holding different cards.
Calamity Jane was still in her early 20s at the time this event happened. How remarkable that she could become an icon of the Wild West when she was still a very young woman -- and over an event which she really had no great part.
Martha Jane Canary herself, though she made an unsuccessful attempt at selling stories of her life in pamphlet form in wild west shows in her later years, was one of the few people to fail to profit off Calamity Jane.
Facts very quickly became irrelevant in the forming of Calamity Jane's fame. Rather, it seemed the case of detractors wanting to paint her as a ridiculous person, admirers wanting to make her far more angelic than she was, and the fascination of the public for the great adventure at the American West represented.
“The Plainsman” was not the first occasion we see Calamity Jane in the movies. According to James D. McLaird, the first known film was in 1915, “In the Days of ’75 and ‘76”, locally produced in Nebraska. She and Wild Bill were married in that one.
He notes the first nationally distributed film that featured Calamity Jane starred William S. Hart and Ethel Gey Terry in 1923, but that no print of this movie exists. So “The Plainsman” is the earliest major motion picture to feature the character of Calamity Jane in existence, and this a starring role by one of Hollywood's major actresses of the day.
In his excellent biography, Jean Arthur, The Actress Nobody Knew (Limelight Editions, New York 1997), author John Oller notes that Mr. DeMille's first choice for Calamity Jane was Mae West (p.94).
Let’s all consider that a moment and choke on our coffee.
But, C.B. was pleased with Jean Arthur's dedication to the role. Apparently, she wanted to play the role without makeup, and with close cropped hair, but the studio apparently wouldn't let her get too scruffy.
The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, edited by Donald Payne (Prentice-Hall Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey 1959), the director notes that he was pleased with Jean Arthur, particularly by how she learned to use the 10 foot bullwhip “as competently as Calamity Jane did when she was driving a stagecoach. I offered my wrist is a convenient target for the curling end of the whip during Jean’s practice sessions. The wrist for a lash marks for days; but Calamity herself would have applauded the skill of her portrayer.”
Mr. Oller in his book on Jean Arthur also notes the coincidence that Jean Arthur's mother was a child in Deadwood, South Dakota at the time Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were living there.
In what was certainly part of promotion for the film, and perhaps part defense of playing the notorious social outcast, Jean Arthur wrote an essay called “Who Wants to Be a Lady?” for Screen and Radio Weekly, (quoted by Oller, p.p. 96-97) which was published September 20, 1936. Noting that Calamity Jane lived her own life the way she chose in the environment and circumstances that presented themselves to her, “really emancipated women are always natural, because they do what they want to do. They are not dulled with ‘culture,’ either, because there's nothing false or ‘put on’ with them. They may be smart and well-informed, but they are not stuffy. Because of this there are thousands of emancipated women who don't wear slacks, smoke or drink cocktails, a type, clerk, keep house, raise children.
"Doing what they want to do, they are emancipated without knowing it.”
“The Texan Meets Calamity Jane” and “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.”