Calamity Jane in the Show Business

There is everything to love about Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary, 1852-1903) and she has something for everybody. Frontier figure and drag king; teller of tall tales and participant in many real life adventures.

Orphaned at age 14, it fell to Jane to raise her five younger siblings not long after the family had moved to Salt Lake City (after previously living in Missouri and Montana). To feed the family she worked as a cook, dishwasher, nurse, waitress, dance hall girl, prostitute, and ox-team driver. Readers of my book No Applause know that often in the saloon days “waitress, dance hall girl, and prostitute” were often aspects of the same job. But seldom would the same person also drive oxen for a living — tough demanding work for a man, never mind a woman! No doubt this is where and when she began to wear the male threads. It was just more practical. After Utah, she was in Wyoming and it is from those sketchy years of the mid 1870s that her legend emerged. She claimed to have been an Army Scout and to have taken part in military campaigns against the Indians. Her name was said to have come from misfortunes on the battlefield, and she spent a lot of time and energy linking her name to Wild Bill Hickok’s, of which connection there is little evidence. She was indeed in Deadwood and environs around the same time as Hickok, however. The real story seems to be that she was a hard-drinkin’, hard-fightin’, hard-spendin’, big talking local character who embellished her exploits for what it could bring her.

She joined up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1893. I wonder if she had any spats with Annie Oakley! Her act was essentially storytelling, and this culminated in an 1896 autobiographical pamphlet, which became the primary source for her famous legend. In 1901 she performed at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. She was working at a brothel in South Dakota when she died two years later.

It stands to reason a gal with such a large legend would be represented on screen — a lot. Here are some of the women who have portrayed her (or heavily mythologized and/or hilariously glamorized versions of her). I’ve written about many of the stars and films; just follow the links:

Jean Arthur in The Plainsman (1936)

Frances Farmer in The Badlands of Dakota (1941)

Jane Russell in The Paleface (1948) and Son of Paleface (1952)

Yvonne De Carlo in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949)

Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953)

Kim Darby in This is the West That Was (1974)

Jane Alexander in Calamity Jane (1984)

Catherine O’Hara in Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill (1995)

Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill (1995)

Anjelica Huston in Buffalo Girls (1995)

Robin Weigert on Deadwood (2004-2006)

And that’s saving the best for last!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,