Today we wrap up our Calamity Jane series (Part 1 and Part 2 are here) with a grand finale of sorts -- two major-league actresses in films with much bigger budgets than the B-westerns we discussed in Monday’s post. Calamity Jane swaggers, sings and dances, and shoots a little.
“The Paleface” (1948) is a Bob Hope vehicle that gave Jane Russell a good opportunity to do more than play a sultry sex object. Bob may do all the mugging, but it’s Jane’s withering looks that make him funnier.
And she still manages to be sultry in a kind of impatient, world-weary way. Of all the Calamity Janes, Jane Russell is the most invincible, whose character suggests power. Her statuesque figure, her glowering expression, not to mention her dark hair makes this character sort of Xena-Warrior Princess as Calamity Jane.
Her only hope to stay out of prison is to take the offer the officials give her to help them find out who is selling guns to the Indians. She meets Bob Hope, a bumbling, cowardly dentist, and decides to use him for cover. She lures him into marrying her (and repeatedly bashes him on the skull with something heavy just when they are about to kiss), so that she may proceed into Indian country in his covered wagon as his homespun prairie wife without drawing attention to herself.
She fights off an Indian attack with her gun, but Bob thinks he did it. This fills him with such conceit that he takes on all comers, and draws out the bad guys selling guns to the Indians who are now after him. I like his line, “Brave men run in my family.”
Bob also gets to sing “Buttons and Bows”, but when Jane Russell sang it at the Academy Awards ceremony, the song became hers by default. She gets to sing it in the sequel.
Anytime they go somewhere in the wagon, she drives.
Though he called himself a Native American perhaps ostensibly to get these roles, his real name was Espero De Corti. He was Italian-American, who on screen and evidently in his private life identified so with the Indians that he preferred to live under an assumed heritage along with his assumed name. A real-life example of be who you want to be.
“Calamity Jane” (1953) brings us to the end of our movies on the 19th century Queen of the Prairie, in a colorful and lively film, the most well-known of the Calamity Jane movies, but ironically, the one least realistic about her life.
Realism is not usually a prerequisite in musicals anyway, and the project was obviously intended to be tongue in cheek. We have CJ bellying up to the bar and ordering sarsaparilla. That alone tells us this is to be a good-natured romp, more parody than anything.
Doris Day plays “Calam”, who drives the stagecoach. Like Jean Arthur, she is far from physically resembling the real Calamity Jane. Like Miss Arthur, she’s got the Army kepi atop her blonde tresses. We’ve quoted Bosley Crowther of the New York Times on some of the other CJ movies, and here Mr. Crowther pans Miss Day and calls her exuberant performance “unnerving…She does everything but hit the ceiling in lashing all over the screen. This is not altogether entrancing.”
Doris Day’s speaking voice, lowered to a gravelly tone, is distracting for some of us. Interesting that decades later, Jane Alexander playing the role also used a very gravelly tone to her voice. I think it’s wrong to assume Calamity Jane swallowed sandpaper. But, as we’ve seen in this series, her life and character is open to many interpretations.
The song echoed loudly, and then faded as the big 1950s musicals ran their course and died. We lost Calamity Jane in popular culture for a while. She popped up in cameos in TV westerns a couple of times, but was little more than a prop for the regular characters. Then the 1980s TV movies we discussed here in Part 3, telling more false stories.
A CJ reincarnation on HBO’s series “Deadwood” showed a gritty, profane, and manic Calamity Jane in Robin Weigert’s intense and compelling performance. It’s a gutsy attempt to bring a characterization of CJ closer to the mark; though it overshoots it a bit.
Long before HBO, an episode of “Have Gun - Will Travel” starring Richard Boone as Paladin the avenging gunslinger, featured Calamity Jane, played by Norma Crane, in “The Cure” shown May 20, 1961, an introspective examination that was unlike anything we’d seen before that. Paladin meets her on the downslide, drunk and tossed out of the wild west show. She is aging, and time is passing her by. He cleans her up and dries her out, and tries to counsel.
“I have heard of doctors who consider drinking a sickness,” he says to her. He chides her on measuring up to her legend, and she replies, “I think I preferred the legend anyway…I got to believing the stories myself, the Joan of Arc of the Dakotas, Calamity Jane.”
Afterwards, facing up to growing older, facing up to the legends, “Wild Bill never so much as gave me a second look.” In a heartbreaking, shamefaced moment she confesses, “Do you know what I said when Wild Bill was shot? I said, ‘Boys, who’ll buy me another drink?”
You’re supposed to start out with nothing, that’s okay, it can even be a badge of honor, but if you end up the same way you’re as damned as if the Puritans had excommunicated you to the wilderness. Society just won’t look at you anymore.
Author James D. McLaird, whom I’ve referred to extensively in this series, brings this to a fine point at the conclusion of his “Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend”.