I've raved before about Calamity Jane, my current favourite movie. I first became familiar with it when I watched The Celluloid Closet. They talked about one small scene, as well as the song Secret Love (performed by Doris Day in the film). When I finally watched the movie for myself, I was frankly shocked that it isn't more of a queer cult film. You know how people say, "If you turn your head sideways and squint, there's a bit of lesbian subtext in such-and-such a movie"? Well, if you turn your head sideways and squint at Calamity Jane, there's a lesbian Western romantic musical comedy ready to capture the hearts and imaginations of a whole new generation.
Under the cut are notes that I took on the film for an essay I wrote last semester. Of the six pages of notes, I probably ended up using the equivalent of one page in my essay. It seemed a shame not to do anything with the rest of my notes, so here they are. I really recommend that you watch Calamity Jane before you read these notes, because not only is it flamingly gay, but it's also a thoroughly enjoyable film, with a fantastic soundtrack and a rather winning performance from Doris Day.
Needless to say, here be rampant spoilers for the film. Also, the lesbian subtext/interpretations I suggest are merely my own opinions - if anyone else has seen the film and has a different opinion, I'd love to hear it! Also, if you end up looking for the film, be warned that since it's a musical comedy/Western from 1953, there are some pretty outrageous stereotypes about Native Americans.
- Calamity Jane lives in the town of Deadwood, in the Dakota Blackhills. She is outgoing and confident, but also earnest, vulnerable and a little clumsy. Her best friend is Wild Bill Hickock (a stoical, brooding man who trades barbs and bullets with Calamity while believing that she is a good person whose word is “sacred”), and she is in love with Lt. Danny Gilmartin (a stiff, upright military man, impeccably dressed in a blue uniform). Not gunna lie... Danny and Bill look almost freakishly similar. You'd swear that the movie was going to reveal that they were brothers or something. I had large amounts of trouble telling them apart.
- Calam dresses in buckskins, rides atop stagecoaches and dances (since this is a musical) “like a man.” Everyone is always telling her she would be “a passable pretty gal” if she put on a dress and behaved like a lady. Since she’s played by Doris Day, the fact that everyone is always acting like she’s not much to look at pushes the viewer’s suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
- Henry Miller, the manager of the Golden Garter Theatre, books one Francis Fryer to come to Deadwood and entertain the men. He thinks that Francis Fryer is an actress, but Francis turns out to be a fey young man in the grand tradition of Hollywood Golden Age “sissies,” wearing an immaculate suit with a cravat and a pearl-grey bowler hat. He has an unctuous quality to him, whining that no-one will pay attention to him.
- The men of Deadwood buy packs of cigarettes in hopes of obtaining a picture of the actress Adelaid Adams. Calamity is scandalised when Bill shows her his personal Adams picture, crying out, “Why, she ain’t got nothing on but her underwear!” Bill corrects her, saying that Adelaid is “charming, a lovely figure, everything a woman ought to be,” with a reproachful look at Calamity’s jacket, pants and cap. Calamity dismisses Adelaid as a “fat, frilled-up side of undressed beef” while claiming, “I could look the same, but I’ve got certain ideas about modesty.” (This could be perceived as a closeted reaction, particularly as she is later shown to have the picture in her pocket.) She says that a gentleman wouldn’t look twice at such a picture, and Bill starts to tease her about her crush on Lt. Gilmartin.
- When Danny is kidnapped by members of the Sioux tribe, Jane is the only one brave enough to ride out and rescue him. She frightens the warriors away single-handedly. This establishes her as a decisive, determined sort of person who is willing to get up and do something, rather than sit around and cry about it. However, the people who are really important to her – Danny and Bill – barely give her any credit, with Danny neglecting to thank her for saving his life, and Bill asking, “Why don’t you ever fix your hair?”
