Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Musical of the Month: Calamity Jane

Musicals always raise the spirits, don't they?

I mean musicals that don’t dramatize the slow creep of the Nazi party across Weimar era Germany. Or musicals that don't involve bloody racial conflicts on Manhattan’s West Side. Or musicals that don't torment blind single mothers on death row… Let's restate: Musicals are sometimes cheerful. I need a cheerful one right now.

See, it's been a tough week. Things haven’t been going well for me technologically speaking –this DVD player I use keeps freezing on me and refusing to play DVDs. What gives? It did this when I tried to review The Car, too -- and don't even mention "time management" to me. I’m apologizin’ straight away that this post is very short and open-ended (make sure to check out my musical pard'ners at other blogs below). Deadlines surround me. I had but three hours of sleep last night and back to the office I went.

Doris Day kicks off this month's featured movie singing with her fellow travellers on a horse driven carriage way back in the 1870-something. Flash forward 138 years and it's corporate America that's singing "whip crack away" to me. They ain't as cheerful about it as Ms. Doris Day.

Beautiful sky! A wonderful day!
Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!


So thank god for musicals and their bright colors, catchy songs and high spirited dancing. I need them. From its first frames Calamity Jane conspires to put a smile on my face. It’s not content to just throw up a huge colorful title. This 1953 musical adds a chorus of swelling voices to sing that very title to me --just in case I'm illiterate like those Deadwood settlers. They sing her name like they're speeding over a hill in their own carriage. It's got a big rise and fall. Yes, phantom chorus, sing to me! Drug me up with that musical cheer. I'll join in as soon as we get to a number I recognize.

Alas, my DVD player isn't playing and I'm denied again. [Editor's note: This is the last scheduled posting that shall be ruined by said problem. I just need a free day to find a solution and I haven't had one in a couple of weeks.] The real reason I wanted to kick off this series with Calamity Jane was that I was dying to see it again. How foregrounded are the fascinating homo undercurrents I remember thinking about once I saw The Celluloid Closet in 1995. I'll have to read the other posts in this mini-celebration to find out. Doris Day was never a Judy Garland but Calamity Jane's most famous song "Secret Love" was understandably a major gay anthem back in its day, descriptive of and embraced by the GLBT community before there was really such a thing as being "out".

Now I shout it from the highest hills
I even told the golden daffodil.
At last my heart's an open door.
And my secret love's no secret anymore
Imagine how thrilling, how moving this fantasy wish fulfillment in a song must have been in the 1950s when the reality was almost always the closet?

Just a brief cursory "scene selection" tour through this Technicolor Deadwood has convinced me that what the world really needs is a gay remake or perhaps a meta drag version for the new millenium. The latter would be vaguely Victor/Victoria-esque only in this case it'd be a thinkier spin "a man pretending to be a woman who everyone thinks of as a man" rather than the fully comedic 82 version
"A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?!? Preposterous! No one will believe it."
"Exactly. That's why it will work!"
And whether this imaginary "Jane" is a 50s tomboy or an effeminate man playing a tomboy "she's" got an interesting thing for "Wild Bill", don'cha know. When we first see Bill Hickok, Calamity veritably shimmies at him despite her objections to immodest ladies of entertainment and sings enthusiastically about "his gun with 27 notches"

Jane after checking out Bill's gun: "I'm glad to say he's a
very good friend of mine." (hee)


I love their relationship. I never watched HBO's Deadwood but catching glimpses of Howard Keel and Doris Day's mostly platonic (brotherly?) romance in this musical makes me curious to see how other artists have treated this mythic pairing. Like Bonnie & Clyde, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane have been mythologized for a long time. No one who can separate the fact from the fiction is still alive. What was going on there? It's ripe for multiple interpretations. Did they really have a child together as Jane later claimed? It's a complicated affair. The true details of this love (reciprocal or otherwise) are secret.

The golden daffodils aren't talking.


For more on Calamity Jane, say...

