Three from the Frontier: Calamity Jane (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Cat Ballou (1964)

The Unsinkable Molly Brown being kind of a washout, we watched a few other frontier musicals over the weekend, to see if there was something we’d maybe want to replace it with, and while everything we watched was better in a purely technical sense they were all wild glimpses into the ways that musicals and westerns and, apparently, western musicals in particular were deeply invested in pushing a specific construction of gender.

Oh, and as a general note, all of these movies are varying levels of racist. Calamity Jane in particular gleefully celebrates indigenous genocide and the ability of its characters to kill the displaced people whose land they’re stealing. Cat Ballou thinks it’s subverting things, but even then they’ve got an Italian guy in redface. That’s common in the genre, but there are also plenty of westerns that push back against that kind of thing, and these mostly don’t.

Calamity Jane

a woman’s touch can do so much

Doris Day had a raw deal. She’s a powerhouse of a performer, with a good singing voice and a tremendous physical presence, but the backlash of the 50s was so overwhelming and she was a big enough star that she got a lot of roles about breaking her into place, and Calamity Jane is a particularly direct example of that. Everywhere Doris Day’s Calam goes, she’s plagued by mocking male laughter, forever the butt of the joke, forever disbelieved and ground down, barely tolerated by her friends and actively detested by her notional love interests. It’s not until she sets up housekeeping with Allyn Ann McLerie’s Katie Brown and learns to be a woman — losing the macho buckskins and trousers and being publicly shamed and rejected by her boyfriend — that any of the men take her seriously. It’s the shaming more than anything that makes her an acceptable romantic partner; Wild Bill Hickock only starts pursuing her in earnest after she’s been humbled by the handsome Army lieutenant proposing to Katie instead.

The gender anxiety is pretty blunt, and threaded throughout, in both directions — Hickock loses a bet with Calamity and dresses up as an “Indian squaw,” but then lassoes her and hangs her from the rafters to the delight of an audience of jeering men to reassert his dominance; the plot is kicked into motion when the saloon owner hires the male actor Francis Fryer under the mistaken belief that he’s a female dancer; Fryer is then forced into performing a drag act, which goes swimmingly until his wig comes off and the male audience angrily turns on him for deceiving them, in a scene that now reads as very dark—but it’s Calam who bears the brunt of it, and Calam who has to be broken into femininity.

There’s a marked homoerotic tension between Calam and Katie. Their relationship is significantly sweeter and more affirming than anything they have with either of the men, and the subtext of the centerpiece song “A Woman’s Touch” is hard to overlook as the two women remodel Calam’s cabin into a shared home. The movie ends with a wedding where the two women sing reprises of each other’s songs, notionally to the grooms, but structurally to each other — Hickock and the lieutenant are mere bystanders, though Hickock at least gets a later duet with Calam as they drive off into the plains.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

someday women’ll have rights! *all laugh*

Seven Brides somehow makes Calamity Jane look like Born in Flames: it’s an infuriatingly well-made movie, with tremendously catchy songs and a couple of all-time dance sequences, and a plot that revolves entirely around the abduction and planned rape of six women. I haven’t been so mad at a movie since On the Waterfront. There’s a tremendous amount of craft and skill in this and it’s in service of such a bluntly hateful story that it’s hard to really wrap your head around.

The movie’s sneaky about it, too — the first half is an interesting subversion of the standard love story, where the main couple gets married in the first scene and then has to figure out if they love each other. There’s some blunt critiques of what a raw deal marriage is for women, and the way men get married solely to gain access to women’s domestic and reproductive labor without caring about them as people — and this isn’t subtext, this is flat dialogue: “You don’t want a wife, Adam,” says Jane Powell’s Milly to her new husband after she realizes that she’s been married to care for his six brothers, not just him. “You want a cook, a washer woman, a hired girl. Well, a hired girl’s got a right to a room of her own!” The entire first act is Milly slowly teaching the younger brothers to see women as human, while Adam blithely laughs and goes about his day — it’s shockingly feminist for a 50s musical.

But then comes the turn, where Adam hatches a plan for the family to go kidnap six townswomen and force them to marry his brothers, and it’s played both completely straight — the women scream when they’re grabbed and stuffed into sacks — and completely for laughs. Milly and the women band together and exile the men to the barn when Adam sets off an avalanche to seal them all into the valley for the winter, and pelt them with rocks when they approach the house, but by the time spring rolls around they’ve all paired off anyway, and the movie ends with the women throwing themselves in front of a rescue party to prevent any justice from coming to their abductors. The movie ends with a massive shotgun wedding and a freeze frame and at no point do any of the men face any consequences. They get the brides they wanted! The moral of this movie is that abduction and rape are acceptable forms of courtship. Again, this isn’t subtext — Adam lays out his plan in a song called “The Sobbin’ Women” (riffing on the Rape of the Sabine Women and drawing explicit parallels between the founding of Rome and the colonization of Oregon) which includes the revolting lyrics “Now let this be because it’s true/A lesson to the likes of you/Treat ’em rough like them there Romans do/Or else they’ll think you’re tetched/Oh they acted angry and annoyed/But secretly they was overjoyed.”

What do you do with something like that, other than burn it to the ground?

Cat Ballou

let’s rob a train!

After the other two, Cat Ballou feels downright incendiary. Sure, she still ends up partnered off at the end, but her arc takes her away from a learned, conformist femininity into a staunchly anti-capitalist outlawery where she gets to wear pants and shoot billionaires, admittedly not at the same time. Rather than “civilizing” the men around her (a recurring theme in both Calamity Jane and Seven Brides, as well as a real bit of propaganda during the colonization of the West), Cat drags them kicking and screaming into a direct assault on the foundations of a rotten society that places profit over people.

This is the only one of the three films that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, interestingly; onscreen women can be independent, active characters that aren’t broken to fit into a tiny approved box OR they can have community with other women, not both simultaneously, a pattern that persists into today’s backlash movies. Cat’s a great character, and Jane Fonda imbues her with a playful melancholy, but she’s alone in a sea of men. If they aren’t constantly jeering at her, like in Calamity Jane, or abducting her for rape, like in Seven Brides, they’re still dismissive and undermining and forever struggling to see her as more than a pretty face and a hot bod. The movie moves its men toward seeing Cat as an entire person, but still ends with her kissing the biggest sex pest in it while he hoots and hollers, after she nearly got hanged because he refused to help her. It feels like she’s his reward, rather than the other way around; Calamity Jane got at least that much more narrative agency.

1 Response to “Three from the Frontier: Calamity Jane (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Cat Ballou (1964)”

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