Myke Emal and I are both fans of westerns, so I decided to start a discussion with him on two, which rather than focus on the norm male heroes of the west, they have two leading ladies: Calamity Jane (with Doris Day) and Johnny Guitar (with Joan Crawford).
Myke: I had never seen Calamity Jane before, but thought it was incredibly entertaining and funny. I feel out of depth with it 1) because I watched it 2 weeks ago and 2) I’m not familiar with Doris Day at all.
Gabby: What did you think of her?
Myke Emal: The voice she chooses is a bit much at times, but it works because this isn’t the gritty west of Sergio Leone. It’s even goofier than most John Wayne movies. A particularly favorite scene of mine is when she first meets Katie Brown and sizes her up like she’d never seen another woman.
Do you feel like Calamity Jane is mostly progressive in its exploration of gender roles in westerns?
Gabby: I have had a long history with Calamity Jane. I have seen it many times over the years and it was one I always enjoyed. I thought it was allowing the woman to get the guy but not having to lose her character as she is still carrying a gun in her wedding dress at the end. I always loved that touch, especially in comparison to the ending of Annie Get Your Gun. It seems Calamity and Bill are equals and really respect one another. That kind of love/hate thing they have going on really is quite enjoyable. However after I watched The Celluloid Closet, I changed my perspective on Calamity Jane.
Before I go into that, what are your thoughts on her place in the town and her interactions with Katie and her relationship with Bill?
Myke: Calamity is one of the two lynch pins in the town (Bill being the other) and that the town clearly loves her. I got the feeling like she’d had to do a lot of proving herself, and obviously fudged some facts to gain respect, such as when she goes on about shooting dozens of Indians on the stagecoach ride in. Parts of the town’s perception of women seemed double edged, since they are portrayed and mindless horn dogs who ogle at anything with a dress. They were mad to find one of their star performers was a man in drag, but the movie is playing the joke on them for buying it so long. We’re meant to sympathize with women in this world, who here, are only valued for their looks and singing ability, but that’s all surface level stuff and I felt like thinking about it would betray a much more naive structure that was just trying to get a laugh.
Gabby: When looked at on a deeper level seems quite problematic. It seems that in order to be a strong she has to perform as incredibly masculine. There is a problem for me in the fact that the other women in the town seem to be nonexistent. That is why to me that when you put a queer reading onto the film it suddenly makes more sense to me. If you think about what Katie is in the film to Adelaide Adams it makes a lot more sense as to why she is willing to stare admiringly in the background if they were lovers. This also explains why she takes so quickly to Calamity. Calamity sees the potential in Katie straight away. She sees her as beautiful, wonderful and talented. She sees her as everything Katie wants to be rather than the way Katie has been treated by Adelaide. So I think she gets swept up by her romantically. She moves in with Calamity very quickly. Calamity starts defending her in a way that either a lover or a very close friend who has known her for years would do; on top of the fact that Calamity and Katie set up home together.
The feelings she has for Danny makes no sense it the film, and why would she shoot at Katie and ask her to leave as well as throwing her things out of their home; Why would she be that heartbroken with Katie rather than Danny if that really was where her affection lied?
The relationship that forms so quickly with Bill is something that irked me a bit and maybe it needed to be a bit longer rather than just a trifle. If Bill was a female character I think this would then allow the men in the town to come out better as they will love and accept the women as they are; as well as explaining why Deadwood City has such appeal to people like Calamity. Whereas what is the appeal compared to the whole of Illinois as is?
Myke: You’re not far off. I agree that the switchover to Bill and Calam falling in love comes almost out of nowhere. Were it not for their “I just can’t stand you song” it might come as a surprise that they end up together. You might be right about the other women in town, because I can’t recall there being any aside from Calam and Katie. All this deep reaching love triangle and ruminations on what it means as far as social acceptance seems to be more thought out than the filmmakers put into it. With westerns that centered around women, I get the impression a lot that simply by making a woman the main character, they feel like they’ve broken the mould and that’s good enough.
They’re not totally wrong, but it makes for plot twists that can seem insincere. I think the movie thinks that it’s saying in the old west to get ahead you had to be a man at heart. It possibly subverts that by allowing Calamity to be a happy wife in the end but still be the talk of the town. But what does that mean aside from a typical Hollywood ending? Enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t feel like she changed at all. She tried putting on the dress, got some attention, but it wasn’t for her. So when delving into it, the movie takes her on a journey to fail in the dress so that Bill will notice her and the two hot shots can form a power couple.
Gabby: I definitely agree with you on the subject of the film thinking it was breaking the mould. It really could have done if they had realised what they had created. Let’s turn then to Johnny Guitar, which I do think was groundbreaking in a number of ways. What are your thoughts on this film?
What are your thoughts on Johnny Guitar?