"Howdy Pardners!"
Movies Kick Ass gender roles & revisionist westerns in Calamity Jane & Johnny Guitar
Spartickes "That ain't all she ain't!"
StinkyLulu delivers a cheeky funny audiovisual meditation
Criticlasm "You make no sense at all, but you’re a rollicking good old time."
Stinky Bits unedited ramblings on the butch/femme lesbian romance within the film


Next time... Those few brave souls who participated in the first installment will be voting on the movie to be featured on September 6th. The options are: Fred & Ginger in Swing Time (1936), the non-stop dancing of The Red Shoes (1948), Gene Kelly's On the Town (1949), Bollywood classic Mother India (1957), Off Broadway transfer Little Shop of Horrors (1986) or Christian Bale hoofin' it through Newsies (1992). We'll announce the winner in a few days.

20 comments:

criticlasm said...

Well, if you do the Red Shoes....here's mine :)

Drew said...

Isn't Doris Day a mega-conservative? I wonder if she's aware of Calamity Jane being highlighted to the extent it is in The Celluloid Closet.

John T said...

One fabulous way to solve that DVD problem-Blu-Ray player. :)

Mr. Honesty said...

If you want more people to participate in the blog-a-thon, you should try picking musicals that more people have actually seen. Most people don't have any real opinions about the choices you've listed, so I'm left kind of unexcited.

NATHANIEL R said...

mr. honesty... I'm not really interested in only doing major hits like Sound of Music or Chicago. Where's the fun in talking about things that people always talk about? One of the joys of film clubs (at least the ones I've seen online) is reintroducing or introducing things people might not otherwise see... or might not have seen in a long time.

but that said. These are hardly obscure choices. I mean we're talking two very famous dance musicals, FRED & GINGER, one of the only talked about musicals in the 80s and a "bad movie we love" in Newsies that people still talk about due to Christian Bale.

but yes there will sometimes be months for major things that everyone knows like Grease maybe. I just want it to be varied.

criticlasm posts from 7 months ago don't count ;)

NATHANIEL R said...

john t -- my normal dvd player works but i basically only use my computer for blogging. If i can't take screenshots I aint interested ;)

NATHANIEL R said...

Drew --- I think so but i don't know much about her so i didn't want to assume.

goatdog said...

I have to agree with Nathaniel--I think the best thing about blog-a-thons or film club type things like this is that they encourage you to branch out into something you might not ordinarily see (like with Final Girl's Film Club--eek! bad horror movies! sign me up!) or haven't gotten around to seeing. Calamity Jane was a perfect pick, and if my free time weren't non-existent right now I'd definitely have played along. So I hope you wonderful people pick something I haven't seen--as much as I love Fred & Ginger and absolutely adore The Red Shoes, I'd rather you prompt me to watch a Bollywood movie or Newsies, because film blogging should be about expanding one's cinematic horizons, or else why do it? Sorry, I'm getting all passionate up in here. But really, why be afraid of branching out?

Jose said...

She's probably not that conservative considering she had no trouble working with Rock Hudson so many times.
Then again sometimes films shine under different lights due to how much societies change.
Perhaps not even the people making the film were aware of how it would play out to future generations.

NATHANIEL R said...

goatdog --thanks for expressing it more eloquently. I definitely want to touch on some universally beloved stuff that 'mr honesty' and others will be excited about but not every month... even though I love musicals there are still many I haven't seen and this is a good excuse.

jose --generally i think somebody on set is aware of subtext that it's easy to spot years later. but not everyone. Consider how fully aware Stephen Boyd was of what he was doing homoerotically speaking in Ben-Hur even though it sailed right over Charlton Heston's head.

I'm guessing Paul Francis Webster (who co-wrote Secret Love's lyrics --it won the Oscar for Best Original Song) must have had an inkling.

But it's just a guess!

Catherine said...

I really wanted to participate in this, but for the life of me I couldn't get ahold of a copy. It wasn't available in two seperate libraries and was checked out of the dvd rental place. Oh, well. I'm enjoying reading these other entries anyway. Those other choices look interesting; I've never seen any of them, but hopefully will for next time.

I was sitting in history class last year when the English teacher from across the hall came in to the room and said to my teacher, "Quick, I need to ask you a really urgent question!". She ran over to the history teacher, bent down and said (in the loudest stage whisper you could have), "Is Doris Day still alive?". The class erupted.

Hayden said...

