movienotes: calamity jane

Calamity Jane (Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Keel)
Cross-posted at the corner of your eye.

When Hanna and I were visiting her folks back in December, we decided to watch the old VHS copy of Calamity Jane (1953) starring Doris Day and Howard Keel that we found in their video collection. In our defense, may I point out that a) we love making fun of crap movies, and b) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a childhood favorite of Hanna's, and c) when I was about eight the original Broadway cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman was where it was at as far as I was concerned. I was the proud owner of a vinyl record (my very first!) and would make my best girl friend at the time play Frank Butler to my Annie Oakley as we sang, "The Girl That I Marry" and "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." To this day, I feel our relationship fell apart at least partially because she wanted a girl who was "soft and pink as a nursery" while I was more of a "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" kinda gal.

Anyway, so we decided to watch Calamity because of these things. And obviously we were anticipatory of the cringe-inducing depiction of Native Americans, the weak plot (this was no Deadwood), and to some extent the weak music and lyrics (Sammy Fain and Paul Webster are no Irving Berlin). What we didn't anticipate was the lesbian (sub)text and the total confusion in the heteroromance department.

See, here's the deal. As the film opens, Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok are pals living and working in Deadwood. They clearly see one another as besties, a situation which lasts through to the end of the film where their platonic friendship is required to morph into a romantic one in order to satisfy the demands of the marriage plot. Until the last-minute deus ex machina, however, Jane overtly professes desire for Lt. Danny Gilmarten (Philip Carey), stationed in Deadwood, and simultaneously acts out a courtship and marriage scenario with the other leading lady, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Katie is a dance hall singer/stripper who Calamity Jane brings to Deadwood from Chicago to help the local saloon owner satisfy his customers. While Katie's role in the movie is very obviously scripted to teach Jane how to be feminine, their relationship plays out as a romance from the very start. When Jane goes to meet Katie backstage in Chicago, Katie first reads Jane's body language and dress as male, and reacts as if Jane is a male intruder. Even after Jane clears up the misconception, the two continue to act out a butch/femme dynamic as Jane shepherds Katie to Deadwood (protecting her from hostile Indians), defends her honor at the saloon, and invites Katie to move in with her. The two set up housekeeping and Katie invites Jane to learn how to behave like a "proper" woman. Interestingly enough, despite Jane's transformation from "one of the boys" into a feminine girl, she persists in wearing her buckskin outfit in all of the scenes not focused on her transformation -- her femininity doesn't require skirts.

The romantic cross-currents in the film are terribly confused -- in no small part because the Jane/Katie pairing follows the classic girl-civilizes-boy courtship arc, except that the two characters are both women. The two are initially at odds, but find aspects of the other to appreciate, and settle into a domestic arrangement. Obviously, however, the film-makers needed the marriage plot they'd initiated to end in heterosexual marriage. So: re-enter Hickock and Gilmarten, who come to the women's idyllic cabin in the woods to woo (you guessed it) Katie Brown. Katie, knowing Jane desires Danny, resists initial advances but accepts an invitation to a local ball on the condition that Jane be invited as Bill's date. At this point I count three romantic triangles: (1) Katie and Jane in rivalry for Danny, (2) Danny and Bill in rivalry for Katie, and (3) Bill and Jane in rivalry over Katie.

Obviously, the solution would be for them all to move to Planet O. But barring that, the scriptwriters obviously felt they needed to resolve the plot in a timely and heterosexual manner. So Katie, despite earlier protestations, takes up with Danny at the ball -- causing Jane to storm off in jealousy. Jane later confronts Katie in the midst of Katie's stage show, demanding that she leave town. Bill helps Katie make Jane look foolish (in order to teach her a lesson) and then at the eleventh hour professes his love for Jane. Jane, having resolved her jealousy by transferring her affection for Bill, rides off to collect Katie from the departing stagecoach and the two straight couples have a joint wedding just before the credits roll.

The essential confusion of the show's narrative, I feel, can be summed up in an an exchange between Bill and Jane in which Bill suggests to Jane that her rage at Katie is caused by "female thinking," which clouds her rational mind and stops her from thinking clearly. Since the ostensible thrust of the narrative to that point was to move Jane from an essentially masculine position to a feminine one (from which she can be paired with Bill), the last-minute accusation of too much femininity highlights the nonsensical nature of the plot. Only by reclaiming her active, masculine position in the narrative (riding off in her buckskin to retrieve Katie from the retreating coach), can Jane reclaim her honor and win her place by Bill's side ... even as all of the cues of the narrative put her and Katie together as a butch/femme couple.

In short, don't watch Calamity Jane for the music, the Wild West themes, or the heteroromance. Instead, watch it for the lesbian relationship hiding in plain sight. As Hanna put it, "This isn't subtext, this is just plain old text."

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