Calamity Jane (1953)

The irrepressible Doris Day—star of such hits as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, the woman who pretty much embodied the wholesome girl next door, the voice that mesmerized millions—passed away earlier this week. At the ripe old age of 97, Doris Day had gone on working till well into her 80s: her album, My Heart, released in 2011, made her the oldest artiste to feature in the UK Top Ten.

On Dustedoff, it is not just Doris Day’s music, but also her acting skills that I wanted to pay tribute to. When I was told about Doris’s passing (by blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man, who left a comment on my blog shortly after her death was announced on May 13, 2019), I felt a wave of nostalgia for Doris Day—because I heard and loved her voice long before I knew who she was. My mother used to sing Que sera sera to me when I was a toddler, and there were some songs of hers on various LPs in our house. I don’t know which was the first Doris Day film I ever watched, but I do remember going on a Doris Day spree, and watching several of her most popular films pretty much one after the other. There are several reviews of her films on this blog, including Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, That Touch of Mink, and Midnight Lace.

As tribute, I decided to watch and review a film whose lead character Doris Day described as her own favourite character, because Calamity Jane was closest in nature to Doris herself. “I was such a tomboy growing up, and she was such a fun character to play,” Doris said in an interview recorded in April 2019.

And yes, you get a taste of what sort of character this is, as soon as the credits have finished rolling in Calamity Jane.  The story begins with a song: a stage coach is racing along towards the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, and riding shotgun is Calamity ‘Calam’ Jane (Doris Day). ‘Riding shotgun’ is perhaps not quite the mot juste here; Calam sings, dances about, jumps around, swings over the side and onto the step, where she is joined in the chorus by the passengers…

When they arrive in Deadwood, Calam sings about not just all the stuff—everything from gingham to hair restorer—which she’s brought back for the people of Deadwood—but then goes on to introduce us to her best friends in Deadwood. One of these is the owner/manager of a theatre/bar/saloon called The Golden Garter: Henry Miller (Paul Harvey) looks prosperous enough, but also somewhat harried.

Another—with whom Calam has as many run-ins as she does agreements—is Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), who is one of the few people who sees right through Calam’s tall claims of killing off hostile Indians left, right and centre. He is also the man in whom Calam confides about her disappointment that the man she is in love with, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) didn’t even come to greet her when the coach arrived.

As it happens, Danny couldn’t have come. A couple of battered-looking men arrive in the saloon moments later, bringing with them bad news: Danny was one of several men who were ambushed by the Indians and killed. Calam is shocked, and refuses to believe it.

Before anyone can stop her, or even accompany her on this mad chase, Calam has rushed off by herself into the woods, where she’s able to frighten away a handful of Indians and rescue Danny , who is (much to Calam’s relief) alive. She unties him, gets him onto her horse, and back to Deadwood, where she boasts of all the Indians she killed in the process of rescuing Danny.

Wild Bill Hickok is, as to be expected, scornful: he doesn’t believe a word. Calam is not one to be put off by Bill’s scorn, and she gives back as good as she gets: I can do without you, they tell each other.

In the meantime, disaster strikes The Golden Garter. This establishment has a huge male audience, all of them clamouring to be shown good shows, great acts. Actresses like the gorgeous Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), for instance, who is so popular that her photograph, found free in a pack of cigarettes, is highly prized. (Not by Calam, who is disapproving of women who consent to be photographed in their underwear).

The famous Adelaid Adams is way out of Henry Miller’s league, but he’s managed to book an actress named Frances Fryer… only, now that Ms Fryer arrives, it turns out this is a Mr Fryer. Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson).

Henry Miller is so appalled and so worried—there is no time, the show is on in a very short while from now—that he can only think of one thing: disguise Francis Fryer as a woman and send ‘her’ on. Fryer doesn’t like the idea one bit but is forcibly pushed on—and, surprisingly enough (perhaps much of the audience is too sozzled to notice?) is actually able to draw some very leering looks from some of the patrons:

… though the more level-headed, clear-sighted, (and, in Calam’s case, sarsaparilla-swigging) ones can see something’s not quite right.

