"Doris Day rides the Deadwood Stage across
and into our hearts" - BBC
An excellent vehicle to launch Miss Day's career into the stratosphere...
In 1953, over at 20th Century Fox, a big musical was in production. It was called "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, two of the leading glamour girls of the day. Across town at Warner Brothers, Doris Day was donned in buckskins, boots and a scout cap, perched atop a stagecoach, singing her head off and dancing up a volcanic storm in another important musical called "Calamity Jane".
Both pictures would turn out to be hits and boost the leading ladies' careers to new heights. "Calamity Jane" was fortunate in having one of the best singers in the world, who started her career as a dancer, playing the lead role. These two elements combined with her natural acting ability produced one of the legendary performances in musical film history. Doris Day literally snapped, crackled and popped as she portrayed the Wild West legend, Martha Jane Burke, a frontier markswoman who, according to some sources, worked briefly as a 'lady of the night' during hard times. She was better known as 'Calamity Jane', crack shot and good friend and rival of Wild "Bill" Hickock, another frontier scout. This picture, of course, is fictionalised, with a splattering of truth thrown in for good measure.
It was an excellent vehicle to launch Miss Day's career into the stratosphere, for it catapulted her to new heights among the greatest of stars. She performed with such gusto, that one film critic noted, "by picture's end, she is within hailing distance of Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland". But in the opinion of this reviewer, she not only caught up with them, she passed them both.
"Calamity Jane" centres around her effort to save Henry Miller's theatre/saloon from ruin by bringing the much admired, beautiful singing star, Adelaide Adams, to perform in Deadwood's premiere entertainment venue, The Golden Garter. Calamity promises the patrons of the Garter that she will personally bring Miss Adams back from Chicago to South Dakota. In Chicago, she sees Adelaide Adam's show, from the back of the theatre, but later mistakes Miss Adams' stage struck maid, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), for the star. Katie, realising the mistake, seizes the opportunity to make her dreams come true by posing as Adelaide in the rustic no-man's land territory of Deadwood, which has only a small cigarette picture of the singer to compare. After all, she did look similar to Miss Adams and she fooled Calamity!
After crossing dangerous terrain, with Indians in hot pursuit, the two arrive in Deadwood, unscathed, to tremendous fanfare. The men of Deadwood are delighted that Calamity has kept 'her word' and brought the great Adelaide to perform for them. Especially pleased are Lt. Danny Gillmartin (Philip Carey) and Bill Hickock (Howard Keel), who immediately take a liking to 'Miss Adams'. To Katie's surprise, there is someone in Deadwood who does recognise her. Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson), another entertainer from Chicago, who knows that Katie is not Adelaide Adams, but her maid. He does not, however, reveal this knowledge for fear of repercussions against Henry Miller (Paul Harvey).
On her opening night, Katie is exceedingly nervous, and adding to her trepidation, Francis wishes her good luck by saying, "Give 'em all you've got, Katie". The fact that he knows her real identity exacerbates her fear and she goes onstage and gives a disastrous performance. A disappointed audience boos her after she confesses to the crowd that she has deceived them and is not Adelaide Adams. A shocked Calamity comes to her rescue, imploring the angry crowd to give Katie a chance. Surprisingly, they agree to let her sing. With renewed confidence, Katie delivers a great show and Deadwood now has it's own 'Adelaide Adams'.
Katie and Calamity become close friends but when Lt. Gillmartin becomes smitten with Katie, Calamity becomes jealous and orders Katie to get out of town. Katie, not wanting to come between Calamity and 'the man she loves', leaves Deadwood. Meanwhile, 'Calam' is forced by Bill Hickock to face reality as he urges her to let Gillmartin go. Hickock, too, has had to face some facts about his feelings towards Katie and begins to see Calamity in a new, more romantic light. She also begins to see Bill in a different way; as the man she has 'secretly loved' all along. When Calamity discovers that Katie has actually left Deadwood, she vows to bring her back. She catches up with the stagecoach to tell Katie the news that she is getting married, but that she would be 'Mrs. Hickock'. As the film ends, a double wedding ensues with Katie marrying the lieutenant and Bill marrying the now more feminine, Calamity Jane.
This has got to be the best western musical ever to come out of Hollywood. From the opening number, "The Deadwood Stage", Doris Day takes full command of the proceedings She sings, dances, rides horses, shoots and is vulnerable at the same time. Calamity is complex. She is feared by the men of Deadwood, but respected and admired too. Miss Day is riveting in the part and gives the character everything she's got, which is plenty. It is a robust - but tender, abrasive but vulnerable performance, which wedged its way into the hearts of millions. Howard Keel is just right as Hickock and plays his role with humour and charm. His is one of the best male voices on the screen and his rendition of "Higher Than a Hawk" was beautiful. Doris is in superb voice and has most of the great numbers in the picture. On her return from Chicago, she performs "Just Blew in from the Windy City", complete with some fancy, acrobatic footwork. When she and Katie move into Calamity's unkempt cabin, they give the place "A Woman's Touch".
