12/09/2014

Calamity Jane (1953)


Is Calamity Jane the gayest thing that's ever happened? Well, perhaps not. But between Ancient Sparta and this 80's music video by Baltimora, Doris Day was butching it up in deer skins and a cavalry cap and belting out 'The Deadwood Stage' for the ages.

Within the first ten minutes of David Butler's celebrated musical for Warner Brothers - an answer to the box office success of MGM's Annie Get Your Gun (1950) - we've already been treated to the sight of Day's seemingly asexual tomboy heroine roughing up barflys and mild-mannered thespian Frances Fryer (Dick Wesson) entertaining the liquored-up patrons of The Golden Garter in full drag.


Fryer has been mistakenly booked when the punters wanted vaudeville pin-up Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), prompting Jane to head east to Chicago to rectify matters. Her subsequent fish-out-of-water scenes in the Windy City include an extraordinary episode in which an amused prostitute catches Jane's eye with a come-hither glance, to which she responds with bemused but unmistakable curiosity, the first stirrings of a Sapphic sexual awakening. Her return with Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), another wannabe mistaken for Adelaid, results in the sudden blossoming of an intimate friendship between the two women, which in turn serves to rouse Jane's dormant femininity. The ladies, soon looking every inch the lesbian couple, give Jane's dilapidated cabin a makeover and sing a duet entitled 'A Woman's Touch' while Jane hammers together the furniture and Katie finesses the interior decor. And then, to cap it all, Jane ventures out onto the hillside alone, wearing manly duds, to close the film with 'Secret Love', apparently about her feelings for Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), that Mr Darcy of the Black Hills. Yes, but is it though Jane darling?


However much of a delight this campest of romps is for its first two-thirds, the fun couldn't go on forever. This was 1950's Hollywood, after all, and so, inevitably, a conservative moral is tacked on demanding that Jane put down her phallic six-shooter, start wearing pretty dresses, cease all that "female thinking" and settle down with Bill. It's a disappointing if predictable conclusion to a joyous production whose gender-bending antics would prove a gentle forerunner to Nick Ray's weirdo feminist Western Johnny Guitar, released the following year.


What is ultimately most remarkable about Calamity Jane - apart from its cheery disregard for historical accuracy (see the real Jane above) - is Doris Day. The singer turned actress is so astonishingly bright, so swashbucklingly athletic and so utterly unselfconscious, it's quite breathtaking. She swings in and out of moving stagecoach windows with all the carefree ease of the young Errol Flynn, leaps onto saloon bars mid-song and is even lassoed from the ceiling at one point. No leading lady working today would be capable of a comedic performance of this sort and it's a crying shame that Day is so terminally out of fashion. A talent to be treasured, whether or not this sort of business is your bag.

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