Thursday, July 28, 2011

Calamity Jane - Pt 4 - Just for Laughs

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.

There are at least two scenes that show a slice of the real Calamity Jane. When we first meet Miss Russell, she’s in jail. (But not drunk. I don’t think we learn why she’s in jail.) The other scene is when she is released by government officials who want her to spy for them, and during the discussion she goes straight for the whiskey decanter. She takes only one shot, but she downs it in one gulp. It’s not for comic effect. It’s cold and businesslike.

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.

His ineptitude causes her to remark, “I think I married a mental case.”

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.

Bob has some funny scenes with his dentist’s laughing gas, and several stock gags. Jane and Bob get captured by the Indians, where Jane becomes contrite that she got the poor sap into this mess, and confesses her love for him. The tough gal with the mean stare has a soft spot for the hapless palooka. He clearly needs taking care of, and she’s just the gal.

Anytime they go somewhere in the wagon, she drives.

Jane (and her stunt double) get to do some climbing, running, and leaping onto horses in an exhibition of physical courage that seems to make this role fun for the various actresses who play Calamity Jane. Both Jean Arthur and Doris Day claimed their turn as CJ were among their favorite movies. If there is any message of feminism in the Calamity Jane saga, I think it has more to do with the delight of the actresses who played her in the movies of the mid-20th century than with the woman herself.

A note on one of the Indians keeping them captive: you may recognize Iron Eyes Cody. Though a much younger man here, he is still easily identifiable as the iconic Native American in those 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” TV commercials, who gazes on litter or some other environmental hazard and we see a single tear stream down his face.

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.”

But, she sings purty, and some of the songs are quite sweet. “The Black Hills of Dakota”, which the cast sings while driving in open wagons to a dance in the twilight is a nice scene, and the real CJ might have echoed the sentiments. “The Deadwood Stage” is a rollicking opening number that establishes the setting and tone of the movie.

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.

CJ’s mission in this movie is to fetch a singer from Chicago to perform at Deadwood’s Golden Garter Saloon. Doris discovers actress wannabe Allyn Ann McLerie in the star’s dressing room playing with costumes and pretending to be her. Doris assumes she’s the star, and books her for the Golden Garter. Miss McLerie, no fool at seeing opportunity, takes the job. When she falters and is found out, Doris becomes her protector and champion.

Miss McLerie is meant to replace poor Dick Wesson, the second banana at The Golden Garter who was drafted to don women’s clothes to fool the women-starved cowpokes and perform a song. With that bright red lipstick emphasizing his wide mouth, Wesson is a hoot in that scene, looking like one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

Calam shares her grungy cabin with McLerie, and they sing about “A Woman’s Touch” and the joy of housework. Faster that you can say Trip to Home Depot, they’ve got the place remodeled and fit for human habitation. Then Miss McLerie starts in renovating Doris, and turns her into A Real Woman.

Being a musical, this is a boy-meets-girl sort of scenario, where Doris has a crush on an Army lieutenant, played by Philip Carey. Wild Bill Hickok’s in town, too, played by Howard Keel, who unfortunately doesn’t get too much to do in this movie. Both men fall head over heels for Miss McLerie, which causes some friction and Doris threatens to blast her new best friend to smithereens. Come to think of it, Doris should have been paired off with Yosemite Sam. They have a lot in common.

But, as befits that peculiar, orderly Hollywood caste system of stars and second leads, Howard Keel discovers Doris is A Real Woman and they fall in love just like that. The second leads pair off, and we get instant double wedding.

A lot of pleasant fluff, but a couple things to admire as well, including Doris Day’s athleticism in her musical numbers. Leaping and sliding onto the bar, and being lifted by her arms up to the lodge in the saloon. Some of that looks like it was done in a single long take. Reportedly the song “Secret Love”, which became a bit of hit, was recorded in one take. Not too shabby.

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?”

Being forced by the camera in any of these Calamity Jane movies or TV shows to see what was controversial about her -- the drinking in some, the gunplay or carousing in others; the promiscuity or profane language -- or just the swaggering woman in men’s clothes whether seen as a maverick or a buffoon -- we still are missing a key ingredient to CJ’s makeup. The camera flinches and won’t show us. Maybe because we flinch and won’t look.

It’s the poverty. She was an illiterate, poverty-stricken child and died the same way only 47 years later. In the 19th century, and still today, we have a rags-to-riches mindset. Horatio Alger stories of the newspaper boy who worked hard and one day owned the factory. The miners panning for gold. The frontier opened for people to bust the sod, drive the herd, and make their pile. Today, it’s casinos and lottery tickets and scratch cards at the convenience store.

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.

We can look at the swagger of Calamity Jane and pronounce it quaint. We can talk of the alcoholism and call it tragic. Few want to discuss the woman who had no ability to pull herself up out of poverty, who was trapped her entire life by it, despite whatever independence she got from the bullwhacking and the buckskin.  There is for many of us a lurid fascination with the failings and flaws of characters, fictional or real, but even for those of us attracted to the salacious or violent, poverty is just too plain ugly to look at.  Even the most sophisticated filmgoer hasn't the stomach for it.

