Monday, July 18, 2011

Calamity Jane - Intro

In a four-part series for the next two weeks, we’re going to discuss Calamity Jane, and how movies of the mid-20th century saw her.  She’s a figure in American history that has been so hyped and exploited, and so little understood that the real person, whoever she really was, was jettisoned long ago -- partly by journalists and dime novel authors and partly by herself -- that what remains is the residue of legend, myth, outright lies, and that purest alloy of American fame -- marketing.

All this happened long before the movies, so by the time the “character” of Calamity Jane hit the big screen, she was already open to interpretation. As we will see in the four films we’re going to cover, the interpretation runs the gamut between tough-talking tomboy frontier scout, to shrewd businesswoman, to something between an innocent, goofy kid sister and a raucous rodeo clown.

This Thursday we’ll start with “The Plainsman” (1936), with Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. Next Monday, we’ll take on Evelyn Ankers in “The Texan Meets Calamity Jane” (1950) and Yvonne DeCarlo in the role in “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” (1949). Next Thursday we’ll conclude with Jane Russell as Calamity Jane in “The Paleface” (1948), and Doris Day in the title role in the musical “Calamity Jane” (1953).

Who Calamity Jane was, at least at the beginning, was Martha Jane Canary. She was born n 1856 on the Missouri prairie. While still a child, her parents moved the family further west. By the time she was 8 years old, she was living in Montana, and was the sole guardian of her younger siblings.

Library of Congress, 1895, public domain.

When she was in her 20s, her fame was already spreading across the country as the heroine in popular dime novels of the day, usually as the friend of one “Deadwood Dick” created by author Ned Wheeler, who never went west himself but brought it to life for his young readers. A popular play written only a couple years after the famous murder of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota, has her avenging Hickok’s death, and from then on there grew many tales about Calamity Jane that depicted Wild Bill and her as lovers, and fellow frontier scouts for the Army.

Along with the novelists and playwrights and newspaper journalists, Calamity Jane herself took a hand in spreading her reputation, in one way or another, particularly when she'd been drinking, which she did a lot.  Some of her exploits were only tall tales that never happened. For instance, she was never a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. She was never a scout at all. She did accompany military expeditions as a civilian hanger on or more notoriously was what called a camp follower.

Some stories were embelished from fact.  She did spend quite a bit of time in Deadwood during the gold rush of 1876, and she knew Wild Bill Hickok, but they were never lovers. Even she never claimed that in her short autobiography. She was in town when he was murdered, and did mourn for him, but that was the extent of their intimacy.

As for the customary image we have of her in male buckskin attire, those are mainly from publicity photos. She wore dresses more often than not.

She was reputed to be a great rider, and a great shot, and she was. She was reputed to have a warm and sympathetic nature, and did perform kindly services now and again -- taking care of the sick, helping those in need in various ways, but she was no superhero. For the most part, Calamity Jane did nothing special to deserve icon status, and we may wonder why she became so famous. Not even her wild behavior was unusual in the Wild West.

And she was wild, restless, and impulsive. She had relationships with many men, a number of whom she lived with for periods of time and called her husbands. She had two children, a son who died in infancy, and a daughter for whom she cared until shortly before her death. She was reported to be a loving and affectionate mother. Calamity Jane died in 1903 at 47 years old , an alcoholic.

From the time she was a teenager, Calamity Jane lived on her own, following the railroad, following the Army, and learned to drink and cuss and fight as a means of survival. We see her in movies as somebody who was tough, but the movie costume of buckskin pants and shirt, the pistols, the bullwhip -- that was affectation to illustrate her toughness. She was even tougher in a dress, at a washboard, temporarily reforming herself and drying out for a few weeks, trying to get her life back together as a laundress or a cook, until she lost the battle and went on another bender.

There were only two kinds of women in the American West of that period, tough women, and dead women.

Library of Congress, 1901, public domain.

