Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953)

Today, classic Hollywood fans are celebrating the birthday of one of the industry’s most charming stars, Doris Day, who is fortunately still with us. While best remembered for her romantic comedies with a few of the era’s most handsome male stars like Rock Hudson and James Garner, she’s also famous for her marvelous singing voice, starring in numerous musicals throughout her film career. One of those musicals is Calamity Jane, which is a little atypical to the image Day had, as she played a rough, gunslinging woman of the Old West.

Set in the late 19th century in Deadwood, the film follows sharpshooter Calamity Jane (Doris Day), who takes it upon herself to protect the Dakota Territory. Because she doesn’t show her feminine side, all the men in town treat her as just another one of the guys, including Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), whom she has fallen in love with. Seeing that the townsmen are longing for a “real” woman, Calam travels to Chicago to bring back a famous singer named Adelaid Adams, only to mistakenly bring her maid Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) instead. Katie soon draws the affections of every man in town, including Danny and Calam’s friendly rival Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). But in her growing friendship with Katie, Calam examines her feminine side to try to win over the man she loves, but ultimately realizes what she really wants in her life won’t require a change in personality.

Calamity Jane was made at Warner Bros. following the success of MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun three years earlier. Studio head Jack Warner had actually tried to buy the movie rights for Annie Get Your Gun as a possible vehicle for Doris Day. Aside from sharing similar plot elements with MGM’s 1950 film, Calamity Jane also shared a male lead in Howard Keel, who played Day’s love interest in the film. While based on historical figures, some liberties were taken for the western musical, with the biggest one being that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were only mere acquaintances instead of lovers, according to historians. Though there is no solid proof, Jane did claim after Hickok’s death that she was his wife and the mother of his child. But whatever the truth may be, Calamity Jane is still a wholly enjoyable movie (just not one to count on for accuracy on events portrayed).

What makes this movie such a treat to watch is seeing how much fun the actors are having playing these larger-than-life people, especially Day as the title character. In later years, the actress often cited her role as Calamity Jane as her favorite among all the ones she played throughout her film career, saying that she “had more fun in the part than in anything [she’s] ever done.” She also took her character’s traits to heart; during production; after seeing early dailies in which she stomped around in buckskins, she realized her notable high, feminine voice didn’t really suit the character. So from then on, she lowered her voice when reciting her dialogue, so she’d sound as tough as she looked.

Though she adjusted her speaking voice for her character, Day kept her signature singing voice intact for the film’s catchy tunes. The film’s most memorable song is Calam’s ballad “Secret Love”, which Day recorded in just one take. While the whole soundtrack was popular on the charts upon its release, “Secret Love” turned out to be a huge success on its own, becoming Day’s fourth #1 hit single in the U.S. It also went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song; in total, Day introduced six songs in her films that were nominated in this category, including the trademark Calamity Jane tune and the Oscar-winning song “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” from The Man Who Knew Too Much. You can watch the scene where she sings “Secret Love” here.

This film probably wouldn’t work as well as it does if not for Doris Day’s performance as Calamity Jane. She plays the role with ease, often performing dance moves and other stunts without a breaking a sweat. And she’s wonderful in every scene, whether she’s playing tough or expressing more tender moments. Calamity Jane ultimately showcases every facet of Day’s talent, as she gets to display herself as a comedic performer, a musical star, and even as a dramatic actress in the film’s quieter scenes. It’s hard not to smile watching Day at work in this film, her charisma really shines through.

I wrote this entry as a part of The Doris Day Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the vibrant actress in honor of her 93rd 95th(!) birthday. Click the banner below to read more wonderful posts!

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4 thoughts on “Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953)

  1. I must admit that it’s taken me a few viewings to warm up to Calamity Jane. I adore Howard Keel and Day, and it can be very funny, but I never remember the songs and Danny is kind of a jerk to Calam just because she isn’t traditionally feminine. Anyway, I’m glad you wrote about this important Day film!

    • Yeah, I can’t understand what Calam saw in Danny because he’s so bland (and so rude about her not being feminine)! Especially compared to Bill, who was generally a much more stimulating person to be around.

      Thanks again for hosting this blogathon! I’ve enjoyed seeing the love for Doris and her work.

  2. Wonderful review! You know, I never before realized how much of a departure the film and role of Calamity Jane was for Doris Day until this blogathon. I grew up watching it as a child, so I kind of always think of her as Calamity in my heart of hearts, no matter how many films I see her in. 🙂 It was fascinating to learn how she changed her voice for the film, too. Going to have to go back and watch this again soon!

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