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?”


Caftan Woman said...

I enjoy the tomboy outings of Jane on the screen. In that guise, she can be the little girl who didn't grow up. You are right in that looking too closely at the reality may be too painful for a lot of us.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Caftan Woman. It was certainly a different role for Jane Russell, a real change of pace.

LucieWickfield said...

Thanks for a terrific series! Enjoyed every post immensely. You know so much!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Lucie. You're very kind. I appreciate it very much.

Kevin Deany said...

Just a staggering series, Jacqueline. I've only been able to scan, which is why I haven't commented, but when things settle down I want to read 'em all word for word. Will be interested to read what you have to say about Jean Arthur's portrayal.

Laura said...

Thanks so much for a most enjoyable series! I learned a lot of new info on both the real and fictional Calamity Jane. Some of these movies I need to watch for the first time and some I need to rewatch. :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Kevin and Laura, thank you very much. I know these long posts can be trying, and I give you credit for attempting to plow through them.

Yvette said...

I learned a lot as well, Jacqueline. I knew that most of what we thought we 'knew' about Calamity was bunkum, but I didn't know how heavyweight the bunkum was. Jeez, nothing in her legend resembled the reality. Too bad.

Your comments on poverty and myth are right on the money too. :)

So much of what we imagined about the 'wild west' (at least in people my age) was learned from the movies we saw as kids. We believed a lot of it. In high school I had to do my own research to learn what really happened to the Native American tribes. That was my particular interest at the time.

But a lot of cowboy nonsense still persists to this day. The truth is, it was really an awful life - pioneering and living on the frontier. There was just nothing very pretty about it.

Thanks for a great series.

P.S. I always loved Jane Russell in just about anything. But I must say that except for the Deadwood Stage number which I loved, I never much real affection for the Doris Day movie. Haven't seen it in many years. But I do remember Philip Carey. Hubba-hubba.

Yvette said...

Meant to add: HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL was always one of my favorite shows. Richard Boone was incredible.

Hows this? I still remember the words to the show's title song.

There's no hope for me. Ha!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks a lot, Yvette. Yes, the pioneers had it a zillion times more rough than the romantic image we like to paint.

Still remember the words to the theme song for "Have Gun - Will Travel"? Oh, you mean, "Have gun will travel reads the card of a man...a knight without armor in a savage land...."

Hmm. I'm a little off-key tonight.

Yvette said...

I'm not the only one - HA!

We can sing it together.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

We can do a sister act.

Joel Bocko said...

Jacqueline, I knew nothing (I was going to say "virtually nothing" but in retrospect it's really "nothing" other than the name) about Calamity Jane before reading this. A really eye-opening overlook, and I always love pieces, or series, that take a look at a single object through multiple viewpoints. Commendable work.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Joel. She was an interesting person, and it's fascinating how the movies depicted her.

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