In the 1940s, Calamity Jane appeared as a character in several B movies in completely fictional scenarios, as if the real-life woman had morphed into a legend big enough to recognize under any circumstances, and pliable enough to fit any situation, no matter how unreal.
Conversely, the history of the real woman was about to undergo another examination during this period when diaries of Calamity Jane were released by a woman claiming to be her granddaughter.
This new information revealed that the daughter of Calamity Jane was fathered by Wild Bill Hickok, whom CJ married in a secret wedding. She gave the infant up for adoption. The diaries fill in a lot of blanks on her life. It is this information which makes up most of the background material for the TV movies made many decades later, which feature Jane Alexander, who won an Emmy award for her portrayal, “Calamity Jane” (1984) and Anjelica Houston in “Buffalo Girls” (1985).
These sympathetic, sensitive dramatizations of Calamity Jane’s life were a sharp contrast to the old Hollywood versions. The modern treatments were also more gritty, more realistic to the realities of Martha Jane Canary’s life and times.
But the stories were just as phony as the B-movies we’re about to examine. Those diaries were a hoax. The TV movies relied on completely bogus material.
In real life, Wild Bill Hickok was not the father of her daughter. CJ did not give her up for adoption, but raised her and at various times, placed her with others when she was working in wild west shows. Author James D. McLaird in Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend, which we discussed here in part 1 of this series, notes that on one occasion she had placed her daughter in a Catholic boarding school, but when she received word that her girl was sick, she walked out on the wild west show, took her child home and nursed her back to health.
Calamity Jane’s own health was more precarious; she was drinking herself to death. When her daughter was around nine or ten, McLaird believes she was taken by the man CJ was then living with and placed with a female relative of his, perhaps his mother. It's a theory, but it's plausible. Calamity Jane died not long after that, and history has lost track of her daughter. We know nothing more about her.
Hollywood in the 1940s had no qualms about making biographies of famous people and embroidering fabricated tales around them. The point was not to instruct, but to entertain. The movies we’ll discuss today may not have done either.
First up, we have “Young Bill Hickok” (1940) with Roy Rogers in one of the few roles where he did not play the character “Roy Rogers”. Here he’s government agent Hickok out to stop bad guys from stealing a shipment of gold at the end of the Civil War. Gabby Hayes is a galoot who becomes his helper, along with Gabby’s niece, Calamity Jane, played by Sally Payne. She calls him “Uncle Gabby”.
Here CJ is a little more realistic looking than Jean Arthur, whom we discussed in “The Plainsman” (1937) in this previous post, in that she appears more scruffy in her baggy buckskin. But her vastly diminished role in this film is as a sidekick to the sidekick. It’s Roy’s movie. Calamity Jane is a friendly, good old gal, but pretty dopey and fairly useless. She does take some pot shots at bad guys when riding shotgun on the stage with Uncle Gabby, but only after she puts down her banjo. She and Uncle Gabby sing a cute song about the prairie. Later, to create diversion so Roy can sneak into the back office to look at papers, CJ will stand on a table in the saloon and sing a comic song. Her voice isn’t bad, but she’s no Doris Day.
The saloon, by the way, is called the Hay City Bar. Kind of a disappointment. Some of the other saloons in these movies have better names, like, The Golden Garter in “Calamity Jane”, which we’ll talk about on Thursday. In “The Texan Meets Calamity Jane” the bar is “The Prairie Queen”, which actually was CJ’s nickname. I think my favorite saloon name we’ll see in “The Paleface” - The Dirty Shame Saloon.
What Roy finds in the saloon office is a note to the bad guy by some unknown Confederate conspirator named John Wilkes Booth. It isn’t until after Lincoln is assassinated (we read the newspaper headline) that Roy puts two and two together.
Roy’s gal in this movie is a Southerner, and they have spats over the North and the South, but in the end they marry, and a cheerful Calamity Jane buys new britches because she is to be the bridesmaid. Roy whips out his guitar and sings “We’re Going to Have a Cowboy Wedding.”
No Army kepi for Jane in this movie, she wears a black slouch hat with a feather in the hatband. She has three Indian pals who don’t get much to say, but who faithfully keep her out of danger.
You can see the movie here below, swiped from YouTube. (Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music so you can hear the video.)
The next year, 1941, “Badlands of Dakota” features stagecoach driver Calamity Jane played by Frances Farmer, another in the string of Hollywood beauties to take up the roll. The cast includes Ann Rutherford, Robert Stack, Broderick Crawford, Richard Dix as Wild Bill Hickok, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Hickok’s killer, Jack McCall. I’ve never seen this one, but the IMDb website’s reviews, while giving the thumbs down to the story, praise Frances Farmer as running away with the picture.
“The Texan Meets Calamity Jane” (1950) stars Evelyn Ankers as CJ, with James Ellison (who we last saw as Buffalo Bill Cody in “The Plainsman”) as the Texan. He is a lawyer who travels up to Deadwood (or Deadwood Gulch as it’s called here) from Texas to represent his client. In this movie, CJ runs a saloon that was left to her by her deceased partner. The Texan’s client is the partner’s niece, who wants the saloon.
But, this is no courtroom drama. Bad guys in town want the saloon, too, and there is much gunplay and fisticuffs.
The second interesting feature to this film is the “Trucolor” process that seems to give everything a bluish tint. It’s mesmerizing. Even the puffs of smoke from the gunfire is blue.
The dance scene is notable for being one of the most awful dancing you’re likely to see. None of the couples seem to move to the music, and it’s hard to hear the music over the sound of shoes scraping on the wood floor.
This is one of the most oft-repeated stories about Calamity Jane. Another version has it that jokesters buried her next to Hickok. However, author James D. McLaird notes that likely the town fathers in Deadwood, South Dakota at the time of Calamity Jane’s death in 1903 were the ones who made the decision.
Despite the inconvenient ruckus she made for the town in her unruly life, they may have decided that since she was destitute and would require the town to pay for a pauper’s grave for her anyway, at least they could turn the expense into an advantage. Calamity Jane’s legend had become a draw for tourism. It continues to be so today.
In “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” (1949), Yvonne DeCarlo takes over the role and is the most sultry Calamity Jane to date. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther comments on, “Yvonne DeCarlo, playing Calamity Jane in the style of Mae West…” You may recall in our discussion of “The Plainsman”, that John Oller, author of Jean Arthur - The Actress Nobody Knew notes that director Cecil B. DeMille had originally tried to get Mae West for the role of Calamity Jane in that picture. Oh, the irony.
Though CJ gets top billing in this movie, it’s really about Sam Bass, played by Howard Duff. We see him acquire a fast mare to race. Yvonne DeCarlo aggressively flirts with Mr. Duff, but he only wants her for a partner in his horse racing scheme. She is said to have won races as a rider all over the country. Never happened, but we should be used to that by now.
In this film, Calamity Jane is seen as a hard playing, hard drinking woman in tight buckskin who is comfortable chasing Duff, but seemingly too tough to be heartbroken when she sees he loves another woman.
She also rolls her own cigarettes; in "The Plainsman", Jean Arthur had never seen one and asked Porter Hall, "What's that you're smoking, chalk?"
These B-movie characterizations of Calamity Jane are all over the map from buffoon to businesswoman, to horseracing vixen. Come back Thursday, when CJ gets moved back to the big leagues -- the Big Budget Films where Jane Russell in “The Paleface” and Doris Day in “Calamity Jane” get to wear the buckskin britches.