Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Calamity Jane

Here's my contribution to musical month over at the film experience:

Oh, Calamity Jane, you’re such a rascal. You make no sense at all, but you’re a rollicking good old time.

I was struck by a few things watching this piffle of a production, so there’s a lot to think about, mostly gender and the 1950s, but let’s face it: this entire proposition would sink to the bottom of an old metal tub faster than you can say “Annie Get your Gun” ripoff if it weren’t for the irresistible charms of Doris Day. About two-thirds of the way through, selling yet another inane song, I thought, “She just cannot help but be charming”. So thank you Doris, you’re the reason this movie works at all.

The plot, which you can see coming like a squawl on the South Dakota plains, goes something like this (along with some gratuitous asides by yours truly)—Calamity (or Calam as her friends inexplicably like to call her—mellifluously) Jane is a rascally man-dressing teller of tall tales. She’s tough, rough, and wields a mean shot. And she sings the opening song about where we are and who everyone is, straight atcha! Who is she singing to? Doesn’t everyone in town already know who everyone else is? (Here’s where you say to yourself, “It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”) Soon we figure out that she’s in love with a Lieutenant and will do anything for him, but her man-buddy/nemesis is Wild Bill Hickock (played by Howard Keel—doing basically the same thing he did in “Annie Get Your Gun”, though this time considerably less upstaged. Doris seems to be a more generous performer than Betty Hutton). Calam finds out that two geezers have been attacked by Indians, and have left the Lieutenant of Love for dead. Our heroine rides out alone, scaring the four Indians with a shot and stealing back her love. (“It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”) Then she comes back to the saloon and blows her tale out of proportion, again, noticed by Bill Hickock, of course.

Meanwhile, back stage, the owner of the saloon has employed an actor who he thinks is an actress (because his name is Francis-har har) to perform, and forces him to go on in cringeworthy drag, which, of course, he warms up to. Calam figures out he’s not a man, and the audience does as well, and as they all are upset and are all men they somehow politely just start to walk out—no one is getting hurt except the Saloon owner’s business, so Calam manages to rouse the crowd with her can-do attitude, gruff voice, and man-pants. She volunteers to bring the actress they’re all yearning for to Deadwood to perform. So she departs for “Chicaggy”—yes, Chicaggy – to find the famous Adelaid Adams and make her perform. And if she does, Bill will dress up as a squaw with a baby –harhar. Through a series of (surprise!) mishaps she engages the famous actress’ maid to perform. So the maid (Katie) comes to town, Bill dresses as a squaw (ouch--somehow with a crying child and entire native entourage) and the maid goes on, recognized by the actor previously engaged, and falters, singing and dancing badly. The men boo and she admits she isn’t Adelaide Adams. Apparently, though they seemingly wanted to see the famous actress from her picture, they are actually upset by the performance since they really wanted to hear her sing. That’s what men with virtually no women in their company stranded out on the plains wanted from a woman wearing barely any clothes: a song.( “It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”) They give the girl another try after Bill comes to Calam’s aid. She’s charming, she’s got a cute voice and she can suddenly sing and dance (!) , relieved of the burden of conscience. And plot.
Everyone loves her, Calam saves the day, and our heroine even invites the girl, (Katie Brown) to live with her in her cabin.

Cut to the cabin, which is so rough the raccoons would be packing their bags. Katie, though, helps Calam clean up with an inane song about “A Woman’s Touch”, which even includes the line “The pies and cakes/a woman bakes”. And of course, in true Hollywood style, there is paint on the walls, glass in the windows, and curtains, a fire, lamps, and even the two names on the door together, proclaiming in script “Calam and Katie’s place” by the end of the song. Calam even puts on a dress, and as soon as that happens, Day starts to sing in Lady Voice—the Doris Day we’re all used to, as opposed to the gruff chewing the scenery voice we’ve heard before. In fact, most of the movie the rule is man pants=gruff voice and dress=lady voice. After all, Calam has never seen a woman like Katie, or seemingly a woman at all (even though they pop up now and again in Deadwood, like dead wood, when they’re needed in dances). From the plot, you’d think Calamity had never seen a woman in her entire life, thought she does offer cloth to one at the beginning. Perhaps they are cloistered away to sew, only allowed out to buy cloth before retiring to their warrens. ( “It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”)

But all is not well in paradise. Both of the men want Katie. I’m not going to get into here, but basically Calam shows up at a dance (on the way to which everyone sings about The Black Hills—Indian country that I love), everyone is surprised, shocked, and thrilled. Then the lieutenant kisses Katie and it’s on! Calam shoots at Katie, using her gruff man voice while wearing a lady dress. The world is upside down! She is hurt, she is betrayed. She even goes throws Katie out, and threatens her on stage. Katie shoots at her, and Calam leaves. Bill follows, and of course, kisses her. And then they immediately are in love, since they supposedly were all the time. (“It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”) Day then gets to sing “Secret Love” in man pants and lady voice (though now her man-pants are form-fitting lady pants, so they make her feel silky, I guess, and sing like a woman). I thought about how different the song would’ve been if Mercedes McCambridge was singing it dressed like she was in Johnny Guitar, but that lesbian moment is not to be, even though the song is rife with homo-tones. Anyhow, Calam is so happy, but arrives to find Katie has left since the last thing she wanted to do was hurt Calam. Oh no! Calam gallops off, brings Katie back, and there’s a double wedding, where Calam wears a really silky white dress. But in the end, she gets her man, pants, a horse and a gun and her lady-voice all at once! And she gets to drive the stage while they all go off to ? ( “It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a MUSICAL!”) All’s right with the world.



I love your mantra.

"it doesn't need to make sense it's a musical" put that on a t-shirt and I buys it!

criticlasm said...

What a great idea--I think I will. CafePress--here I come!