"Some gang! An Indian ranch hand, a drunken gunfighter, a sex maniac, and an uncle!" -- Cat Ballou
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Writer: Roy Chanslor, Walter Newman, and Frank Pierson
Principal cast members:
In the mid-Sixties, Elvis had influenced every form of media on earth. It was not at all unusual for a genre movie to be more or less forced to feature heroes or heroines who strongly resembled teen idols. This was how guys like Frankie Avalon and Fabian got to be in films. In 1965, we got a western that made every effort to follow that formula and cast teen idols or something that looked like them, but the end result was much more. We wound up with a wonderful parody of the traditional western that featured some amazing comic moments from a man who was better known as a dramatic action star.
The basic storyline of Cat Ballou comes straight out of western movie writing formulas. Catherine 'Cat' Ballou is a schoolteacher who returns to her Wyoming family ranch to help her aging father run the property. Along the way, she runs into two enterprising and dashingly handsome young con men that end up accompanying her home. Her father, a curmudgeonly sort, is aided around the ranch by an Indian ranch hand.
Frankie Ballou needs help, though he doesn't want to admit it. The local land development company has designs on his ranch and they will stoop to terror tactics in the form of a very threatening, black-clad, sliver-nosed thug named Tim Strawn. In an earnest attempt to help, Cat sends for famous dime-novel gunslinger, Kid Shelleen. The only problem is that Shelleen shows up stinking drunk and shows every intention of staying that way. Next thing you know Tim Strawn guns down Frankie in cold blood.
At this point, in order to deal with the challenges that face her, Cat decides to turn her motley collection of ranch hands into a gang of train robbers. Eventually, she decides to face up to the wealthy head of the development company and seduces her way into his confidence. Sir Harry Percival, as he is called, is later found dead and Cat is arrested for murder. It is up to two con men, an Indian, and a drunken gunfighter to rescue the heroine from the noose.
Cat Ballou is a clever and very funny send-up of the traditional western. The essential western film ingredients are enhanced by a couple of interesting and slightly ahead-of-their-time concepts being advanced in the plot. The Indian, Jackson Two-Bears, is played by Tom Nardini who had a prolific career, mostly in television in the 60s and 70s. Jackson is keenly aware that his race is a handicap among the white ranchers of Wyoming but fights hard to be considered an equal, including prompting a brawl at the local barn dance. This nod to racial equality doesn't appear in a lot of westerns and added a nice touch.
The second concept was that of women's rights. There is no question that Jane Fonda begins the film playing Cat as a damsel in distress. Throughout the film, she is clearly not above using sex appeal to get her way with the men surrounding her. But when Frankie is killed, Cat doesn't hesitate to take over and her instant leap to leadership is impressive. Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman of Dobie Gillis fame are the teen-idol types here as the con men who befriend Cat and make up the sober elements of her erstwhile gang.
Director Elliot Silverstein utilizes a wonderful storytelling element in the film by employing Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as minstrels who advance the storyline in banjo-accompanied harmony. Their strolls through the scenery are a clever way of moving the story forward while maintaining that late 19th century element. Sadly for Cole, this would be his last on-screen appearance as an actor.
While Fonda and the teen idols are fun to watch and do a great job with the story they are handed, they pale in comparison to the on-screen presence of Lee Marvin here in the dual role of villain Tim Strawn and hero Kid Shelleen. From the moment he staggers into the film, Marvin steals every scene he is in. Called upon to demonstrate his shooting skills, Kid Shelleen manages to amaze Boone who marvels, "He did it! He missed the barn!"
Despite his alcoholic stupor, Shelleen knows he has been called in to protect the landowner and when Frankie is gunned down, Shelleen takes it personally. Adding to his guilt is the knowledge that the killer is his long-lost brother, Tim Strawn. He begins to shape up, exercising, abstaining, and practicing under the tutelage and assistance of Jackson. Eventually, he takes it upon himself to face down Strawn and in one of the most beautifully scripted scenes in the film, he dresses and prepares himself for the showdown with Jackson's help.
When Cat is arrested, Shelleen returns to his drunken ways and at the film's climax, where he is waiting in the alley for the gang to execute their escape plan, we see Lee Marvin on a horse with both horse and rider leaning drunkenly against the side of a building. Though his performance was hilarious and electric throughout the film, when he accepted his Best Actor Oscar for the role, Marvin admitted that part of the award really belonged to that horse.
Cat Ballou is a light and fun western send-up. Fonda does a fine job as the heroine. Nardini, Callan, and Hickman are engaging as her band of desperadoes. Lee Marvin shows nothing short of physical comedy genius from beginning to end. This is a delightful film.
Coolness factor: 5
Overall entertainment: 7