The farce falls through when Fryer’s wig accidentally comes off—and then it’s disaster for Henry Miller, who has to face a very irate mob. They feel cheated, they feel used, they demand reparation. Calam, jumping up onto a table to calm the men down (Henry Miller being her friend, her loyalty won’t let her sit back and see him getting lambasted). Calam’s way of calming the men down is to promise them grand spectacles, fabulous shows—oh, Adelaid Adams herself!

This goes down well and serves to defuse the situation, but when everybody’s gone away, Calam and Henry and Bill sit down to discuss it. There’s no way Henry can get Adelaid is going to leave Chicago and come to Deadwood (which is very aptly named). So Calam, who’s made this rash promise, had better attend to it.

Calam, therefore, all ragged and rough, clad in her deerskin clothes and ready to whip out her gun at the slightest provocation (or no provocation) goes to Chicago.

As it happens, on the night Calam arrives in Chicago, it is Adelaid Adam’s last appearance. She is going off to get married.

After the show, Adelaid goes to her green room, where her meek maid Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie) helps her change. Adelaid is busy talking about her plans to go on her honeymoon and beyond—in Vienna, Paris, London—and wondering what she’ll do about all her costumes. She thinks of throwing them all out, and then on a whim decides to gift them all to Katie. This it is that prompts Katie to ask diffidently if Adelaid might put in a word for her… after all, Katie can sing, and she can dance a little. Maybe in the chorus?

Adelaid is dismissive. Katie just doesn’t have it in her. Leaving Katie to her own devices, Adelaid now rushes off, gone forever to marry, to roam Europe… and Katie, resentful of the put-down she’s received at the hands of her late employer, decides to comfort her by proving—to herself, even if she can’t to anyone else—that she does, in fact, have it in her. So she dons the costume Adelaid wore for her last performance, and dances about the green room, singing the same song Adelaid sang.

This is when Calam, who had managed to catch a glimpse of Adelaid performing onstage, arrives outside the door. She hears the song, she opens the door and comes in, and after some initial panic (Katie mistakes Calam for a man), the two women get down to talking.

Katie soon realizes that the dress, the song, the dancing, and the very fact that there is a superficial resemblance between herself and her former employer means that Calam has mistaken Katie for Adelaid Adams—and now Calam invites ‘Adelaid Adams’ to come to Deadwood to perform, because Deadwood is crowded with men who’re yearning to see her dance and sing for them.

Katie, whose one desire has been to go onstage, is very tempted. She asks Calam about Deadwood: where is the nearest railroad? How far is it from civilization? (That’s the gist of her queries, and she’s pleased to find that it’s very far). And, having heard Calam talk about a photo in a pack of cigarettes, she also discovers that that obscure little photo—not a close-up of Adelaid Adam’s face—is all the audience at Deadwood knows of the famous actress.

Katie—or ‘Adelaid Adams’, as Calam thinks she is—agrees. Calam takes her back to Deadwood, and drives in in great style. Katie receives an extremely enthusiastic welcome.

And the stage is set for a pretty much complete turnaround of Calam’s life. Because before her horrified eyes, not just Bill but also her beloved Danny go off, starry-eyed, in the wake of ‘Adelaid Adams’. Plus, an industry insider—Francis Fryer—still being around means that Katie’s identity isn’t exactly safe.

How will it all pan out? For Calamity Jane, and for Katie?

Martha Jane Canary, ‘Calamity Jane’, was a real person. Like the character Doris Day portrays in this film, Calamity Jane was a rugged scout and frontierswoman who was illiterate and loved to boast of her exploits—boasts which were not (again, as in this film) believed by those around her. She lived in Deadwood for a good while, and was friends with Wild Bill Hickok. While Calamity Jane claimed (in her autobiography, which she dictated) that she had married Hickok, the general opinion seems to be that this is an example of one of her tall claims.

Calamity Jane, however, takes that historical character and the very basics of her character, and uses it to spin an entertaining yarn that’s full of humour, song and dance, and some romance.

What I liked about this film:

The entire package, which is lots of fun.

