One of the most popular recording artists and movie stars of the mid 20th Century, there’s probably one thing about today’s star that you aren’t aware of: She almost (almost!) single-handedly led to a very real divorce between my mother and father.
Rewind, will you, about 20 years to a lazy Saturday in the early 90s, and picture a small tract house in the Los Angeles suburbs. My mother is in the family room watching an old movie. My father is in his study, doing some filing. Everything looks and feels perfectly normal.
Only thing is: my mother has a habit (that I have inherited) of movie bingeing. As in watching the same movie over. And over. And over again. It gets to the point where it becomes a sort of Kenny G Easy-Listening experience and she can vacuum, or work on the finances, or do a bit of gardening, with the film playing in the background. It calms her. It’s relaxing.
For my father, it’s something along the lines of Chinese Water Torture. And on that Saturday in the early 90s, the film that my mother’s obsessive mind had smiled upon was the family-friendly 1953 musical Calamity Jane starring Doris Day.
Every day. All day: Nothing nothing but Calamity Jane.
If you’ve not seen the film, the pleasantly ridiculous premise goes something kind of like this: Day plays the sarsaparilla-loving roughian “Calamity” Jane, a stagecoach shotgun messenger, who arrives in the storied town of Deadwood and comes into acquaintance with Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel). “Calam” (as Hickock calls her) travels to Chicago to fetch a shining stage chanteuse, Abigale Adams, and bring her back Deadwood to perform at the local saloon. (Don’t ask.) Well, she fetches Adams’ personal maid, Katie, by accident. The two end up becoming close friends, and Katie teaches Calamity a thing or two about femininity and gentility. Hickok has fallen in love with Katie (obviously) which spurs an inevitable love triangle as Calamity has conveniently fallen for Hickok. After a number of love triangle misunderstandings (and the inevitable ugly duckling/swan transformation) Hickock’s affections transfer to Calamity and everyone lives happily ever after–with a song in their heart.
The film is everything that moviegoers wanted in a Doris Day musical: it’s bright, it’s peppy, it’s perky, it’s colorful, and it’s ham packed with songs. “The Black Hills of Dakota.” “A Woman’s Touch.” “Deadwood Stage” (whip crackaway, whip crackway, whip crackaway) “I Can Do Without You”. And, of course, the Academy Award-winning “Secret Love” which would go on to become a Billboard #1 hit and an evergreen standard.
I think it was probably about eleventeenth time Day’s voice, hitting that song’s oh-so-pretty falsetto, came wafting down the hall that my father finally lost it. He stormed into the family room and pointed at the television, demanding my mother to “turn that damn thing off.” My mother, an indignant creature by nature, was infused with a mighty surge of her always-terrifying righteous indignation. She rose from the sofa, and stood on her tip toes (she’s 5 foot 6, he’s 6 foot 4) and pointed a finger into his face.
There were tears in her eyes, and she said in a highly tense, trembling voice, “You obviously don’t understand me.”
And, as Keel and Day were still crooning away the background, my father’s very, very, very wrong response came: “Nope. I sure don’t.”
She fired back: “You’ve never understood me!”
And, again, another wrong reply came that slammed the discussion shut.
But, like Calamity, when my mother meant business, she meant business.
He learned from that day. And the many days of silence that followed. The only sound I remember during that dog house period was Doris Day.
Somehow Calamity Jane‘s “I Can Do Without You” was terribly appropriate. In fact, I’m sure my mother kept it at full volume:
In my bosom, you’re a dagger,
You’re a mangy carpetbagger.
In the theater, you’re the “Boo!”
I c’n do without you.
Well, th esilence finally lifted after some textbook perfect groveling from my father, and I am happy to report that last month they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Knowing how very special and romantic such a hallmark should be, and to atone for all of his past transgressions, my father really did out do himself and went all out. Diamonds? Pearls? BAH. My romeo of a father went the whole hog and bought my mother … a vacuum cleaner.
Like that Calamity Jane whom she loves so much, mother took it on the chin.
Calamity Jane airs at 8:00PM EST on Turner Classic Movies. (And yes: my mother will be watching.)