A lovely folk ballad, "The Black Hills of Dakota" is sung by the foursome while gingerly travelling to the Fort Scully Ball with Day and Keel prominently featured. Dick Wesson, as Francis Fryer, has a hilarious sequence, performing in drag, singing "I've Got a Heart Full of Honey" and Miss McLerie sexily belts out, "Keep It Under Your Hat". Day reported that she and Keel sang live while filming "I Can Do Without You!" It is a great number filled with physicality and one-upmanships. The most memorable song is, of course, "Secret Love". A renewed, more glamorous Calamity sings the song to celebrate her newfound love for Bill Hickock. Sung while she rides a horse, she eventually stops by a babbling brook to pick a daffodil. The song went on to win the Academy Award as best song of the year and the recording sold over a million for Miss Day earning her another gold record.
The rest of the cast is sterling. Philip Carey was unsympathetic as Danny Gillmartin, Paul Harvey was fun as Henry Miller, as was Chubby Johnson (the 'Gabby Hayes' of the film), 'Rattlesnake'. Gale Robbins was pretty and performed well ("It's Harry I'm Plannin' to Marry") as Adelaide Adams. There were some very familiar faces in the crowd at the Golden Garter. Many of the extras were veteran western film performers we've seen in thousands of cowboys and Indians movies. Obviously, director, David Butler knew what he had here, a marvellous script, memorable score, a talented cast and two stars to make this a film for the ages.
Ralph McKnight, New York, 2000
Doris Day prepared to take a bath on the set...
When Doris Day prepared to take a bath on the set of Calamity Jane there was excitement throughout the studio. It was to be a mud bath. At one side of the sound stage a huge trough was filled with the finest San Fernando Valley’s finest earth. Studio workmen thoughtfully heated the water which they poured on the dirt with all the tenderness and care a chambermaid might lavish upon the Queen’s bath. All this preparation was for a sequence in which Doris, thoroughly drenched and muddied from falling into a creek, enters her cabin home where Howard Keel, Allyn McLerie and Philip Carey are awaiting the arrival of what they expect will be a beautifully gowned young lady.
When director David Butler announced he was ready to shoot the scene, Doris, wearing a yellow dress crated by famed fashion designer, Howard Shoup, stepped into the trough of mud with all the pleasant anticipation she might display at dipping into a perfumed bubble bath. “It’s wonderfully warm, though a bit lumpy,” declared the star. “This is like walking around in fudge. You must give me your recipe, boys.” But before Doris had a chance to say another word the boys grabbed her and politely, but firmly drop her full length into the trough. When she stood up she was covered from head to foot with mud and the Shoup dress was thoroughly deglamorized.
The director, however, still was not satisfied so he spread more mud on Doris, who was still enjoying every minute of this supposed ordeal. “How times change. As a little girl I was scolded for getting my party dress dirty while playing in the mud. Now I get paid for doing the same thing,” she remarked.
"The opening sequence of this wonderful musical is pure pleasure, as Doris Day rides the Deadwood stage across the screen and into our hearts. This isn't the real Wild West, of course, but Warner Bros's Technicolored riposte to MGM's Annie Get Your Gun - the studio even poached the same leading man, handsome Howard Keel, excellent here as Wild Bill Hickock.
The specially commissioned score is a treat, but the strength of the movie is Day giving a marvellous musical comedy performance in her finest role, creating a warm, robust yet tender character; just marvel at her timing in Just Blew In from the Windy City, while Secret Love, recorded by Day in just one take, won the best song Oscar and is beautifully staged by choreographer Jack Donohue. A true delight that repays many viewings."
Doris Day had this to say:
“In 1953 I made one of my favorite musicals, Calamity Jane.. I loved portraying Calamity Jane, who was a rambunctious, pistol-packing prairie girl (I lowered my voice and stuck out my chin a little). I can’t say that the physical high jinks of jumping on horses, bars, wagons, and belligerent men or doing pratfalls in muddy streams seemed to be particularly exhausting…I had a great working relationship with my costar, Howard Keel, and absolutely first-rate songs to sing (by Sammy Fain and Paul Webster), one of which, ‘Secret Love,’ became my third million-plus recording and won that year’s Academy Award.” - Doris Day, Her Own Story