The story (by James O’Hanlon) is simple but well put together, there’s plenty of humour, and the songs are good. But, what I especially liked:

Doris Day. She’s really good as Calamity Jane, leaping about, dancing, swaggering with her chest thrust out, speaking out of the side of her mouth, being mannish and very physical—and always holding centre stage. This was one film where, whenever the leading lady came onscreen, I couldn’t help but watch her. Doris was a gem as Calam.

The songs, all of which are pleasant (the music was by Sammy Fain and the lyrics by Paul Francis Webster). Some, however, stand out for me: the opening The Deadwood stage, which has a very infectious beat is one. I can do without you has delightful lyrics, and Doris Day and Howard Keel enact it brilliantly: not just singing, but dancing about, clowning around.  The black hills of Dakota is dreamy and beautiful, and My secret love, a childhood favourite of mine, is not just a lovely song but also a great example of Doris Day’s singing talent. (It also got the only Oscar Calamity Jane won).

And yes, I must make special mention of the dialogues, which are often delightful. Here’s an example. Calam and Katie are going off in a horse-cart to Calam’s cabin, where Calam has invited Katie to stay. Various admirers have congregated to say a rueful goodbye to Katie, and Bill is at the forefront.

Katie to Bill, smiling: “And Mr Hickok, please feel free to drop in any time.”
Bill: “Thank you kindly, Ma’am.”
Calam (who’s been listening in on this conversation): “Feel it, but don’t try!”

What I didn’t like:

The blossoming of the romance is all too sudden to be believable. Yes, I’ve seen enough Hollywood musicals to know this is more the rule than the exception, since it’s a tough ask to fit lots of songs, a coherent storyline, and a believable romance into what’s usually below even two hours,  but still.

 

Despite that, though, a good film. And an appropriate one with which to remember Doris Day.

 

RIP, Doris. May your films continue to live on, may your voice continue to charm generations to come.

Advertisements

Ten of my favourite Kaifi Azmi songs

Yes, this post is four months late: Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary was on January 14th this year. I will not make excuses about why I missed that date. Let me just say that I didn’t know about it until the 14th itself, and by then, it was too late. I cursed myself for having forgotten that 2019 marked the birth centenary year of one of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists. But today is the death anniversary of Azmi Sahib, and in any case, all of this year is his birth centenary, so I thought better late than never.

Continue reading

Ten of my favourite Manna Dey duets

It’s not as if I’ve not done a Manna Dey song list before (I have, several years back). But today, when Manna Dey would have turned a hundred years old, cannot pass without my doing a tribute to the beautiful voice and the versatility of one of my favourite singers.

Continue reading

Elephant Boy (1937)

There’s a good reason why I’m reviewing this film today. Ideally, I should have reviewed it last week, on the hundredth anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, but since I didn’t want to publish two posts on consecutive days, I decided I’d let this wait for a week.

What connection is there between Elephant Boy and Jallianwala Bagh? Nothing, on the face of it, except perhaps the rather obvious Indian connection—since Elephant Boy was based on Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants (one of the chapters of The Jungle Book) and was shot extensively in India (it even marked the debut of possibly the most famous Indian export to Hollywood, Sabu—but that’s another story, which I’ll touch upon briefly near the end of this review).

No, what connects Elephant Boy to Jallianwala Bagh is that the man who tried to avenge Jallianwala Bagh acted in this film. Udham Singh, who killed the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, the man who had ordered the massacre (which was carried out by Brigadier General Dyer), had worked at various jobs before he became an integral part of the story of India’s freedom movement. He had been a mechanic, and—briefly—an actor of bit parts, small roles of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type (more on the Udham Singh few know of, in this excellent article). Elephant Boy was one of the films in which Udham Singh appeared. Briefly, but still.

Continue reading

Ten of my favourite Shamshad Begum solos

This is an important year when it comes to Hindi film music—because 2019 marks the birth centenary of some of classic Hindi cinema’s greatest in the field of music. Music director Naushad was born a hundred years ago; lyricists Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan were born a hundred years ago; and two of Hindi cinema’s most popular playback singers—Manna Dey and Shamshad Begum—were also born in 1919, less than a month apart.

