TBT: Calamity Jane (1953)

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I loved this movie when I was a kid, but watching Calamity Jane (1953) leaves me feeling rather conflicted as a grown-ass woman in the 21st century. Sure, I still enjoy Doris Day as a rowdy cowgirl, belting out songs, shootin’ and spittin’, and slidin’ on the tavern bar, just like one of the guys but with a bright blonde ponytail behind her hat. And I mostly don’t mind the criss-crossed love stories between Jane (who everyone calls “Calam,” WTF?) with Wild Bill Hickock and Katie Brown with Lieutenant Danny.

Calamity Jane (1953)

Calamity Jane’s one of the guys!

Calamity Jane (1953)

And then her milkshake brings the boys to the yard.

What bugs me is the obligatory feminizing of Calam by Katie, especially in the song “A Woman’s Touch” when they tidy up Calamity Jane’s rundown old shack. That whole scene couldn’t be more 1950s if it was lifted wholesale from Leave It to Beaver and that was June Cleaver sweeping up the place in high heels and pearls (OK, that’d come out in ’57, but still). None of this makeover is relevant to the real story of Calamity Jane or the western frontier, it’s just super mega patriarchal cliches shoved down your throat, with lyrics like: “A woman and a whisk-broom can accomplish so darn much / So never underestimate a woman’s touch.” URGH.

Calamity Jane (1953)

Women’s mission in life is to clean. Get used to it, Calam.

Calamity Jane (1953)

Women policing other women’s femininity or lack thereof — I could write a thesis on this photo alone.

Calamity Jane (1953)

Katie sets up Calam to fail in this yellow dress. Calam is only herself when she’s wearing pants.

Oh, the costumes? Yup, they’re in the standard ye-olde-timey historical vein for the ’50s, using modern materials and construction with a few period shapes and touches. Katie’s blue velvet traveling outfit is rather impressive for looking like an 1880s bustle gown, and later in the film, when Calamity Jane strips off her pink ballgown, she is wearing a Victorian-esque corset, petticoat, bloomers, et. al., so bonus point there.

Calamity Jane (1953)

When Katie arrives in town, she is literally the only stereotypical woman they’ve seen.

Calamity Jane (1953)

You can put her in a corset and frills, but Calamity Jane is not thrilled.

Obviously, you don’t go into old Hollywood musicals looking for historical accuracy — usually, what you get is a colorful mishmash of nostalgic escapism with stellar song and dance. And on that level, Calamity Jane delivers, but it also deeply reminds me that kids can use some better role models than women advising each other to wear dresses and clean house.

Calamity Jane (1953)

Obligatory happy ending is obligatory.

 

How have the movies you watched as a kid held up?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

32 Responses

  1. Jill

    As a Wyoming person, I’m more than conflicted. Calamity Jane was a violent, hard drinking and, if the surviving photos aren’t lying, downright ugly woman. No cute blond here. She adopted the persona and mannerisms of a man to survive in a frontier environment that would otherwise have allowed her only one road to follow: prostitution (and some historians allege she occasionally resorted to that to get by). I don’t find anything comedic about trying to sanitize and feminize Calamity Jane, but this was the 1950s and all American heroes had to be noble and virtuous. Martha Jane Canary was a crazy tough bitch and she would probably have rolled in her grave to see herself portrayed in this fashion.

    Speaking of fashion, sometimes the lines and cuts of “historic” film costumes from the 50s just leave me enraged. Nobody had Jane Russell pointy boobs in the 1880s.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, actual history is nowhere to be found in this flick. Much like “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (last week’s TBT), the film takes a few historical names & unashamedly grafts them onto whatever tale they wanted to tell.

      Reply
    • PrairieSquid

      Oh my gawd, a fellow Frock Flicker from Wyoming!! Greetings, neighbor!

      Calamity Jane was also a prostitute there for awhile. She got her name because at the time in thr west, venereal diseases were called ‘the calamity,’ so there’s some speculation as to how she got her name.

      I totally agree with the rest of your comment about her, she was pretty much the exact opposite of the Jane in the movie^.^

      Reply
      • Jill R. Ottman

        Hi, PrairieSquid! From whence do you hail? I live in Laramie. I’m the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Wyoming chapter, and a lifelong movie costume fan.

        Reply
    • SarahV

      I just discovered that Robin Weigert is playing the measured, reassuring and crisp therapist on HBO’s Big Little Lies. What a switch!

