Over 55 years after its theatrical release, the Jane Fonda-starring Cat Ballou remains one of the funniest Westerns of all time.
No list of the great Western films is complete without Cat Ballou. The most surprising thing about the film is just how hysterical it is. Mind you, this film came out in theaters before Mel Brooks unveiled Blazing Saddles. What surprises me the most about the film is that Roy Chanslor’s novel takes a serious tone. Understandably, the script keeps some of the darker elements. Regardless, the film very much becomes its own thing as a result.
The gist of the film is that Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda), after returning home to Wolf City, Wyoming, hires gunman Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin) to protect her father’s (John Marley) ranch. In avenging her father’s murder, Cat comes to realize that Kid Shelleen is not the gunman she expected. For a while there, Lee Marvin is basically spoofing his own role as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He can’t shoot any target and it takes a while before he’s back to being the gunman of fame. In addition to ranch hand Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), Clay (Michael Callan) and Jed (Dwayne Hickman) mysteriously return in Cat’s life after jumping off the train at the film’s start.
After Cat’s gang robs a train, they get in trouble with Sir Harry Percival. Similarly, The folks at the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout want nothing to do with them because their survival depends on Wolf City’s tolerance. Next thing you know, Strawn is back and warns them. Finally, Kid Shelleen–who loves Cat–does what Cat initially hired him to do. When it comes to Percival, Cat takes care of him herself. She kills him during a fight and ends up in jail where she’s set to be hung.
Professor Sam the Shade (Stubby Kaye) and the Sunrise Kid (Nat King Cole) start singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” at the film’s start. They keep us entertained throughout by singing the narration. It’s a nice change of pace instead of jumping straight to a different scene. Sadly, Nat King Cole died from cancer before the film’s release.
The film references some of the great outlaws of the west. Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt) mans the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout. You can find the actual hideout in Johnson City Wyoming. Meanwhile, the color photography allows the film to successfully spoof the Western genre, especially Shane.
Jane Fonda’s schoolteacher-turned-outlaw is a breakthrough performance. While there have been some ups and downs due to her political activism, her performance shows that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Interestingly, Ann-Margaret was the first choice for the role. However, he manager decided to decline the role without telling her. That’s when you know it’s time to fire your representation. After so many years, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Jane Fonda in the role.
Lee Marvin takes home the Oscar for Best Actor for playing the dual roles of Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn. This came after appearing in three other films playing dramatic roles. The other thing is that Marvin’s role is a supporting performance, not a leading role. In theory, he should have been awarded for Best Supporting Actor instead Best Actor. He plays both roles so differently! For the large majority of the film, Shelleen is a drunk until he sobers up in order to take on Strawn. In addition to Lee Marvin’s win, the film received four other Oscar nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Score, and Original Song.
One interesting thing of note is that Frankie Ballou mentions a former congressman claiming the Sioux were one of the lost tribes of Israel. As such, he repeatedly says “Shalom aleichem” to his Native American ranch hand. When you consider the time period in which the film takes place, this idea is not far-fetched. Most recently, the idea was the subject of a book by Elizabeth Fenton, Old Canaan in a New World: Americans and the Lost Tribes of Israel (NYU Press).
DIRECTOR: Elliot Silverstein
SCREENWRITERS: Walter Newman and Frank Pierson
CAST: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Nat King Cole, Stubby Kaye
Columbia released Cat Ballou in theaters on June 18, 1965. Grade: 4/5
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