Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Secret Love.

Gender roles in the revisionist Western.

- "I made a mistake about his gender, not his talent!"
Paul Harvey (Henry Miller) in "Calamity Jane".

Released exactly one year apart from each other, "Calamity Jane" and "Johnny Guitar" challenged the standards of the American film genre by excellence: the Western.
Both bend genre conventions and extract completely new ways of watching cowboy flicks particularly the fact that both share strong willed women as heroines, who can shoot like the devil and stand up to any man, along with more psychoanalytical, sapphic interpretations than there are fleas in a rodeo bull.
"Calamity Jane", a Western musical (talk about box office bomb potential for our times...) was done in response to the great success a few years prior of the Western musical "Annie Get Your Gun".
Doris Day plays the legendary Wild West heroine seen by most as the local tomboy. She spends her time in saloons and fighting indians who terrorize the area.
After a performer turns out to be a fiasco at the local saloon, Calamity gets one of her toughest missions as she decides to go to Chicago and look for a female entertainer to satisfy the male population requests.
Without thinking for a second that she might be able to fill the part herself, she goes to the big city where she is often confused as a man. She finds Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) a beginner singer who she takes back to Deadwood, only to have her become part of a love rectangle as they both fight for the affections of Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) and Wild Bill Hicock (Howard Keel).
In Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar", Joan Crawford plays saloonkeeper Vienna; a revolutionary urbanist who wants to build a new town around her business, but becomes the target for villagers who want her to leave once and for all.
When she is accused of a crime she didn't commit, she is aided by the title hero (played by Sterling Hayden) an outlaw/troubadour with whom she shares a past.
"I've never seen a woman who was more like a man," says one character about Vienna, but in truth he could have also been talking about Calamity.
Both women exert more power over the other characters (and the audience) than anything else in their films and while this may have to do with pure star wattage, the truth is that in a deeper sense both films are poignant sexual critiques about what was arguably seen as a man's thing.
With the Hayes Code slowly becoming obsolete, the 50's paved the way for the sexual revolution that would follow in the next decade and while Hollywood was pretending to play along with the rules, filmmakers were beginning to challenge conceptions and infused their films with unintendedly controversial elements.
A sequence in "Calamity Jane" features a female impersonator who is eventually discovered, but only after he's stirred the hormones of some of the audience members.
Once they discover their mistake they begin to boo at him. The film of course plays this like a "ha ha" moment, but never lets go of its not so subtle commentary on how social standards were sustained as long as they appeared to be the real thing.
You can't stop wondering if they were booing at the fact that the performer was a man, or that he stopped singing after the discovery.

The leading men in both films, play supporting roles to women they know they never will be able to handle.
Wild Bill affirms to Calamity "I Can Do Without You" and mostly stands in the back as she does all the hard work (including their eventual romance), while Lt. Gilmartin exclaims "just untie me!" after Calamity saves him from a group of indians all by herself.
Johnny Guitar on the other side tries to regain back his masculinity by asking Vienna to lie to him about how much she needs him.
"Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me." he asks.
"All those years I've waited. " she exclaims without an ounce of truthfulness.
He know she's lying, she knows as long as she says it out loud, he'll be alright.
And of course where there's a strong woman, there's a rumor of lesbianism.
When "Johnny Guitar" became an icon for the French auteur movement, psychoanalysis was going through an explosive difusion.
The film's bizarre mood and the use of color became alleged allegories for everything, from McCarthy-ism to supressed sexual feelings. "Johnny"'s villainness comes in the shape of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) a woman as asexual as Vienna, who is seeking to regain her throne as the butchiest of them all and encounters a personality as defying as her own, which might, or might not, stir feelings of identification in her that she confuses as attraction leading to hatred...
And if all that sounds over the top, there's the theory that "Secret Love", the Academy Award winning song from "Calamity Jane", is not precisely about Jane's newfound affection towards Bill, but of her more introspective feelings towards Katie.
When the film has Katie movie in with Calamity for "protection" you wonder if it's protection from the town boys, bandits, indians or from social prejudice.
Regardless of the sexual orientation of the characters, both films are proof of how the artform thrives with possibilities that go beyond mere entertainment and how genre can constantly be reinvented.

This post is part of "Musical of the Month", hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".



thanks for participating. I've never seen JOHNNY GUITAR but it's interesting that you've paired them. I really must see it now.

Janice said...

I saw Calamity Jane once as a not-yet-lesbian in my early teens (or late tweens) many, many years ago and Day's performance still lingers in memory - seeing a character that bold and butch was exciting to me, someone who longed to see strong women onscreen even then. I have never seen Johnny Guitar however, but this post makes me want to seek it out. Great contribution.

I would challenge your use of the word "unintentionally" - there were then as now a lot of gay men and lesbians in Hollywood, and though they knew the middle American audiences would demand that gender variant characters get their comeuppance, there was a lot more "inside jokes" in that regard than we realize. (Read and watch the Celluloid Closet for proof, especially re: Ben Hur.)