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.


Caftan Woman said...

As I sit back being entertained (or not) by the various incarnations, it is so easy to forget that once there was a real woman behind the supposition and make believe.

I will now pause for yet another sigh over Jimmy Ellison. Sigh.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

" is so easy to forget that once there was a real woman behind the supposition and make believe."

Bingo. I should have you write this blog, you get to the point much faster than I do. I'm not a great talker, but I write until I'm blue in the face.

Your girlish devotion to Mr. Ellison is touching. I'll just tiptoe out of here and leave you two alone.

Yvette said...

The man in the picture at the top really looks like Philip Carey - a nice hunky lad who later went on to star in soap operas.

The truth is, Jacqueline, that I don't think many would like to sit through a film that showed the 'real' Calamity as she actually was.

Sometimes the world is better viewed through rose colored glasses.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You bring up an interesting point, Yvette. We'll talk more about that on Thursday.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

A great series of posts - all of the screen Calamities have been great in their own way, but the most realistic belongs to the TV show, Deadwood

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Gary, thanks for stopping by. "Deadwood" certainly offers a look at the period and the people like no other film or TV show dared.

Andorian323 said...

I'm having a hard time accepting that Grace Lee Whitney played the part of Cecilia in The Texan Meets Calamity Jane. I know that IMD and Wikipedia do both state that, but the actress does not remind me of her at all.

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