Everybody knows “Secret Love,” one of the biggest hits of 1954. Even those who haven’t heard it will need little help understanding the meaning of its lyric “All too soon my secret love became impatient to be free.” Celebrated as Hollywood’s great gay anthem, Doris Day’s tender and exuberant performance explodes the conceit of the 1953 movie Calamity Jane.
Playing what used to be called a “tomboy,” Day cross-dresses in buckskin like the real-life Martha Jane Canary, a frontierswoman noted for exaggerating her near-death adventures as an Indian scout in the late 1800s. Day’s dust-covered, butch Jane rides shotgun on a stagecoach carrying passengers from the East into the Old West town of Deadwood.
As if sprung from nowhere, she exhibits no traditionally feminine traits, yet she crushes on a handsome military officer (Philip Carey) while ignoring the steady, beaming camaraderie of the lawman, gambler, and showman Wild Bill Hickok (played by the genial, robust Howard Keel). Though based on American Western folklore, this premise clearly imitated the successful 1950 film version of Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, about Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
But instead of a make-over, Calamity Jane gives its tough-gal heroine a powerfully symbolic pistol; her masculine aggression plays with sexual identity through gestures enlarged to the point of farce. And then it goes deeper—into emotional confusion that grows from Jane taking on supposed male habits. Day brings comic overstatement to Jane’s complex repression of her own instincts. Like many a closet case, she exhibits a self-defeating willingness to fit into a male-dominated culture. Her tough mannerisms are also designed to protect her hidden, vulnerable emotions.
Featuring songs by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster that lack any real musical distinction (except for the Academy Award–winning “Secret Love”), Calamity Jane dares to go beyond what once was Broadway and Hollywood’s family-friendly entertainment by complicating its contrived romantic story.
Acting as one of the boys, Jane promises to get prominent female entertainer Adelaid Adams to perform for the woman-starved men of Deadwood. Queer-studies professors and their students should love this twist, which gives Calamity Jane its meaningful tease of theatrical conventions.
These comic and musical tricks tackle ideas about sexuality and queerness that Hollywood did not openly address at that time. Calamity Jane flirts with same-sex attraction when Jane recruits a showbiz-besotted maid, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), to masquerade herself as the saloon idol Adelaid. Before their friendship turns into rivalry, their empathy and envy is a landmark display of girl-on-girl attraction that is dizzying in its mix of sexual recognition and desire. Each woman takes on a confining secret that inhibits her personal sense of actual and psychological freedom. They thwart their own yearning.
In a key scene, all this trans affectation shifts into camp fantasy when a male entertainer, Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson), does a reluctant drag number, “I’ve Got a Hive Full of Honey for the Right Kind of Honey Bee,” that nearly turns the men of Deadwood into a lynch mob. The bar owner panics: “I may have made a mistake about his gender but not his talent.” This might be the first utterance of the word “gender” in any Hollywood movie.
But “Secret Love” is Calamity Jane’s greatest first. Day, with her ever-happy persona, often seems to have too much fun with Jane’s perverse, self-inflated macho act. But the superb singer and actress instinctively responds to the song’s openness. First, Day displays piercing sadness when Jane realizes she’s outfoxed herself, but in “Secret Love,” she finally acknowledges herself. On the rising verse “Now I shout it from the highest hills,” she radiates what George Michael would later sing in the Wham! track “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go:” “You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day!”
The emotional and social resonance of “Secret Love” (“At last my heart’s an open door / And my secret love’s no secret anymore”) has inspired repeated cover versions over the decades. But it’s always Day’s rendition that really shines. There is no other moment in all of American cinema that expresses the joy of gay liberation better than this.
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