Is Calamity Jane the Campest Western Musical of All Time?

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Calamity Jane (1953)(Film still)

Taking our lead from Dior Cruise, which paid homage to the wild frontiers of western America, we unpick the style lessons to learn from the region’s ultimate 1950s musical

Calamity Jane was a pistol-wielding frontierswoman living her life in the wild west of 18th-century America, and, rumour has it she was also an alcoholic, illiterate, sex worker. So why the historical figure was adapted into a 1950s musical with Doris Day playing the lead character, we’ll never know.

But sticking to what we do know – and although this was never meant to be the case – Calamity Jane (1953) is an all-out saloon showdown of gender-bending and lesbian innuendo, with Doris Day butch-camping it up whilst Katie Brown, played by Allyn Ann McLerie, represents a high-femme, bustle-wearing counterpart. It also features the ultimate ‘coming out’ musical number, so naturally the film is an undisputed classic.

Maria Grazia Chiuri alluded to the dusty plains of western America in her collection for Dior Cruise 2018, presenting the ideal opportunity to re-watch one of the campest western musicals of all time, and to present you with five lessons we can all learn from Doris Day cavorting about on a stagecoach. Whip-crack-away!

1. Sartorially embrace your androgynous side
The film opens with Calamity Jane sat atop the Deadwood stagecoach, heading back to her hometown from Chicago, legs akimbo and slapping her knees with hands clad in leather gloves. Her outfit also consists of copious amounts of suede fringing, offset by square shirt shoulders and a whip that makes a delightful fake cracking noise. Later in the film, when she sings Secret Love (the song that was adapted by the LGBTQ community as a ‘coming out’ anthem) she wears an ensemble that would make Katharine Hepburn proud: high-waisted mannish trousers, a shirt buttoned up to the neck, finished with a bolo tie.

2. Assume the identity you feel is right for you
The film really gets going down the road towards gender-fuckery when a man takes to the local saloon stage in lady drag, in an attempt to fool punters that he is a ‘real woman’. When his secret is discovered, Calamity vows to get famous actress Adelaide Adams to come to the town and perform for them as compensation for their being deceived, but when she arrives in Chicago and heads backstage, she mistakes Adams’ maid Katie Brown for Adelaide herself. A symbol of ‘femininity’ in a pink bustier complete with tit-skimming tassels, Katie sings to herself in front of the mirror, relishing her newfound identity.

3. Never underestimate a woman’s touch
“I’m moving into Calamity’s cabin!” says Katie after she arrives in Deadwood with no place to stay. “There aren’t a lot of women in town and Calamity had the idea that we should share together.” Cue the most euphemistic song in the whole film, A Woman’s Touch, a show tune that is supposedly about interior decorating but contains lyrics like “with a rub rub there you can polish up the windows”, and “one smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom”. Clearly the writers had absolutely no idea what they were getting themselves in for.

4. Become a princess with a pistol
Calamity and Katie soon after attend the town dance with their heteronormative sweethearts, where Calamity has transformed herself into a kind of saloon-girl-meets-fairytale-princess with the addition of a pastel pink gown made from satin and tulle. “You look better in a dress, you’re an absolute vision, Calamity,” says the man she is pining after. But the façade doesn’t last for long: Calamity soon flies into a jealous rage and fires her gun into the room. 

5. Whiten your teeth
The film’s camp-factor is heightened by the fact that it was shot in Technicolor, allowing every chintzy detail to stand out in high-definition. In particular, the teeth of the lead characters practically require a pair of reactions lenses to look at, especially during operatic song-and-dance moments, when mouths are especially cavernous. We’re not suggesting that you actually go out and tint your teeth the same shade as Doris Day’s, of course. Perhaps just invest in some of those painful strips from the pharmacy.