Allyn Ann McLerie
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Calamity Jane September 16, 2019
oris Day sings with her entire body in Calamity Jane (1953). In the movie, in which she plays a hyper-fictionalized version of the famed gunslinger, the actress has to do things she never got to do throughout her career: be gross, lion-tough. Over 101 minutes she hocks loogies, stumbles into log cabins covered in fresh mud, gets in ill-advised gun fights, yells like a stentorian elementary-school teacher. Dirt's almost
always dusted on her sweaty face as if it were foundation. Her yellow-mustard blond hair is artfully messed up. She has an implacable accent — she says “Chicago” like “Chicagee,” “cigarettes” like “cigareets” — that requires her to speak with every inch of her face. Even her nostrils are vocalizing something. Here, Day is like a hand-drawn Western caricature — a secondary scene-stealing character in a Roy Rogers & Dale Evans movie made elastic, like dripping-wet silly putty.
Magnificently, Day smoothly brings her über-exaggerated performance into the musical sequences. She’s ridiculous in the movie — almost a sticky toddler rapt in a dated game of cowboys and Indians. But she’s so consistently and lovably ridiculous that from the moment we get acquainted with her pulp-magazine version of the gun-toting carer criminal, we can’t get enough. Day is a wonderfully emotive, impressively committed performer. In her best roles, she seems in command of her powers in a way that I think is still among the more underrated aspects of her star persona. But Calamity Jane makes her do what she’d at that point never done and by now we know never again did. It’s startling acting — a what-if scenario that shouldn’t pay off but does.
The movie is otherwise mostly fated to go in one ear and out the other, though its somewhat envelope-pushing narrative makes it memorable in spurts. Calamity Jane, set in a plastic version of what we think of when we think of the old and wild west, mostly involves an unlikely friendship between Calamity and a wannabe actress named Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie), who’s mistakenly brought to the movie’s Dakota territory town after problems with the promoted performer at the bar Calamity frequents come up. To keep itself busy, the movie traverses various gags while the relationship develops. Ultimately there’s a romance, though not between Calamity and Katie, which feels so obvious I wouldn’t even say the movie is codedly homoerotic, as many films of yore tend to be. It's disappointingly between Calamity and her toothy once-frenemy Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel), then Katie and a lieutenant (Philip Carey).
The lesbian undertones and Day’s performance are the best things about Calamity Jane. Coming in second is the music from Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, which tends to mesh with the narrative cleverly and which has a nice Stephen Sondheim talkativeness to it. Some say a ballad featured in the film called "Secret Love," which out-of-placedly sees Day putting on an uncharacteristic (for this movie) dreamboatedness, is a bit whiplashy for the movie, but the double-meaning makes it sort of bewitching. The film runs on a lot of empty — the story's undercooked, the set pieces eventually monotonous — but the wacky committedness of Day, the storyline's multitude of possible interpretations, and how the songs are brought to our eyes and ears get us to a fairly picturesque destination. But sometimes overriding the movie is this idea that we desperately want it to be better than it actually is. Its subversions thrill, but since the feature isn’t allowed (and for the times understandably so) to completely see its thrills through, there’s a hollowness. But it’s a tuneful hollowness. It's an echoey hype song of a movie. B