- Since they have no actress to entertain the patrons at the Golden Garter, Henry sends Francis onstage in drag. Jane is the first in the audience to realise that Francis is a man, even before he starts to sing. When he is revealed to be a man halfway through his performance, the audience (many of whom had been clamouring for kisses from this glamorous “woman”) are enraged. When Calamity turns to Danny and Bill and asks them to “Do something!”, they shrug helplessly and remain where they are. Calamity talks the crowd out of abandoning the Golden Garter by claiming that Adelaid Adams has been booked to perform for them.
- Nobody appreciates Calamity’s beauty, or her ingenuity – when she gets Henry, Danny, Francis or Bill out of sticky situations, all they can do is complain and criticise.
- In the duet I Can Do Without You, Bill sings of Calamity, “If you got charms, they ain't bewitchin' me/ You've a face no one would paint.” This is quite possibly the most egregious example of Hollywood Homely in film history. This is Doris freaking Day he's talking about.
- In farewelling Calamity as she heads off to Chicago to find Adelaid Adams, Bill does not wish her luck, but tells her to, “Notice the women in Chicago, what they wear and how they act. Get yourself some female clothes and fixings. You know, dresses, ribbons, perfume, things like that.” as if she is heading off on a shopping trip. When Bill says that he has a hunch that Calamity could be attractive if she dressed in female clothing, Calamity snarls, “You can save your hunches for women who get their pictures took in long underwear. I ain’t one of ‘em!”
- In Chicago, women double-take at Calamity in the street. The maintext reading is implying that they are either shocked at her attire, or are mistaking her for a young man. The subtextual reading is that in this big, cosmopolitan city, so unlike the provincial town Calamity is from, women can appreciate Calamity for what she is: a very attractive, butch woman. Calamity, in turn, stares openly at the women – understandable from a queer perspective, as it is often said in the film that there are few women in Deadwood. One bumps into her and winks coquettishly.
- Adelaid Adams is a cynical, ageing actress who performs a slightly sleazy, stagey, overly rehearsed rendition of It’s Harry I’m Plannin’ To Marry. From the moment that her beautiful, downtrodden young maid Katie Brown appears, it is clear that Katie is the one we are supposed to be watching. Katie’s dreams of appearing on the stage are dismissed by her employer, who patronises and belittles her. When Katie dons one of Adelaid’s discarded costumes and sings her own version of the song in Adelaid’s dressing room, she appears full of the joys of music and dance.
- Calamity follows the sound of Katie’s singing and enters the dressing room. Katie mistakes Calamity for a man (with an amazing rack?) and shrieks, as she is wearing a brief, spangled costume. Calamity’s first instinct is to protect Katie – she draws a gun and asks, “What is it, ma’am? Where’s the varmint?”
- When Calamity introduces herself to Katie, she smiles widely and appears slightly short of breath. “I came all the way from Deadwood City to see you and talk you into going back with me.” Her eyes travel down Katie’s form and she blurts out, “Gosh Almighty, you’re the prettiest thing I ever seen. I’ve never known a woman could look like that. Say, how do you hold that dress up there?” She then leans in to peer at Katie’s cleavage. Katie babbles, “Please, I have to change clothes. Would you mind?” “Helping you? Why, sure!” Calamity reaches to undo the back of Katie’s costume. Katie slaps her (an action sometimes seen as a metaphor for a kiss in the time of the Hays Code). Once they establish that Calamity is, in fact, a woman, Calamity says that she has come to ask “Adelaid” if she will sing at the Golden Garter. As Katie realises that Calamity is mistaken, she realises that this is her chance to be a star. Barely concealing a grin, she cries, “I’m completely at your mercy. Come on, help me pack!” (Now that she knows Calamity is a woman, she has no problem with changing clothes in front of her.)
- As a Sioux hunting party chases the Deadwood stagecoach on their horses, Calamity fights them off – but makes time to ascertain that “Miss Adams” is comfortable. When Katie swoons and faints, Calamity wraps an arm around her waist and fans her.
