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.

23 thoughts on “Calamity Jane (1953)

  1. Thanks for the review, Madhulikajee. I agree with almost everything you’ve said. Ever since I first came across this film some years ago, I view it at least twice a year (having downloaded it). And the reason for that is not Doris Day, though I’m a great fan of hers and enjoy all her films (well, those that I’ve seen. “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies” is a particular favourite of mine.)

    What I love most about this film is the song “The Black Hills of Dakota” sung by Doris & Howard Keel (I presume it’s Keel singing, not someone giving playback). Keel’s singing somehow gets to me in a way that even Doris Day singing that song solo (not in the film) does not. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Keel singing in any other film, but if I have, he hasn’t had the same effect. (Did he sing in “Showboat”? Can’t remember, it’s years since I saw that film.) But, for me, ‘Calamity Jane’ is Keel singing “Take me back to the black hills, the black hills of Dakota”.


    • Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is a film I haven’t got around to watching yet, so thank you for that recommendation! I will keep it in mind.

      I agree that Howard Keel singing The black hills of Dakota is impressive – I think more so than the solo he gets to sing in the film.

      I must admit that the first song of Howard Keel’s that came to my mind when I saw your remark about seeing him singing in any film was Sobbin’ women from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers:


    • I adore this film and love all the songs, but the standout for me is Howard Keel singing Higher Than a Hawk And Deeper Than a Well – it makes me cry every time – absolutely beautiful song wonderfully sung.


  2. I have a friend for whom this is one of her favourite films of all time, so I’ve seen this a bunch of times. It’s a bit of a lesbian classic (hello, My Secret Love), and the film I find Doris Day the most attractive in, but I have some problems with the romance, mainly because I don’t find it very believable. It’s charming though, I never mind watching it. Doris Day is so magnetic and joyful in it.


    • I can certainly imagine why this would be a lesbian classic. I did read someone remark – on IMDB, I think – about this film being from an ‘innocent’ era when people wouldn’t read anything into two women hugging each other, but somehow, when watching Calamity Jane, I couldn’t help but think that even if the viewers didn’t think that way, perhaps the film makers did – because Calam is certainly pretty butch, and the two women’s domestic arrangements are the embodiment of domestic bliss.

      Agree about the romance being so hard to believe!


      • People would, and did! Secret Love was a gay anthem in the 50s and 60s already. That commenter needs to watch The Celluloid Closet, it would make his head explode.

        lol I never know if I’m being unfair to the straight romance because I think the relationships between the women are done so much better, so it’s good to see someone agree with me.


        • LOL! But if you’re being unfair to the straight romance (or romances), I am with you, because I do feel the relationship between the two women is far better built up than their romances with the men. You see Calam and Katie going from strangers to friends to people who are willing to sacrifice a good deal for the other – and the way they stand up for each other… well, if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.


  3. Hi,
    I got around to reading this just now. Like the other of your reviews it’s going to my watch-list.
    I don’t remember watching many movies of Doris Day. Just one I guess she was with David Niven. I think it’s the one mentioned in the first comment by Sh. Phanse. It was quite an enjoyable film.
    Will definitely see this one.

    By the way I watched Gateway of India recently. It’s lot of fun. I especially was delighted to find a mention of Bhopal back then.


    • I will certainly make it a point to watch Please Don’t Eat the Daisies – now that two people have recommended it!

      I’m glad you liked Gateway of India. It’s so refreshingly different from the average Hindi film of that period.


  4. Thank you for the write up of ‘Calamity Jane’ I have not seen it for many years.I don’t know if I have a favorite of Doris Day’s musicals. Of comedies (she sings in it too) ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is good, she’s the wife of drama critic David Niven, but I like ‘The Thrill of it All’ better, There she’s the wife of an obstetrician, James Garner. She becomes commercial spokeswoman for a soap company. I don’t think she sings in that one.


  5. Madhu,
    So the Frontier had women too! And the demure, vulnerable Doris Day of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in that role! This review is extremely good. I wanted to watch it first before commenting, but it is not available on the YouTube. It has since been overtaken by another post, nevertheless I wanted to express my appreciation for your review. I am fond of Westerns with a difference, and I became aware of something new.


  6. …Nice blog!
    I found it after a great picture about a FLOWER.
    I was searching for the icon ALLYN ANN MACLERIE (sorrow she passed away some time ago).
    I know she acted in CALAMITY JANE (known in my country as ARDIDA COMO PIMENTA/’burned like pepper’ In English).
    I watched some films where Mrs Mclerie acted; And one that still touches me – BORN INNOCENT _ as the incompetent Ms Lasko. This production always controversal. Was famous here too.

    Thanks (Rodrigo from Brazil).


    • Thank you for your comment, Rodrigo! I’ve never watched Born Innocent, but I’ll look out for it.

      A Brazilian writer I know sent me some DVDs of Brazilian films, including Central Station (I think that was what it was called; about a friendship that springs up between a woman and a runaway boy she finds). Lovely movie.


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