Myke: I’m always amazed that Johnny Guitar works so well, and it seems to really only come together in the second half. I’m a big fan of Westerns where we’re treated to wide open vistas and the usual tropes inherit in the genre. Saloons, stagecoaches, the town gang, the sheriff’s office, I eat it all up. So here’s Johnny Guitar, where you get a two minute glimpse of the wilderness under the opening credits, and then the next forty minutes plays out in the same gambling hall. It’s really minimalist, giving you the mysterious stranger blowing into town, except town is mentioned as a place far away where we never go. I’m always very cynical when it starts, because there’s so much exposition and first act hullabaloo. But there’s no denying that the dynamics between those characters are exceptionally well drawn. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a character more convincingly hateful in all of cinema that Emma. The social commentary that Johnny Guitar offers up doesn’t seem on paper to be well fitted to a Western, but I think by setting it in one it makes it infinitely more impactful than if it were set during some modern day comparable situation.
Gabby: What are some aspects of the political commentary that stick out to you? And talking of Emma she is a very bitter character, what do you think of her character motivations?
Myke: It’s a movie about righteous outcasts, and it would probably only take a half a day of rewrites to switch the story over to Salem or the Spanish Inquisition. I’m resistant to Joan Crawford when she first takes the stage. High up on the balcony in those high sitting jeans I almost guffaw at how badly she wants to be taken seriously. But her character quickly becomes more than the typical Western woman who is only strong when she’s pretending to be a man.
She has a delicate nature to her that’s well hidden, and she’s wonderfully smart. She sees all the angles and calculates the consequences for her actions, which makes her one of the most appealing figures in American Westerns in a short five minutes. The movie draws you in when you see her sticking to her perfectly thought out plan, and it’s painful to watch her suffering for what’s right when her way of life is practically flawless. It’s hinted she obtained information about the railroad through morally ambiguous means, but it’s really the only time she isn’t playing fair with McIvers and Emma, who never stop bending the rules. That’s just the part that turns my stomach social commentary wise: McIvars blatantly twisted the law to fit his designs and Emma puppeteer a mob to annihilate her own frustrations.
I think Crawford’s character is better than her acting, but Emma steals the show through and through. I honestly still can’t make out what her motivations are. We’re told she’s just jealous that she can’t have the Dancin’ Kid, but it’s obvious that whether it’s for the match she gives in power or simply a socially unacceptable sexual attraction, she is the most drawn to Vienna. I’d say that her motivations seem to stem also from wanting to prove that as a woman she can reign as top dog, but it doesn’t seem as though she has any trouble convincing her mob friends that she runs the show. Maybe she seeks to destroy Vienna and Dancin’ not only because she can’t make them submit, but because she laments that they can’t be partners in business due to the perceptions of the community. What do you think?
Gabby: Crawford’s character is a very dynamic one that I really appreciate. For instance, her softness towards Turkey is one of those elements that add a dynamic so that we care about both of them. There is also her practicality in the face of zealous panic that does reflect that of the witch trials as you stated.
I do agree though that Emma steals the show. It is definitely far beyond the reasons she is trying to convince herself more to the others that she is acting this way. She is for sure thirsty for power and control. But wouldn’t that suggest that she would want to go into business with her? The potential there business wise is undeniable. So it is mostly fear she is acting out of. And you can tell that she, as you put it, is drawn to her. Again this movie’s queer theories have maybe shaded the way I watch it, but I can’t help notice the chemistry between those two. I think pure hatred is almost too close to attraction in certain films, and this sure is one of them!
Myke: What do you make of Johnny? The movie is named after him, but he is mostly absent through the most interesting section of the movie, which follows the bank robbery all the way through the burning of Vienna’s saloon. I enjoy how he portrays the stereotypical tough guy who rolls into town, but is essentially being used as hired muscle. Vienna has all the angles figured out, and doesn’t really need a shift in perspective. The section where he recounts their lost wedding day and takes her through the fairy tale future is the scene that probably rings the most false for me. The men in Johnny Guitar are mostly side players, and I like how they are mostly just along for the ride while the two giants of Vienna and Emma clash philosophies and play out their rivalry. Vienna’s cold but probably fair philosophy as Turkey lies wounded in the saloon about how boys who play with guns need to learn to die like men is one of the most striking lines in all of Westerns.
Gabby: I think they use him purely to fool you into thinking this will be a male centred western. The film tries to subvert the traditional western in many ways such as the way you mention where the characters are made to confront death. Even down to the costumes we expect them to wear are different.
Myke: It is a very subversive Western that doesn’t necessarily demand to be solely in that genre, but winds up delivering some potent commentary on the tropes without bagging on them. It’s not one of my favorite Westerns, but I find myself wanting to return to it much more frequently that some of the more famous ones.