Western comedies weren’t unknown before 1965’s Cat Ballou (Bob Hope had big hit in The Paleface in 1948, while Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles would’t be made for another decade), but Jane Fonda’s update on the genre had a distinctly modern slant.
Though the story was set in the early 1890s, the film scored points about the rising phenomenon of feminism and the old phenomenon of prejudice against Native Americans.
Moreover, the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson made a point of turning upside down our expectations of the genre, with heroes who would rather make love than fight and a rapacious corporation using murder and intimidation as standard business methods.
That this isn’t going to be a case of cowboy-business-as-usual is apparent from the first scene, where we meet a couple of banjo-picking troubadours (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye) who face the camera and launch into the Oscar-nominated song “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” surely one of the most infectious tunes ever penned for a movie. (Though nobody on the set knew it, Cole was suffering from the lung cancer that would kill him a few months later. He didn’t live to see Cat Ballou.)
This two-man Greek Chorus – apparently only those of us in the audience can see or hear them – fill us in on the grand arc of the story. The town is preparing for the hanging of the infamous lady outlaw Cat Ballou. The film itself is one long flashback, with Cole and Kaye popping up periodically to sing us from one scene to another.
Catherine Ballou (Fonda) is an aspiring schoolmarm fresh out of finishing school who returns to her father’s Wyoming ranch only to find that the crusty old fellow (John Marley, who a few years later would wake up to a horse’s head in The Godfather) is at odds with a local bunch who want to seize his land for the water rights.
The old man is threatened by the sinister Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), a black-garbed assassin with a steel nose (his real one was bitten off in a fight) whose every appearance is accompanied by the sound of angry rattlesnakes.
Cat enlists the aid of her father’s Indian hired hand (Tom Nardini), a couple of petty crook cousins (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman) and, finally, a famous gunfighter named Kid Shaleen (Lee Marvin again), whom she entices with an offer of $50.
Shelleen, though, turns out to be a hopeless drunk in filthy buckskins who has pawned his guns for booze and can barely stay atop his horse. Still, with just the right number of drinks in him, he can shoot the wings off a fly at 50 feet.
Director Elliot Silverstein said he had the idea to cast tough-guy Marvin as a comic loser after watching the old Marlon Brando movie The Wild One, in which Marvin played a surly biker who can barely stand up for all the beer he has consumed. Only for Cat Ballou Marvin would need to ride a horse rather than a Harley.
It worked. Against all odds – and up against a slate of best actor nominees that included Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Laurence Olivier for Othello, Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, and Oskar Werner for Ship of Fools – Marvin took home the Best Actor Oscar. Perhaps Academy voters, faced with a category jam-packed with heavy-hitting dramatic performances, opted for something that made them laugh.
If so, it was a worldwide phenomenon. Marvin was also named best actor by the British BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and at the Venice International Film Festival.
In his acceptance speech Marvin thanked his horse, which he deemed essential to his performance.
One of the odd things about Cat Ballou is that the title character is rather bland. Fonda, 27 at the time, had to play straight man to a small army of scene stealers. She looks great, but she’s still the least interesting thing on the screen.
No matter. In six years she would win her first best actress Oscar for portraying a call girl in the thriller Klute.
Cat Ballou went on to become one of the top 10 moneymakers of 1965.
Other films in the series “Western Women”
This film series complements the Big Read and sheds more light on the theme of women in the Old West.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 5: Westward the Women (1951) Not Rated
- October 12: The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) Rated R
- October 19: Cat Ballou (1965) Not Rated
- October 26: Heartland (1979) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.