One very good book on Calamity Jane written by James D. McLaird: Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) goes into meticulous detail not only about Calamity Jane’s life, but how her legend developed. That is the more fascinating story. But, long before the media of the day caught hold of her, she was a girl named Martha Jane.

The author quotes the very first time the woman who became Calamity Jane appeared in print, in a newspaper from Virginia City, Montana. It was December 1864, and she was eight years old.

“Three little girls, who state their name to be Canary, applied at the door of Mr. Fergus, on Idaho Street, soliciting charity…the eldest carried in her arms her infant sister.” Martha brought her younger sisters, all wearing nothing but calico slips that winter day, to ask for food. The newspaper described their parents as “inhuman brutes who have deserted their poor unfortunate children.”

This was the pitiful beginning of her relationship with the media that lasted throughout her life, and long after her death.

The movies we’re covering don’t tell us that story. In “The Plainsman” she is a stagecoach driver in love with Wild Bill Hickok. In “The Texan and Calamity Jane” she is a saloon owner, still grieving for her love, Wild Bill, a year after his death. In “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” she makes her money riding in horse races across the country. In “The Paleface” she is a government spy sent to investigate guns being sold to the Indians. In “Calamity Jane” she is back to stagecoach driving, and falling in love for the first time with Wild Bill Hickok.

Sagebrush sagas, B-movies, comedies, musicals.  Her fictional character was adable enough to fit in everywhere, but Martha had too much trouble finding a place for herself in real life. We seem to see all sides of her except what really was. Somebody tagged her The Prairie Queen, but that wasn’t quite it, either.

There were other movies and TV versions, and we’ll mention some of those later. Come back Thursday for a look at Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane in "The Plainsman".


Caftan Woman said...

This will be a wonderful trip into print-the-legend territory.

Laura said...

Awesome idea for a series! CALAMITY JANE is one of my favorite Doris Day movies. And I recently recorded the Yvonne DeCarlo movie from Encore. Really looking forward to this, thanks for the great background.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You bet, CW, and we're taking the stagecoach on this trip.

Thank you, Laura. When digging up movies for this series, I was afraid I'd have to leave out Yvonne DeCarlo, but fortunately, Encore came through in the nick of time. We probably recorded that one the same day.

Page said...

Aren't you clever? This is a really interesting topic and a series I'm looking forward to over the next couple of weeks.

Isn't it interesting when you see pictures of "Calamity Jane" compared to the gorgeous women who played her when in actuality she looked more like Marjorie Main?

Can't wait to see the Jean Arthur comparison. Her in that hat and costume, even then it's hard to hide her beauty and it's not a character I would imagine her ever playing.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Page. As you say, it's interesting that Jane Russell and Yvonne DeCarlo might not immediately spring to mind when we picture Calamity Jane, but Hollywood thought differently.

LucieWickfield said...

I feel like rubbing my hands together in excitement! However, I'm not sure if I "belong," as I've never gotten around to watching any of the Calamity Jane movies listed! I think I'll just sit in back. ;)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lucte. I'm sure you'll get your chance see some of these movies by and by. In the meantime, YouTube has clips of some of them.

Yvette said...

Even if Jane Russell as Calamity Jane is mind-boggling, I still liked the movie. She and Bob Hope - funny. I also always like Doris Day in the musical even if I knew that Bill Hickock was doomed. Though some people think there is an odd undercurrent in the Doris Day movie. Something to do with the singer (or actress, can't remember) played by Allyn McLerie. The woman Hickock fancies. some people say that Jane fancies her too. I don't know. I don't see it. Maybe.

The Jean Arthur film I'm not familiar with. Though that picture of her in that cap looks VERY familiar. :)

Great post, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. The lineup of ladies portraying Calamity Jane is indeed interesting. As for the "odd undercurrent" in the musical, I think people are going to interpret movies any way they please, and spotting lesbian subtext pleases some fans of that movie. I think we can be sure neither the studio, nor the creative staff involved intended any such message. Doris Day, who I believe once stated this was her favorite movie, might not care what people thought either way.

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