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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Calamities Aplenty (originally published 5/95)

The storytellers who create our history for us have the power to confer immortality. If enough of them choose to include a particular name in their tales, that name will acquire a life of its own, independent of its owner and therefore undiminished by his or her earthly demise.

There is, of course, a trade-off. In order to become such a mythic figure, it is necessary to give up your identity as a real, flesh and blood person. Once that happens, the realities of who you really were and what you actually did become irrelevant. The storytellers have an absolute license to choose good storytelling over factual accuracy, and they don't hesitate to use it.

That's why the real woman who was Martha Jane Cannary is even more thoroughly lost to history than most of her contemporaries. She has been superseded for all time by the legend of Calamity Jane, who may or may not have been the mother of Wild Bill Hickock's child, and who may or may not have toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's legendary Wild West Show. It all depends on who is telling the story.

If you saw "Buffalo Girls" on television, with Anjelica Huston in the role of Calamity Jane, you might be interested to see some of the other movie portrayals of this mythic figure. The few that are available on video are representative of the broad range of interpretations to which her legend has been subjected.

"The Plainsman" (1936). Cecil B. DeMille's epic saga of the American West features Gary Cooper as Hickock and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. This was crafty casting, since Cooper and Arthur had teamed up extremely successfully earlier that same year in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Arthur is a very feminine Calamity Jane, showing just a little tomboyishness around the edges. This was a time when women with a masculine temperament and demeanor were invariably presented in a condescending, isn't-that-cute manner, as if she were a child pretending to be a grownup.

"The Paleface" (1948). Jane Russell's version of Calamity Jane in this Bob Hope comedy is a kind of double parody. She's spoofing both the legend of Calamity Jane and her own infamous film debut in the Howard Hughes western, "The Outlaw" (1943). Hope is a tenderfoot dentist whom Calamity marries so that she can travel incognito. Since she has no real interest in him, part of the comedy revolves around Calamity consistently parrying his every effort to consummate the marriage. This Calamity is allowed to be genuinely tough and capable, rather than just a cute tomboy, because part of the comedy premise is the gender role reversal with the weak and helpless Hope.

"Calamity Jane" (1953). Sooner or later, it was inevitable that Calamity would get her own musical. Doris Day plays the title role as a charming tomboy. She's always been content to be looked on as just one of the boys, but realizes that there is a downside to her lack of femininity when she develops a crush on a certain soldier. Although that romance doesn't work out, it does lead Calamity to the realization that she has been in love with Bill Hickock all along. Looking back on it from our contemporary perspective, the film can be read as a wry commentary on gender roles, although I'm not so sure that it was originally intended that way. Day's performance of the song "Secret Love" became a hit record and won the Academy Award as Best Song. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's trailer.

"Calamity Jane" (1984). This made-for-TV movie takes an approach to the character of Calamity that is very similar in some ways to that of "Buffalo Girls." There is a conscious effort to minimize the cutesy tomboyishness of earlier portrayals and to create instead a more rounded and believable character. This is necessary in part because she is presented here as the central character in a dramatic film. No caricature could carry our interest over such an extended dramatic work. Like "Buffalo Girls," this version of Calamity's life includes the daughter she gave away and the emotional cost of that decision. Calamity is capably played by Jane Alexander.

This is, by the way, the same Jane Alexander who recently became the director of the National Endowment for the Arts. I imagine that her experience playing Calamity Jane has served her well in that role, now that she has had to learn to circle the wagons and shoot it out with savages for real.

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