      Reply
  2. thedementedfairy

    I have always LOVED this film, despite clenching my sphincter hard at all the girly stuff [yes, even as a kid in the 1960s!] I’ve seen it on stage quite recently, and still loved it, you just have to take it as a broad comedy and a period piece. And Doris in buckskin? I’ll take a slice of that pie… Maybe you should re-interpret ‘A Woman’s Touch?’ I wield my whisk broom very differently lol
    We also played ‘Secret Love’ at our wedding, as I’d leched after my wife-to-be for many years before I netted her!

    Reply
  3. Terry Towels

    Still love the damn thing. In ’53 the powers-that-be were still trying hard to get women out of the workforce after WWII. Thus the Rosie-the-Riveter to hausfrau lessons. But, didn’t work to long. The ’60s brought change.

    Reply
  4. Broughps

    This ranks right up there with Annie Get Your Gun. Can’t watch for accuracy, just entertainment.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I was trying to find a streaming version of Annie to review them together, but couldn’t in time. I had a thing for all those movies as a kid…

      Reply
      • Broughps

        Give me a musical from the 40’s or 50’s and I’m a happy camper. Especially the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals.

        Reply
    • MoHub

      Especially since in real life, Frank Butler acknowledged Annie’s superior skills, fell in love with her, and retired from performing to both marry her and manage her act. He was really quite a feminist, and the revisionist “woman sabotages her own skills to win her man” trope was an insult to both Butler and Oakley.

      Reply
      • Broughps

        Read/watched (can’t remember which) something on Annie Oakley a while back and found it really interesting. Her relationship with Frank and the rivals for her skills were fairly new to me.

        Reply
      • Roxana

        I very much admire Frank Butler. It takes a real man to be able to admit a woman is better at what he does – and love her for it.

        Reply
  5. Mrs. D

    I have never seen this movie, but I had a teacher in high school who used to call me Calamity Jane, and now I’m trying to interpret that. Not quite sure what to make of it based on this post.

    Reply
  6. Kat

    I like to read it a bit differently, possibly because I love the film so much. Calam bows to some convention and wears a dress, but in the “Black Hills of Dakota” song, when Wild Bill twits her about her old army coat, Calam says it was Custer’s and if it was good enough for Custer it ought to be good enough for Fort Scully. So although Calamity has discovered another aspect of herself, she’s not left her old self behind, even going to a ball.

    And really, just because housework is so boring and seems so intrinsically female, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Surely being disparaging of things like hygiene, comfort and order we’re once again saying that women’s work inside the home is less important than men’s work outside the house. :-)

    Domesticity might seem small, but careful housekeeping has a considerable impact on the health of society. Never underestimate a woman’s touch – but we do, all the time.

    Or perhaps I’m just making excuses for loving this musical so much!

    Reply
  7. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Whoever did the DVD for this (UK release) needs their head squeezing between two damp cowpats (while wearing a head necklace composed of mothballs and stink bombs).

    If only because they labelled it as subtitled for the hard of hearing, and then EVERY single time anyone is singing, the caption just says “SHE SINGS A JOLLY WESTERN SONG” or “THEY SING A CHEERFUL SONG.” for the entire duration of the song.

    Seriously, maybe cowpats are too good. Let’s just squeeze them gently between two perforated plastic sacks full of fresh silage.

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      I’ve taken to noticing things like this, a lot of subtitles/captioning for the hard of hearing refuse to touch song lyrics – there’s a Little Shop of Horrors DVD that SIMPLY doesn’t bother putting ANY captions up for any of the singing, but the Calamity Jane DVD above is in a very special camp of its own for being so brazen about it. In things like Labyrinth, the “Babe with the Power” song also gets complete caption blank-out. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves, not really to do with Frock Flicks, but it IS something epically rectal and outright insulting – and don’t anyone ablesplain to me that it’s about copyright issues, I know that, it’s just bloody stupid to label a MUSICAL as captioned if you can’t actualy caption the sodding songs.

      Reply
      • Andrew.

        I am wondering if that is because song lyrics may have a separate copyright from the movie and it would be an infringment to actually print the lyrics with close captioning. If so, then the producers of the DVD are either being cheap or the owner of the lyrics copyright refuse to allow it.

        Reply
  8. Statuesque seamstress

    Re: the screenshot of the cabin with the name painted on the door, I don’t know what the practice was in the American West, but during the Klondike gold rush, the only women with their names painted on their doors were prostitutes.

    Reply
  9. Susan Pola

    I remember seeing this as I love musicals and didn’t like it for :
    1) as I don’t like Westerns – Deadwood & Wayne-O’Hara films are the exception. So is Cheyenne Autumn for its poignant tale of what we did to the American Indian.
    2)It was totally anti-feminist.
    3) costumes were really yucky for the most part.

    Reply

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