- When Francis Fryer discreetly lets Katie know that he is aware of her true identity, Katie’s confidence fails her, and she becomes paralysed by fear as she is about to perform. A queer reading could interpret this as a fear of being outed, especially as Francis does indeed approach Henry before the show and give him a warning that could read as an outing. “You’ve got to know. I’ve got to tell you. That girl, she’s... that Adelaid Adams, she isn’t – I mean, she’s – Oh, what’s the use if she is or if she isn’t? She’s got to be! Because if she isn’t, that crowd – we’ll all be.... I’ll have two fast horses waiting at the stage entrance!”
- Katie’s first rendition of Keep It Under Your Hat is a quavering, anxious imitation of Adelaid’s vocal style and choreography. She is out of time, out of tune and fumbles vainly with her prop parasol. She has lost all her confidence in her own abilities. The crowd are unimpressed by her performance and begin heckling her. She breaks down onstage and confesses that she is not Adelaid Adams. Danny tries, lamely, to defend Katie, but by describing her presence as a “double-cross” he only incites their rage further. Calamity berates the crowd for treating Katie so shamefully, and convinces them to give Katie a second try. On Calamity’s advice that she should sing the song her own way, Katie gives a much better performance, to thunderous applause. Calamity joins her onstage, and they hug joyously.
- The very next morning, Calamity and Katie announce that they are moving into Calamity’s cabin together, so that they might chaperone each other (cue much mirth from my girlfriend and I, along the lines of, “Chaperone? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” and “Talk about lesbians and their U-Hauls.”). When Bill snickers that their living arrangement should prove “interesting,” Calamity grits, “We’re mighty glad you approve.”
- Bill sings the love song (My Love Is) Higher Than A Hawk to a painting of Katie, which could be interpreted to mean that his love for her is shallow and that he sees her as an object, an image of what a woman ought to be. He sings a reprise of the song to Calamity later in the film, suggesting that although he claims to have deep feelings, his attraction is shallow and fleeting. It's kind of creepy when people in musicals recycle love songs. It's a bit like recycling love letters. *makes a face*
- Calamity and Katie treat each other with consideration, dignity and compassion. Calamity carries Katie’s luggage for her and helps her down from the pony cart as they arrive at their new home.
- Katie asks Calamity if she dislikes Bill as much as she pretends to. Calamity asserts that Bill is “the best friend I ever had,” but maintains that her “sparky taste” is for “blue uniforms and shiny buttons.” “Like second lieutenants wear?” Katie asks. “Like second lieutenants wear...” Calamity trails off, looking discouraged. A queer reading of this scene might take into account the fact that Katie is wearing a deep blue dress with shiny buttons. (Calamity is trying to hint to Katie that she is interested in her, but Katie is not taking the hint.)
- Calamity is clearly thrilled that they are going to be living together. She enthuses, “You and me’ll batch it here as cosy as two bugs in a blanket!” Katie says nothing, but when Calamity sees her face, she realises that Katie is appalled at the dirty, dilapidated state of the cabin. She becomes angry with herself, describing the cabin as unfit for a dog, “... let alone a lady! Didn’t know it ‘til you came in here. Just like I didn’t know how far from being a lady I was ‘til I saw you in that dressing room in Chicago. What do I know about nice things? I ain’t never had any.” Katie comforts Calam by saying, “All it needs is a woman’s touch.” They then go on to sing a duet about a woman’s touch. I am not making this up.
- The duet A Woman’s Touch, sung by Calam and Katie as they clean and renovate the cabin, is a paean to female domesticity. However, the song has a number of interesting lyrics, as well as some particularly evocative visual elements. For example, Katie instructs Calamity to saw apart the bunk beds to make twin beds (cue cracks from my girlfriend and I along the lines of, “I bet they push the beds together at night!”). Katie daubs the cabin door with yellow paint, and a dissolve shows that the door has been painted yellow, with “Calam and Katie” written on it in a curling script, surrounded by flowers. As the sequence progresses, Calamity’s attire becomes increasingly less slovenly. A window box with only dead flowers in it becomes filled with roses in full bloom, implying that they have been living together for a significant amount of time. By the end verse, Calamity has donned female clothes, but ones with a bit of an “edge” to them. Beaming, she sings, “Then gosh almighty, all at once/The cabin that we knew/Becomes a shining castle built for two/Me and you!”
