The Yes Woman: Did Calamity Jane have borderline personality disorder?
The 1953 film’s gender and race politics are poor, but goshamighty, the tunes are catchy
Doris Day as Calamity Jane. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
I have a tense relationship with musicals. Their jollity is a bit unsettling, like a visit from your country cousins who drink pints of milk with lunch. Most people only reach the sort of mood expressed by musicals by imbibing chemical enhancement and spending an unsupervised hour with a kaleidoscope.
Calamity Jane is coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin. Everyone knows that one sudden dose of a musical can injure a dour person, so I watched the 1953 movie with Doris Day as a sort of gateway musical.
While Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe were making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in sparkly dresses at MGM, Doris Day was in Warner Brothers studios wearing fringed animal skins and dancing a mighty jig atop a wagon. The film is full of earworm songs that you’ll chastise yourself for humming later.
The wonderful thing about Hollywood films from the 1950s is how deeply unacceptable they are now. The 1953 version of Calamity Jane is a riot of overt and latent sexism and racism. There are constant comments about how Calamity should “dress pretty”, and “act like a lady”. The film’s idea of masculinising Doris Day is to put her in trousers and have her foot-stompingly exclaim “goshamighty” rather a lot. Her bleached hair remains impeccably root-free and set, and her make-up seems rather impractical (though nice) for a frontierswoman. We won’t even mention its portrayal of Native Americans, who got a pretty raw deal both in actual history and in the film’s spiffy, fabricated version.
For unspecified reasons, Calamity Jane sets out to save the “opry” house in her town of Deadwood by heading to “Chicagy” to fetch back a stage performer called Adelaide Adams. We know that Adams is attractive and desirable because we are shown a photo of her in very elaborate underwear that looks quite uncomfortable, and told that she’s famous. All of the men in Deadwood are obsessed.
This brings us to another disconcerting point. There don’t really seem to be any women – other than Calamity Jane herself – in Deadwood. Whether there ever were any, or the male populace of Deadwood sprang suddenly forth from the earth, we are left to guess. But the result of this unfortunate gender imbalance is a town full of men who fight over small photographs of a frilly underwear-clad stage performer, and conveniently fail to notice that Calamity Jane is in fact biologically female, which can only be a good thing for her.
There is the scene we’ve all come to expect where Calamity girls up, or mans down, or vice versa (it’s all very insulting really), and wears a dress. The dress makes her attractive, and all of the men like her now, which is possibly a good thing. The film doesn’t really answer any of the questions it raises. These include: why is it that Calamity can jump up and down on a moving wagon without injury? How can people in such harsh conditions have the time and energy to burst spontaneously into song? And why is the “opry” house so lushly decorated, given Deadwood is what one would describe as a shitbox town?
But we mustn’t intellectualise. I became consumed by hope of a politically subversive subplot when Calamity and Katie – a newcomer to Deadwood, and possibly its only other female inhabitant – move in together. Sadly, though, they just fancy up Calamity’s cabin with soft furnishings while they wait for husbands to come and find them. They eventually get those husbands, of course. If they hadn’t, we would have a Hamlet-scale tragedy on our hands, which would rather dull its rootin’ tootin’ energy.
There is hardly any conclusion to draw but this: Doris Day’s Calamity Jane had borderline personality disorder. The inconsistency of the message is as gripping as the songs are catchy, and I’m quite ashamed of how much I enjoyed it. I just wish Whip Crack Away would get out of my head.
The Yes Woman says Yes to . . . musical crack . . . and No to . . . earworms
- Calamity Jane is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin from May 19th-23rd bordgaisenergytheatre.ie