Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Calamity Jane

At first glance Calamity Jane seems like a remake of Annie Get Your Gun. Independent pioneer woman swallows her pride to win Howard Keel. But Jane isn't chasing Howard Keel. She's chasing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin. You know he's not important because he's in a musical but doesn't sing a note. To win him she needs to learn feminine drag.

Here's where the most interesting character arrives; Katie Brown. Katie is a maid impersonating a famous singer. Jane protects her from bandits, takes her to her first performance, and defends her from the mob when her identity is revealed. Howard Keel's at the performance too... in drag. He lost a bet with Jane. Katie finds the confidence to perform and suddenly... she's a maid no more. She has become the star she pretended to be. Jane is smitten. She wants Katie to teach her how to do drag. In the song "A Woman's Touch" Katie and Jane break out the tools and remodel their cabin. Jane trades her pants for a frilly dress and sings:

Then all at once the cabin that we knew
Becomes a shining castle built for two.
Me and you.

They're getting on fine till Lieutenant Whats-His-Name falls for Kate. Jane is heartbroken, kicking her out of the cabin and challenging her to a duel. The pants are back on. Katie grabs a gun and fights back. She can do drag too. Wild Bill splits them up and tells Jane he loves her. But there's no duet. Instead we cut to Jane alone in the woods singing "Secret Love." She sings the first verse in a dress and the last verse in pants, riding a horse.

Once I had a secret love
That lived within the heart of me
All too soon my secret love
Became impatient to be free

Who is she singing about? Did she love Bill all along? Or has Bill given her the excuse to save her friendship with Katie? She'll spend the last act of the film pursuing Katie and bringing her back home. They hold a double wedding with their forgettable men. 

How intentional was this lesbian subtext? Hard to say. Screenwriter James O'Hanlon also wrote the script for The Harvey Girls, another musical western focused on two strong women. He'd go on to write for the television westerns Maverick and Cheyenne. Whatever his original intention the film has gone on to play at LGBT film fests and was featured in Vitto Russo's fantastic documentary The Celluloid Closet. That's enough for me to feature it here for Pride month. 

Happy Pride!

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