If you’re a fan of 1950s musical films, you’ll probably want to goose the rating on David Butler’s Calamity Jane up a half star. This so-called musical biography (it’s more a musical comedy romp involving Hollywoodized historical characters) is indefensible as filmmaking, but it’s an excellent example of a type of movie that once proliferated and is seen no more. It’s what can best be called a star vehicle—a not very expensive, not very elaborate, but satisfying film made to showcase a popular musical star. In this case, the star is Doris Day, aided by Howard Keel on loan from MGM.
What sets the film apart from other such films of the era is the departure of Day’s character from her usual ingenue roles. Even though the character of Calamity Jane is clearly glamorized out of all recognition (did anyone in the wild West have teeth that blindingly white?) and even though she has to trade in her buckskins for frilly things in order to get her man’s attention (hey, it’s the 1950s), this is simply not the Doris of hallowed (or blasphemed) memory. It’s easy to understand why the role was her favorite.
Helming the proceedings was Warner Bros.’ musical specialist David Butler, who had been a pioneer of film musicals at the dawn of sound (director Tay Garnett credits Butler with coming up with the boom microphone) and had a steady career in the field with everybody from Janet Gaynor to Shirley Temple to Kay Kyser to Bing and Bob before settling in at Warner’s. This isn’t one of his more interesting jobs, but the quirky way it plays with sexual stereotypes likely owes something to Butler’s often cockeyed sense of humor. Not only does he give us the rather butch Day, but there’s also the wimpy Francis Farmer (Dick Wesson), who’s mistakenly hired as a chanteuse and forced into doing a drag act with a song that wouldn’t be out of place in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). Musically, the highlight is “Secret Love” (a song that came to be something of a gay favorite, because of its implications), which, sad to say, is handled rather indifferently by Butler. Neither great, nor perhaps even very good, the film remains a charming artifact.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke