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Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane
Warner Home Video
1953 / Color / 1:37 full frame / 101 min. / April 30, 2002 / 19.98
Starring Doris Day, Howard Keel, Allyn Ann McLerie, Philip Carey, Dick Wesson, Paul Harvey, Chubby Johnson, Gale Robbins
Cinematography Wilfred M. Cline
Art Direction John Beckman
Film Editor Irene Morra
Original Music David Buttolph, Sammy Fain, Howard Jackson, Paul Francis Webster
Written by James O'Hanlon
Produced by William Jacobs
Directed by David Butler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Nowhere near the achievement of Annie Get Your Gun as either a production or a musical, Calamity Jane is still a very entertaining musical comedy mainly because of the bright and charismatic Doris Day. Spunky and fun as a frontier tomboy, her romantic problems are especially interesting now as a telling comment on '50s concepts of femininity.


The very unlady-like Calamity Jane (Doris Day) promises to bring famous actress Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins) to the glamour-starved miners of Deadwood, but reappears with a phony, Adelaid's maid Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Both Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel) and local cavalry officer Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) take an immediate shine to Katie. Jane is at first confused, and thanks to Katie's help, gets herself in more appropriate shape to woo a gentleman for herself. But when Jane gets jealous, even more trouble is on the way.

Calamity Jane is one of the last original studio musicals before the Rogers and Hammerstein crowd took over; and it's from Warner Brothers, who generally came in second to MGM in this genre. But Warners had Doris Day, a powerhouse of talent who made stale material fresh and fresh material shine. Calamity Jane is dated in many ways, but nothing about Day begs for an apology.

Betty Hutton's grating Hick in Annie Get Your Gun took some getting used to. Doris is theatrically so right as the athletic, volatile Calamity that we like her immediately. She tells tall tales, makes threats idle and real to the cowboys at the bar and in general is an all-around loose cannon. She has delusions that the Army Lieutenant (a typically sincere-wooden Philip Carey) loves her and treats the man who could really appreciate her, the duded-up Wild Bill, as an equal. Jane really has no notion of a sexual identity for herself, although she says she wants a house and kids; she's likely to rush off to perform some suicidal rescue at a moment's notice. All in all, she doesn't think anything through.

Doris Day dominates the proceedings. Howard Keel stays even more in the background than he did in Annie and sings a bit in his overly operatic style. There are several songs and a fairly okay one called Windy City, but the standout is a pop ballad, Secret Love. It is one of Day's best songs ever and the reason Savant wanted the disc. It's so beautiful, it stops the show ... but who's complaining? It easily won the Oscar for best song that year. If you hate musicals about noisy women, just bop on down to chapter 31.

A lot of revisionism has aired about the sexual politics of Calamity Jane, the kind of stuff that sees everything in terms of repression and liberation. The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about gay themes in movies, put forward an interesting line of thought about how lesbians remember reacting to the film. Calamity is more masculine than the men and has to be taught from scratch the basics of socially-sanctioned femininity. In 1953 that was one part allure, to three parts comportment, to six parts housecleaning, to twenty parts cooking. Over the course of a song Jane's wretched shack is transformed into a sparkling 'homey' cottage complete with flowers on the window sill and their names on the door. The important thing about all this is that even when dolled up in fancy dress and hairstyle, Jane never stops being Jane - she still walks like a man and displays her emotions like an angry woodchuck (irate marmot?). According to interviews I've seen, gay activists like the idea that the story allows Jane to remain essentially herself. A dress and some makeup don't suddenly transform her into a Gibson Girl.

Beyond that, the radical politics lose me. I don't dig the interpretation of the show as some kind of drag festival just because comedian Dick Wesson dresses as a woman, or believe that leads Carey and Keel strut their macho to compensate for their feminine sides, yadda yadda. Sometimes a guy dressed as a girl is just that and nothing more.  1

Maybe it's all a carefully - rehearsed stage illusion, but ex-big-band singer Doris Day had about the freshest personality of anybody in show business. In a newsreel extra her beaming reaction to being presented with an award is about as sincere as sincere can get. Her smile just brightens up one's heart. Even more telling is Day's willingness to play in a movie where the supporting actresses (particularly the cute Allyn McLerie) get to be more conventionally attractive. In the old Hollywood, you'd think there must have been a special talent agency where musical producers could hire showgirls guaranteed to be homlier than 'the star,' no matter how old or broken-down she was. Day had enough self-possession not to insist that every other woman in her films be a bow-wow, as so many female stars do now. For that, she's truly a class act.

I'd better offer a caveat for people sensitive to older attitudes about Indians in movies - for its attitude re: Native Americans, Calamity Jane is no better and maybe worse than Annie Get Your Gun. The 'varmint redskins' are basically there to be made fun of or shot dead, and even for '53 the treatment is politically retro. I've done my duty.

Warner's DVD of Calamity Jane is good but suffers from the familiar DVD-from-a-Technicolor-source dilemma. Made in '53, it was probably shot in 3-strip Technicolor. Assuming those three strips still exist in good shape, they could be combined to create a dazzling, grain-free master, the way The Wizard of Oz and a number of other blockbuster classic films have been. But Calamity Jane's projected video revenue in no way justifies such an expense to the studio bean counters. The transfer source for this disc is some existing intermediate element, that recombined the three strips into a standard non-Technicolor negative. Whenever this element was made, all kinds of alignment and contrast flaws were built-in to it. The grain is high in all the opticals and rear-screen shots. The color varies somewhat, and rarely 'pops' into an original look. And most visibly, in many shots the recombined matrices are off-register (shrinking at different rates, most likely) causing the picture to momentarily look like a misprinted newspaper photo.

On DVD most of these flaws are corrected (in telecine they can do absolute wonders now), but nothing can align the permanently printed, misaligned shots. Luckily, they tend to be wider views, and the beautiful closeups appear to be unaffected. Until some economic method is invented to restore Tech films by the bushel, we'll be stuck with shows like this that don't quite make the grade. Warners has done the best they can in this case - and most viewers will never notice the flaws.

Extras include a trailer and two short newsreel clips: Doris Day receiving an award, and a rodeo parade in Deadwood, South Dakota for a premiere of Calamity Jane.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Calamity Jane rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer, two newsreel clips
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 17, 2002


1. Savant got deeply into musicals after seeing Singin' in the Rain in college, but I don't have any deep psychological bond with the spirit of Judy Garland or anything, thank you. By the same token, after Hercules, I went to see a lot of muscleman action movies in the '60s and a homoerotic thought never crossed my thick brainpan. So much for the standard take on 'guys who like show tunes.'

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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