Calamity Jane and Sam Bass

Sam Bass and Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, written and directed by George Sherman in 1949, takes some true historical details and shakes them up to create an entertaining but mostly fictional story of how a good man becomes an outlaw.

Sam Bass (played by Howard Duff) is a traveller – a talented horseman making his way to Denton, Texas in the search of work. Upon arriving he meets and charms the general store owner Kathy Egan (Dorothy Hart) and annoys her Sheriff brother Will (Willard Parker). There’s quite a commotion in town and we discover it’ll soon be time for a high stakes horse race through the town. The Denton Mare, the fastest thing on four legs is the horse to beat, and new arrival Calamity Jane (legend Yvonne De Carlo – probably best known these days for playing Lily Munster in The Munsters) has the best horse to challenge in the race. She is clearly very taken with Bass too.

Bass is a victim of circumstance here – he’s lost out on money that’s owed to him, and although scoring a job at the ranch run by the Sheriff’s wife has no cash yet. He makes a risky bet, and that’s where his descent begins. A warning against the dangers of surefire bets, it is quite a trip. It’s that descent and the edge of seat decision making, combined with betrayals and surprises that lead Calamity Jane and Sam Bass to team up into a gang of bank robbers. Just like they didn’t in real life. In reality Calamity Jane was frontierswoman and scout who fought with the US military in campaigns against the Native American Indians, and who ended up touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Not a criminal at all. Bass on the other hand was a violent outlaw and train-robber.

The storytelling in this movie is great. It’s wonderfully tense with plenty of surprises. Although the meat of Sam’s transition from good man to violent outlaw happens off screen, the pacing of the story is enough to not make the development seem too arbitrary. Maybe just a bit. Duff’s performance is tough and charming, and Dorothy Hart as Kathy Egan is suitably sweet. Lloyd Bridges (best known to modern audiences from Airplane) is great as Bass’s companion Joel Collins. But the winner here is Yvonne De Carlo as Calamity Jane – her performance is quite simply superb, luminous and winning. For something made in 1949 the movie has a couple of great central roles for women, complicated, troubled, and although romantically connected to Sam Bass both Kathy and Jane are also independent figures in the 19th century world.

Calamity Jane and Sam Bass is an entertaining drama with unexpected twists and turns. For historical purists it’s clearly not to be trusted, but with it’s brightly hued technicolor presentation and witty dialogue the film makes a welcome journey on the screen.

It comes out on DVD on the 18th April and audiences will find much to enjoy.