- Bill and Danny come to visit Katie. When Bill steps out to fetch firewood, Danny immediately tries to embrace Katie. She becomes agitated and tries to put some physical distance between them. According to the maintext, this is because she feels guilty coming between Calamity and the man she loves. A queered reading of this scene might be that Katie is uncomfortable with Danny’s advances because she is in a romantic relationship with Calamity.
- When Bill and Danny begin to bicker about who will take Katie to the Deadwood Ball, she suggests that they go as a foursome: “You, Bill, me and Calamity.” The ordering of the names implies that she would like to go with Calamity.
- Danny does not even see Calamity as female, shouting, “Girl?” incredulously when Bill describes her as a “fine girl.” Bill takes umbrage at this comment, but makes it abundantly clear that he does not want to take Calamity to the ball either, saying, “Well, she ain’t beautiful!” Katie goes to the window and spies Calamity, looking particularly lovely in a yellow dress, preparing to cross the creek. She double-takes, and her face lights up in a smile.
- Calamity turns up to the ball in a hyperfeminine pink dress. Now that she has embraced mainstream standards of femininity, all the men at the ball clamour to dance with her. Bill does a very exaggerated double-take when he spies Calamity. Since her beauty has been apparent to viewers from the earliest scenes of the film, this reads as hopelessly superficial.
- Calamity becomes tense and worried when she sees Danny and Katie wandering from the dance floor to the garden outside. She and Bill follow them and overhear Danny declaring his love to Katie. She asks, “What about Calamity?”, but allows him to kiss her. Shocked and hurt, Calamity rants to Bill, “I brought her here. Me! All the way from Chicago! Just to make love to Danny.” At the time the film was made, the phrase “to make love” (often followed by “to”) was understood to mean “to pay amorous attention to.” However, the current meaning of the phrase lends extra weight to a queer reading of the scene. The tragedy of the scene is compounded by the fact that when Katie and Danny reenter the ballroom, Katie is preoccupied not with Danny, but with Calamity’s whereabouts. Danny dismisses her concern, saying, “You’re the only person in the world who’d ever worry about Calamity.”
- Back at the cabin, Calamity tears off her dress, ranting about how Katie has betrayed her. She throws Katie’s luggage out of the cabin, rueing how she “... even took her into my own cabin ‘cause I figured she’d need protection!” Bill, seeming uncomfortable both with Calamity’s display of emotion and her shedding of clothing, takes his leave. Calamity kicks the door closed and bursts into tears. This is actually... really freaking sad, because we're so used to seeing Calamity smiling.
- Calamity walks into the Golden Garter, wearing buckskins again, as Katie and Francis are performing together. She is given a message that Katie wishes to see her, and says gravely, “She’s gonna see me. Right now.” As Katie is singing the line, “He’s the one that I truly adore,” she spies Calamity in the audience and trails off. Calamity warns Katie to get out of town, and Katie responds by claiming that she will shoot Calamity’s sarsaparilla glass right out of her hand. Bill intervenes by making the shot himself, shattering the glass and letting everyone fall over themselves to congratulate Katie on her marksmanship. Calamity stares at Katie in apparent despair. Miserable and humiliated, Calamity leaves the Golden Garter, overturning a table in her fury.