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”.

“Her career, in fact, may offer the base case study of legend-making in the history of the American West simply because where was so little on which to build: she arrested no outlaws, robbed no banks, and killed no Indians. Instead, hers is the bleak story of poverty, alcoholism, and an unsteady domestic life. She worked as a dance-hall girl, prostitute, waitress, bartender, and cook; she lives with various men she called husbands and expressed affection for her children…most writers attempting to narrate Martha Canary’s life, however, have been so overwhelmed by her legend that they have been unable to acknowledge the commonplace conditions of her life. If it were not for her legendary fame as Calamity Jane, the story of Martha Jane Canary would hold little popular interest.” (p.269).

Paladin muses philosophically, “Jane, whatever happened to one of the great ladies of the west? Did the name get too heavy for you to carry?”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Calamity Jane - Pt 3 - The B-Movies

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. 

By the late 1940s, Calamity Jane acquires prospective boyfriends and begins wearing form-fitting costumes that seem painfully obvious to remind us that she is a woman, whose only problem is that she needs a man.

“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.

There are two notable features to this movie. One, is that Evelyn Ankers and James Ellison are the best actors in the film. Putting it bluntly, they are the only ones who can act in this film. Ellison is the square-jawed hero despite being a fancy pants lawyer, and Miss Ankers plays Calamity Jane still pining for her lost love, Wild Bill Hickok a year after his death. She is not the good-natured goof or savvy frontierswoman in this one; she’s a dignified, melancholy loner who is quite ruffled by the prospect of a new love.

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.

Calamity Jane has a comic sidekick in this movie, an old galoot played by Lee “Lasses” White. This was his last film, he died before it was released.

Grace Lee Whitney plays Mr. Ellison’s client, who not only wants the saloon, she wants Mr. Ellison. You can’t miss her in the movie. She’s the one who keeps delivering her lines right to the camera, as if she’s distracted by it. You’d never know by this awkward performance that she would enjoy a long career in movies and TV, including a role on the original “Star Trek” by which she continues to be famous at conventions.

Calamity Jane must rescue her from the bad guys (who do a really lousy job at tying her up, you’ll notice), even though she is a rival for James Ellison. Mr. Ellison takes Calamity to the dance in the saloon, for which CJ buys herself a dress, which makes her very uncomfortable. But, she wants to be attractive to the Texan, and even goes so far as swooning in his arms after she has been shot (just a flesh wound of course).

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.

In the end, however, the Texan and his client leave town together, intending to get hitched, and Calamity is alone again (except for her sidekick) at the grave of Wild Bill. (The headstone misspells his name.) She tells her sidekick that when she dies, she wants to be buried here with Hickok. The narrator tells us that she was, at her request.

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.

In “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” we have another dynamic duo whose real-life exploits are changed beyond recognition. Sam Bass was an actual historic figure, and was in Deadwood for brief period, but we don’t really know if he and Calamity Jane knew each other. We do know that once he got back to Texas, he became proficient at robbing stagecoaches, banks, and trains. He was killed in a bank robbery.

He’s a good guy in this film, a 19th century horse whisperer who gentles Calamity Jane’s fiery steed, but does not trouble to gentle Jane, because he’s already interested in the local storekeeper’s daughter.

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.

Lloyd Bridges and Milburn Stone (Doc on “Gunsmoke”) are Duff’s pals. When Sam gets cheated and a crooked vet on the take murders his horse, Howard Duff becomes a bandit, robbing stages and such to get revenge. He is eventually shot, and dies in Calamity Jane’s arms. It makes for a strangely somber ending; not the usual fare for B-westerns.

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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Calamity Jane Pt 2 - "The Plainsman" - 1937

“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..."

In “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.

After Abe’s left the room some unscrupulous arms manufacturers conspire to sell rifles to the Indians because with the Civil War winding down, they are not going to make such huge profit anymore. The man they have dealing directly with the Indians is Charles Bickford. Though he's the head bad guy, we don't see that much of him in this movie. We get a bigger impression of his smarmy toady Jack McCall, played by reliable smarmy guy Porter Hall. He seems to bump into Gary Cooper a lot.

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).

DeMille gives us one of his patented scenes of history that is a feast for the eyes. The camera leisurely moves over an enormous steamboat, and more extras than you can possibly count all moving busily in this bold young city on the Prairie. There are calls of “Mark Twain!" from the river navigators plumbing the depths, and most of you I'm sure know this is where the writer, Mark Twain, chose his pseudonym. We take it all in, and that's what Mr. DeMille meant us to do.

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.

We might interject here that according to 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.

We see Jean Arthur hitching up her team, climbing on the stagecoach, and throwing her whip. She does it with a natural athletic gracefulness quite different to many actresses in the role whose stomping around in hands-on-hips postures is done deliberately to look to mannish. She seemed perfectly at ease with what she's doing and this is the chief accomplishment in Jean Arthur's work.

