“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should go ahead and be one.”*
Martha Jane Canary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903) was born today in 1852. She is, of course, better known as Calamity Jane.
Born in Mercer County, Missouri, Canary was the oldest of many siblings. Her father was a farmer. After some legal wrangling over land, the family sold their property and left Missouri in the early 1860s, heading for Montana gold. But they fell on hard times; her mother died in a mining camp in Blackfoot City, Montana, when Canary was about 9. After taking the children to Salt Lake City, her father died soon after.
Her life, already a hard one, became at that point the stuff of legend. As she became a dime-novel heroine and stage performer, she enlarged her myth with every new story. It is nearly impossible to know where the truth lies and who she really was. Well, she was and still is an intriguing oddity that fires the imagination.
Not surprisingly Calamity Jane has been portrayed by myriad actresses on the large and small screen. In the movies she has been played by Jean Arthur, Jane Russell, Yvonne De Carlo, Doris Day, Catherine O’Hara, Ellen Barkin–to name a few. On television Stephanie Powers, Anjelica Huston and Jane Alexander have attempted to represent her.
Of the movies I like The Plainsman (1936) with Jean Arthur as Calamity and Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it is a very exciting movie and Arthur and Cooper are well matched. I’m sure the plot has practically no basis in reality, but it is a good movie and Jean Arthur is no glamour girl. Cooper, as usual, is adorable.
I also like Anjelica Huston as Calamity in the 1995 TV mini-series Buffalo Girls, an adaption of the book by Larry McMurtry. Physically, she is the most like the real Martha Jane–tall and somewhat manly and with (we hope) a heart of gold.
One of the most ridiculous presentations of Calamity Jane’s life is that put forth in the1953 musical Calamity Jane, starring Doris Day.
But one can not help but love this rendition and Doris Day who always gives 110%. This film focuses on the relationship between Jane and Wild Bill (Howard Keel) and Doris gets to sing lyrics like: “At last my heart’s an open door / And my secret love’s no secret any more.” Yikes. The song won the Academy Award for Best Song that year, and with Doris singing, why wouldn’t it?
I think I will watch Doris in Calamity Jane because I DVR’d it when it was on TCM on her birthday a few weeks ago. Here’s a little something to whet your appetite:
So let’s raise a glass to Martha Jane Canary on her birthday, the American legend and the real woman, whoever she was.
*Attributed to Calamity Jane