Yeah, I really wanted to take part in this, too, but I couldn't get my hands on a copy. But not to worry. I've seen a few of these next options, and for those I haven't, I'm sure I could within a month. I love this idea.

Billy D said...

Oh please let it be Little Shop of Horros. "Skid Row" in itself is a masterpiece of casting, editing, pacing, etc.

Hayden said...

I agree. If I could vote, I'd vote for Little Shop. Though I'd be interested in seeing a new Bollywood musical...

CanadianKen said...

If you're going the Bollywood route, DIL SE(1998) would be a great choice. Good story. Fine director (Mani Ratnam), incredible A.R.Rahman music beautifully picturized. With three charismatic and gifted Bollywood stars - Shah Rukh Khan (India's top male icon for some time now), superb Manisha Koirala and marvelous Preity Zinta (in her debut). Since then Preity's had a hugely successful career in Indian films - and she's recently completed Deepa Mehta's latest,HEAVEN ON EARTH, a project certain to up her profile in North America. Whenever someone who's interested in investigating a Bollywood film asks me to suggest a title, I always say DIL SE (translation: FROM THE HEART). It's a beautiful experience on every level.

Neel Mehta said...

Echoing canadianken...

Dil Se is the movie that features "Chaiyya Chaiyya," the song that opens Inside Man.

I'd love to see more Bollywood on this site, but I'm not sure Mother India is the way to go. It's very long and heavy on the melodrama. If you don't like it, don't swear off the whole industry.

criticlasm said...

oooh, snap! See if I share my stale, old movie thoughts with you! ;)

I, too, love the arcana. There's enough written about the biggies, so it's fun to look at something that is perhaps just as wonderfulbut overlooked, or cult faves (like the Red Shoes) that maybe I've missed. So my vote, too, is for the lesser knowns....

CanadianKen said...

I second Neel Mehta's opinion about MOTHER INDIA. It was incredibly popular in its day (1957)and its reputation has been kept alive largely,I suspect, by people who either haven't seen it for years or haven't seen it at all. What's more,a certain amount of prestige still clings to it because of its surprise Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. It took over 40 years for another Bollywood movie (the much more deserving LAGAAN)to repeat that feat. MOTHER INDIA's like one of those cumbersome mother-love dramas Hollywood used to churn out in the 30's, with stars forging their way from giddy girlhood to doddering old age, along the way undergoing the tortures of the damned - mostly for the sake of ungrateful offspring. Everything but the kitchen sink was usually thrown into these potboilers. And that's certainly the case with MOTHER INDIA. Its songs by Naushad, the Gershwin of Indian film music, DO provide an excellent soundtrack. And fascinating Raaj Kumar packs a lot of charisma and oomph into his all too brief role as Mother India's husband. But on the whole the film's pretty heavy going - a melodramatic marathon likely to tax the patience of most modern viewers - and certainly not a movie I'd expect would encourage newbies to explore other Bollywood titles of similar vintage. AMAR(1954) starring a beguiling favorite of mine called Nimmi and the lavish epic MUGHAL-E-AZAM(1960) both have classic Naushad scores as well and I'd say either movie is a better bet than MOTHER INDIA. But I'd still suggest DIL SE as the ideal ice-breaker for those interested in experiencing Bollywood at its best.

Janice said...

It's been years since I've seen Calamity Jane (I saw it on TV as a not-yet-out lesbian in my early teens) and I'm not sure if I got the homoerotic context (in fact I'm sure I didn't) but I loved seeing a movie role with a bold, butch character, played to not-quite-over-the-top perfection by Day. (Who is a really underrated actress, I think, and could be splendid in the right hands - she's my favorite thing about Hitchcock's 1950's remake of his own 1930's film "The Man Who Knew Too Much") That was and is still quite rare.

So I don't share your enthusiasm Nat for an all-drag "man as a woman everyone thinks is a man" spin, if I'm understanding you correctly (and maybe I'm misunderstanding your intention?) There are few enough interesting roles for women out there - don't rob us of another one.

Chris Na Taraja said...

Although I totally love Little Shop (I mean what can be more uplifting and fun then man eating plants!?), Don't you think we should take a look at Christian Bale before he bacame the dark night. I vote for Newsies.

"Sante Fe, are you there?"