CALAMITY JANE sassed, spurred, shot and sang her way to thirty-first place at the box-office among the hundreds of movies released in 1953, earning $7,600,000. The rowdy western musical-comedy gave star Doris Day a #1 hit ballad with “Secret Love”, selling one million records, and copping an Academy Award for Best Song. Other Oscar nominations went to the scoring and sound. Without setting out to accomplish it, the lyrics in the Sammy Fain-Paul Francis Webster tune, combined with dynamic Doris and her exuberant sendup of the buckskinned, pistol-packing heroine as a rootin’-tootin’ tomboy to dog-all-cats telegraphed a subtext of something personal and private yet delightfully inclusive to a heretofore sequestered slice of the multi-flavored Americana pie.
David Butler, an old hand at comedies and musicals, directed, though Jack Donahue handled the musical segments. Written by James O’Hanlon, its under-the-duds “secret love” meanings can be left up to whatever sex curve you may feel compelled to grade such cartoonish entertainments on, or you can just muse at how some people can insist on finding theory validations in panda bears or popsicles.
Oh, and there’s the rest of the movie…in the Dakota Territory of the 1870s, in the woman-starved mining town of Deadwood, the only gal around is hair-triggered, tale-spinner Calamity Jane (DD), but her rough-hewn style doesn’t comport with the hankerings of the menfolk. The two most prominent bachelors are gambler Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) and ‘Dan Gilmartin’ (Philip Carey), a cavalry officer. Braving attacks from the Sioux, Jane heads to Chicago to bring back singer ‘Adelaid Adams’ but all heck breaks loose when she’s revealed to be ‘Katie Brown’ (Allyn Ann McLerie), the singer’s maid. Who’s a’gonna fall ‘fer who?
Keel is less of a presence here than in Annie Get Your Gun and Show Boat (or the later, superior Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers), and Carey is dependably colorless. McLerie’s fine, but like the others her character doesn’t carry much of a charge, and they all play second fiddle to Day’s bursting bundle of energy in the title role. Doris is much more bearable as a frontier hellcat (comedy version) than Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun or Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, two noise assaults harder to enjoy than Custer’s Last Stand. Her buoyant athleticism puts a twist on the idea of “bar hopping”. The 11 songs whipped up by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster are amusing, with “Secret Love” easily the standout. *
Less amusing…the downside to this otherwise harmless flick is the script’s offhand dismissal of Native Americans, which may hold historical sarsaparilla in regards to depicting actual attitudes settlers held in the Old West, but done as a joke, in the service of a musical comedy, ranks pretty hard to take.
Also in the cast are Dick Wesson (for the love of Mike, take a hike), Gale Robbins, Chubby Johnson and Glenn Strange. Those old enough to recall vintage TV westerns may glimpse Robert Fuller,19, as a stagehand. 101 minutes.
* Frontier character Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary,1852-1903) could only hope to resemble Doris Day. She’s been played by, among others, Jean Arthur, Frances Farmer, Jane Russell, Yvonne De Carlo, Jane Alexander, Catherine O’Hara, Ellen Barkin, Anjelica Huston and Robin Weigert.