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.

We get a few hints. While Jean is hitching up her stagecoach, a man walks by and flirts with her briefly and she returns his greeting in a friendly way. We see she has many men friends without needing to chase them. Gary Cooper is the one she wants. When she and Cooper first greet other, we see that she is crazy for him, plants a kiss on him which the disdainful Mr. Cooper wipes off and he insinuates that she is “a woman that has a fellow in every stage station and a beau in every cavalry troop west of the Missouri.” Through the Production Code gauze we are being told that she is promiscuous, which she was. She was also for periods of time, a prostitute, and in this movie a few times she uses the word “mopsy” to refer to a mistress or prostitute. Only a low woman would know such a western saloon word.

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.”

Though Cooper shrugs off Miss Arthur's affection, he carries a pocket watch with a picture of the two of them. She wears around her neck a set of beads that he once gave her.

General George Armstrong Custer gets a cameo. He's going after a band of Cheyenne warriors, and Ellison and Cooper are recruited as scouts. Ellison must leave his wife and their very dusty cabin.  Jean shows up to take her in hand, and look out for her.

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?"

“I might if I had one," Jean answers affably. As we mentioned in part one, Calamity Jane did wear dresses just as much she wore buckskin, and Arthur's delighted reaction to wearing one of Mrs. Cody dresses, getting a kick out of seeing the skirt twirl, shows us she is not presented as someone who needs to be taught to be a woman (as in later movies about her), but as a woman who was product of her environment and that is at least refreshing. Credit should be given to Cecil B. DeMille, despite the otherwise artificial aspects of her character in this movie, for presenting her as a person in a time and a place where Calamity Jane was after all, accepted.

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.

Except for that part where the Cheyenne warriors try on the ladies hats that Jean gives them to distract them from capturing Mrs. Cody. They capture her instead.

Gary Cooper comes to her rescue, and when they are held captive together awaiting torture, we see how lovesick she is, and he finally admits begrudgingly that he loves her, now that he’s going to die anyway. Jean can't stand to watch Gary Cooper being hoisted over flames, so she tells the chief where the small band of soldiers is headed, which saves Gary Cooper's life, but dooms the men of an infantry squad.

Mr. Cooper sends her for help, and he heads out for the ambush, joining the troop under siege. His pal Buffalo Bill Cody is one of the members. It's another one of DeMille's dramatic scenes with the besieged men are fired upon from all angles by the Cheyenne who have the new repeating rifles, thanks to the unscrupulous arms manufacturers. And Charles Bickford. And Porter Hall.

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.

Here is where we get the famous scene (or a CB’s version of it) where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall. It seems something of a travesty to have Porter Hall gunning down Gary Cooper, doesn't it?

History buffs know that Gary Cooper is going to die when Mr. DeMille shows us a close-up of his last poker hand. A combination of aces and eights in five card draw. It is popularly called “the dead man's hand,” supposedly because this was the hand held by Wild Bill when he was murdered on August 2, 1876 at Saloon Number 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota.

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.

While in Deadwood, Calamity Jane has left stagecoach driving to become a bartender, which she really did on occasion. She’s still using her bullwhip against bullies and people who don’t pay their bar tab. Check out the scene with a mechanical cocktail shaker. One imagines Mr. DeMille found that a tag sale somewhere, pining for the right movie to use it.

When Wild Bill is gunned down, Calamity Jane rushes to hold him in her arms and gives him one last kiss that he can't wipe off. In the play written about her so soon after this incident, Calamity does more than mourn for Wild Bill; she goes after his killers.

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.

In 1902, the year before her death, according to author McLaird, she reportedly gave an interview to a newspaper where she said that she and Wild Bill Hickok were to be married in a few days, when Wild Bill was murdered. Maybe she started believing the stories.

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.

Women were part of that great adventure. They were wives and schoolteachers. They were captives and orphans, and sometimes they were what the eastern towns would consider to be the scourge of society. And Calamity Jane represented all of this, all rolled into one person. There is a temptation, particularly in the 20th century, to define Calamity Jane in feminist terms. But she confounds even that reasoning. She was just who she was, and the fact that she never fit in and defied explanation was perhaps the irresistible draw to this hapless misfit.

What would she have thought if she saw herself getting the star treatment in the movies? When Jean Arthur played this role she was at the top of her game or soon would be. Calamity Jane in this movie was an equal to the characters of Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. They were the dynamic trio, they were the Mod Squad of the 19th century. Although she may be quaint and odd in her buckskin and her bullwhip, she is not a sidekick or comedy relief. Indeed, as previously mentioned Jean Arthur plays her with a kind of sensitivity we don't get to see from later portrayals of Calamity Jane in the 1940s and 1950s.

“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.

In 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.”

Emancipated, or deeply troubled, a victim of her time and circumstance or survivor of it, or just her own worst enemy, Calamity Jane means many things to her many interpreters. Come back next Monday when Calamity Jane slides from stardom and becomes queen of the B-movies in “The Texan Meets Calamity Jane” and “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.”

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