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.”


Anonymous said...

Great review, as always. I saw this movie recently and it's very entertaining. DeMille threw everything but the kitchen sink in there, didn't he? I had to laugh at the convergence of all those mythical Western characters at the same place and time. Not historically accurate, perhaps, but a hoot to watch.

Jean Arthur's portrayal of Calamity Jane was nicely sensitive and nuanced. She was such a wonderful actress. Gary Cooper was great too, and looked sexy in his buckskin suit. I'm so shallow. ;-)

Thanks for a fun series, Jacqueline! I'm partial to the Doris Day musical version of Calamity Jane's story, so I hope you'll be covering that one, too.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Melissa. You're right about this movie being a kind of revoling door for 19th century characters. Everybody shows up at the party.

Your pal Doris Day is going to join us next Thursday. Hope you can stop by.

LucieWickfield said...

Fabulous review! You are always so insightful. I do think this type of film shows Arthur at her best.

Caftan Woman said...

A great read. I have yet to cross paths with "The Plainsman" and now I hope it will happen soon. Jean Arthur gives us so much in her portrayals and I love your description of her work in this movie.

My shallow moment: I admit to swooning a little at the mention of James Ellison. Sigh!

Mae West?!?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Lucie. I have read that Jean Arthur really enjoyed the role (as did other actresses who played Calamity Jane).

Page said...

You've put so much work into this series and the behind the scenes perspective is so interesting. Again, Jean was such a beauty so seeing her as CJ is funny, that hat gives me the giggles.

It's interesting that Hollywood cleaned up CJ image and left out her alcoholism and the brushes with the law.
It would be interesting to see newspaper articles written about her.

This was such an interesting piece that I've featured it on my sidebar (I hope you don't mind)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, you are most surely allowed to swoon over Mr. Ellison, he's worth it. I hope you get to see "The Plainsman" soon. Thanks.

And thank you, Page. I agree Jean Arthur looks too cute to be taken for a roughneck. Thanks for featuring the post on your sidebar, I don't mind at all, I'm very grateful.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, I chose this particular part of your Calamity Jane series to comment on because I am such a DeMille lover, and the Plainsman is one of the movies I saw as a child that made me love classic film. Ignoring some truth in history is nothing new in Hollywood at that time, but DeMille, as you said, did a pretty good job with Calamity. Jean Arthur was just as you described her.

Your review of this movie, your thoughtful and humorous remarks, were done so well. I remember how well-done the scene of Hickcock's torture was, and I particularly always loved the scene with young Anthony Quinn as an Indian, telling the story of the ambush.

This is the only movie about Calamity Jane that I ever liked. I was not a fan of any of the subsequent films about her. This to me was the best of them all.

Wonderful series, Jacqueline. You deserve a big congratulations!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Becky. Your remark that DeMille's handling of this and other movies are part of what made you love classic film is very important. DeMille was foremost a showman, not a historian, but he made history seem human and approachable for his audiences. It is easy to get swept up in the pagentry and become inspired by both history and by the telling it of through the technique of film.

If neither "The Plainsman" nor his take on Calamity Jane are perfect, at the very least, he displays an empathy for her where to other screenwriters and directors she was merely a cardboard cutout.

Thanks again.

ClassicBecky said...

Hollywood, Hollywood - we love ya, but learning history from movies took some undoing with study of real history! Accuracy usually took a back seat to great moviemaking. I always thought the classic-era depictions of Custer and the Last Stand, varied as they were, were true. Just an example of many!

I think it is as you just said,
DeMile showed empathy and, to me, a respect for a tough woman who was different. The other movies, especially the later ones you discussed, go so far as to make her a sexpot, clothes perfect and always clean, cleavage with a cowboy hat -- really?! Calamity herself would laugh at that...

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Cleavage with a cowboy hat..." No, Jane Russell isn't until Thursday's post.

Seriously, Jane Russell gets more respect than the B-movie CJ's, but as we'll see, HER Calamity Jane demands it.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I'll admit I don't see that many westerns (though I'm a sucker for some of them, including HIGH NOON and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF :-)), but I enjoy your writing, especially your take on history. So I knew I'd enjoy your take on THE PLAINSMAN! You did a great job of bringing the movie to life in your review. Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper are a match made in movie heaven in any case. Maybe it's because I'm not as seasoned in early American history as some, but the obvious DeMille over-the-top qualities probably wouldn't bother me if I saw it, because I simply wouldn't know any better! :-) Great post!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Dorian. I agree Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper were a great pair. I think most people shrug off DeMille's taking liberties with the facts because he's such a good showman. You really get taken in with the pagentry of his stories.

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