Born in Lahore on April 14th, 1919, the day after the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (which is just about 50 km from Lahore), Shamshad Begum never had any formal training in music. Her prowess as a singer, however, came to the fore very early, and by the time she was 10 years old she was singing in family marriages and religious functions. In the teeth of parental opposition, she was helped by an uncle who got her an audition with Ghulam Haider. In 1937, she began singing with All India Radio Lahore, and this proved a breakthrough—such a breakthrough that Shamshad Begum was offered a role as an actress and even bagged it after a screen test. Thanks to a very conservative father (who had insisted she wear a burqa even to sing!), Shamshad Begum had to finally decline the role and focus on her singing.

Continue reading

Ghar Sansar (1958)

Balraj Sahni ranks as one of my favourite actors. He brought a sense of dignity to pretty much every role he essayed, and there were very few roles which he could not pull off convincingly. That said, there was a certain type of film that he very often got slotted in: the family drama. These films, often made by production houses like AVM Productions, equally often followed a fairly predictable pattern.

A close-knit joint family (with Balraj Sahni as its head, usually as elder brother) lives in one home, each member of the family devoted to the other, each going out of their way and being self-sacrificing to smoothen the way for the others. Then, as the result of a wedding (usually of a younger male relative, often a character who’s the younger brother of Balraj Sahni’s character), a somewhat headstrong chhoti bahu enters the household. She is warmly welcomed and is inclined to be as sweet to others as others are to her [after all, the hero has fallen in love with her; she cannot be out-and-out bad]. But, someone evil and self-serving or just plain old malicious lurks in the vicinity. A neighbour, a close relative (often a step-relative, step-brother, step-sister, etc, of the bahu—since, again, blood relations can’t be all bad) or other person who despises the family for its saccharine sanctimoniousness, decides to throw a spanner in the works.

With the result that poor Balraj Sahni’s character gets the short end of the stick. He and his long-suffering spouse lose their home, their child (or children) fall ill, someone goes blind, they are nearly [not definitely, since they have so much self-respect] reduced to begging in the streets.

Continue reading

Maya Bazaar (1957)

When I did a post on food songs as part of Food and Food Movie Month on Dustedoff last year, blog reader magi posted a link to a very interesting song Vivaaha bhojanambu and told me about the film it was from. Maya Bazaar, which several others also praised as being a very entertaining mythological.

Continue reading

Gateway of India (1957)

Hindi cinema has a tendency towards stories that stretch over long periods of time. Days, at the least, but often months, often many years too (that old trope of children growing up has been a part of too many films to name). It is the unusual film, especially in the 50s and 60s, that extends over just a few hours. Solvaa Saal was one such; Gateway of India is another. Both films are about runaway girls who meet the loves of their lives in the course of one night. That, though, is where the resemblance stops.

Continue reading

Cat Ballou (1965)

As a child, I was surrounded by music. On the radio, on the LPs my parents played so often. The LPs, thanks to the fact that my maternal grandfather had worked with HMV for many years, were a very mixed bag, ranging all the way from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to Runa Laila and Geeta Bali to The Golden Gate Quartet, Harry Belafonte, Jim Reeves, Engelbert Humperdinck…  and one of my absolute favourites, Nat King Cole.

Continue reading

Somewhat Cross-dressed Women ‘Romancing’ Women in Performances: Ten Songs

The title of this post will probably require some explanation before I launch into the list itself.

Several years back, I did a post on female duets. Commenting on that, fellow blogger and blog reader Carla wondered about the rationale or thought behind songs like Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka, where a dance performance featuring two women dancers has one woman dressed as a man, supposedly romancing the other (who’s dressed as a woman). I had no explanation to offer, and over the years, while I’ve mulled over this plenty of times, I’ve still not figured out why this became popular.

You know the type of song: there’s a fairly conventional love song, often teasing and playful, being sung—and the two people onscreen, while both women, are dressed as man and woman. The woman dressed as a man isn’t (unlike Geeta Bali in Rangeen Raatein), however, actually pretending to be a man: it’s very obvious that she is a woman, and that she’s supposed to be a woman (even the playback singer is a woman).

Continue reading