People like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane excite me as prospective movie subjects. I’m keen on women who thwart closed-minded sexism, transcend traditional gender roles, and achieve legendary status due to bravery and gun savvy. This explains some of my favourite moments in 1935’s “Annie Oakley”. I like how when the title character signs up for a shooting contest, the men are so incapable of imagining a female sharpshooter that they keep making silly assumptions to justify concluding that she’s a man. My favourite is their insistence that she must be named ‘Andy Oakley’.
When I found out that Jean Arthur played Calamity Jane in “The Plainsman”, I hoped she’d be as empowered as Barbara Stanwyck’s Oakley. I was disappointed. After showing sass and skill in her early scenes (i.e. playfully lassoing ‘Wild’ Bill Hickock’s hat), Arthur’s Calamity Jane spends most of the picture playing worried love interest, subservient sidekick, or helpless captive. I’d rather see a Jane that takes matters into her own hands and kicks butt.
In 1948’s comedy-western “The Paleface”, Jane Russell plays a more proactive Calamity Jane. She’s independent and forceful, which was very much what I wanted from Arthur’s version of the character. Her co-star is Bob Hope, and their roles are fun reversals of gender stereotypes. The man is hopelessly out of his element with a gun, relying on a woman’s superior shooting skills to protect him. Without he or anyone else being aware, she secretly saves him from certain death many times. As I watched Russell, I thought about what I like about her screen presence and the character she played.
She has sultry eyes, a kind heart beneath a brassy exterior, cool confidence, an adventurous spirit, and one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t seem to have had a very distinguished career, being admired more as a sex symbol than actress. Her filmography is short and inconsistent. She apparently lacked the necessary gravitas for challenging roles. I believe she compensated by imbuing light roles with a robust energy that’s as special and worthy of reverence as dramatic acting prowess.
In several movies, I’ve seen Russell play a sexy, talented woman who is aware of her allure, yet not conceited about it. She uses her feminine wiles to help others instead of manipulating them. Her Calamity Jane guides a bumbling, juvenile Bob Hope towards discovering that he has courage and the potential to be a hero, despite being a awkward coward who is useless with a gun.
“The Paleface” won an Oscar for a song called “Buttons and Bows”. Hope endearingly performs it to express his nostalgia for the big city and its gentle, lavishly-adorned women. I love the song because it’s cute, catchy, and celebrates something I love about women. Like Hope’s character, I appreciate how they creativity put together outfits and accessories that make them distinctively colourful, expressive, classy, fragrant, and fancy in look and style…especially when they can do so with the panache of a Jane Russell.