- Bill follows Calamity outside. Demanding she see sense, he picks her up and deposits her in a buggy. They ride out to the creek, where a full moon is high in the sky. He says, “I’ve seen you do crazy things, Calam, but this is the first time I’ve seen you make a blasted fool out of yourself.” Calamity, holding back tears, tries to climb out of the buggy, but Bill holds her back and calls her a fake, saying, “You dress, talk, ride and shoot like a man, but you think like a... green-eyed, snarling, spitting female! Katie beat you... twice, out of your man, and out of the respect you used to have around here. And you helped her!” Calamity grows visibly more upset throughout Bill’s lecture. A queer reading of the scene might be that she is frustrated that he has gotten the wrong impression about why she is so unhappy. Bill admits to having shot the glass out of Calamity’s hand, stating that she “needed a lesson. Who are you to tell people who to love? Suppose you did scare that girl out of town, would that get your lieutenant back? Would that stop Katie from loving him, or him her? That’s female thinking. He’d bring her back, and they’d both hate you. You had to lose tonight, Calam, or you’d never win again.” Calamity hops down from the buggy and begins to walk away, sobbing quietly. He says, magnanimously, “Go on, bawl. Admit you’re a female. Have your hysterics, get them over with. You’ll feel better.” He offers her a handkerchief. Calamity sniffs, “I was so plumb crazy about him.” Bill says, “I know, I felt the same way about her...” “Oh, Bill, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “That’s all right. It’ll take some time, but I’ll get over it. You will, too.” “No, I won’t. Not Danny.” “Yes, you will.” “All I’ve done for months is dream about him. About getting married, and building a cabin, and having young’uns. I know it sounds silly, I guess, but... Bill, I really wanted all those things.” “I was kind of hankering for them myself,” says Bill. “There’ll never be another man like him. Not for me. Not ever.” “It ain’t going to be so easy getting her out of my system either. She was so beautiful, and...” They kiss, which reads rather desperate and a bit suss, considering they’ve both just realised they can’t be with the people they want to be with. It comes out of nowhere. They hug each other, smiling and laughing. Bill asks, “Whatever happened to that lieutenant you were telling me about?” “I never heard of him,” says Calamity. They kiss again.
- The whole scene between Bill and Calamity at the creek could be read as meaning that although Calamity, like many queer people, is playing along with Bill’s misconception so that she will have an outlet for her feelings. She has come to accept that Bill will never truly understand why she is so unhappy about what has happened, he’s still her friend, and she does not have to be alone, and they can even make a sort of family together, if they want. The creek scene could be interpreted about five different ways, but that's the one I like best.
- Clad in masculine attire once more, Calamity sings a number which would become a 50s megahit and gay anthem: Secret Love. Covered by k.d. lang in 1995 for the closing credits of the landmark queer cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet, the song portrays an idealised version of an apparently unrequited love which “became impatient to be free.” The song does not focus on themes of guilt or uncertainty, but instead concentrates on “just how wonderful you are/ And why I’m so in love with you.” The song has a refrain of, “Now I shout it from the highest hills/Even told the golden daffodils/At last my heart's an open door/And my secret love’s no secret any more.”
- Calam rides into town and finds that Katie is on her way back to Chicago. Calam is aghast, insisting that she didn’t really want Katie to go. “She wasn’t scared. She shot back at me. Why would she go away, why?” Danny snots, “Because she’s a lady, Calamity. She’s not mean and selfish, and never learned to wreck people’s lives like-” Calamity glares and shoots back, “Like me. Say it!” “I don’t have to say it. She left this note, it says everything. Listen: ‘Dear Danny: Calamity loves you and-’” “But I don’t!” “Shut up and listen! ‘Calamity loves you and you probably love her too. I had no right to come between you. I love you both, and want you to be happy. Pretend it was Adelaid Adams who came to Deadwood. Katie Brown never existed. She doesn’t now. Goodbye, Danny.’” The men proceed to stand around talking about Katie as if she’s dead. Calamity says that she will bring Katie back, leaps on the back of a horse and gallops out of town.
- Calamity thunders over the hills and plains, desperately searching out Katie’s coach. She launches herself through the window and persuades Katie to return to Deadwood. Because of how we’ve come to expect romantic climaxes of films to go, this reads much more like a romantic climax than the weirdly abrupt kiss between Bill and Calamity, due to their physical proximity and the general sense of urgency.
- The film does end with a heterosexual double wedding, but since it's the gayest movie ever to end this way, my girlfriend and I were too busy making cracks about the couples moving into houses next door to each other and Katie and Calamity paying frequent visits to take much notice.
The moral of the story? Never underestimate a woman's touch.