Sometimes (often in fact) it’s not the designated star who winds up being the real star of the film. Jane Fonda is the headliner for the 1965 comedy-western Cat Ballou, but it’s Lee Marvin who took home an Oscar, and it’s Lee Marvin who deserved to. This is not to say that Fonda did a poor job of acting; it’s merely that she was, plain and simply, outshone. It’s not really all that surprising; Marvin was, after all, a veteran actor with some sizable roles in his past (including the title role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and he was given a role that was even more colorful than Fonda’s schoolmarm-turned-outlaw.
The film was directed by Elliot Silverstein, and it was his first feature film. Considering that, it comes together particularly well, with great comic action sequences, some well-directed dramatic scenes, and scene transitions with musical accompaniment by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole. Throw in a traditional plot with some non-traditional elements, and a fun film is the result.
Few films open with the town about to hang the heroine, backed up by a banjo ballad.
Fonda stars as Catherine “Cat” Ballou, a schoolmarm-to-be who is returning to her home town and her father’s ranch after receiving her education. But when she arrives, she discovers her father Frank (played as a typical sombre western rancher by John Marley) is having trouble with the townsfolk. A development company is moving in, and trying to push him off his land for the water rights, and his sole ally is a young Sioux Indian, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), who Frank has hired to work as his ranch hand. Jackson is an educated man, and the movie cheerfully deflates a few Indian stereotypes and in general pokes fun at the traditional roles of Indians in movies, with Jackson asserting he has the same rights as anybody else under the 14th Amendment (said rights in this case including punching a friend in the face) and refuting Frank’s dogged insistence that Indians are the lost tribe of Israel.
The development company and the town are filled with corruption. Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny) owns the company, and his attitude toward the west is provincial and entitled. He has bought off the town sheriff and has gotten most of the people on his side through job offers. And to drive Frank Ballou off his land, he has hired noseless gunman Tim Strawn. Strawn is played by Lee Marvin, but it’s not in this role that Marvin truly steals the show. Cat tries to get some outlaws — Clay and his same-aged uncle Jed (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) — to help deal with Strawn, but neither of them has shot a man before. On their advice, she sends away for a real gunman, the legendary Kid Shelleen (Marvin again), and he soon arrives in town… dead drunk.
He’s got enough liquid courage in him to take on an army.
All of the actors turn in decent performances, though Hickman’s is rather limited, and Callan’s chemistry with Fonda isn’t quite convincing enough. But the show mostly belongs to Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. Fonda does well as the indignant schoolmarm, and when she takes her group of misfits and turns them into band of outlaws, she transitions into a Calamity Jane-type personality, with a reckless attitude towards bringing the town and the development company to their knees. Lee Marvin staggers around drunkenly, rides a horse drunkenly (in fact, the horse gives a pretty good impression of being drunk itself), and provides a lot of laughs as he stumbles about, misinterprets situations and causes trouble. (Marvin joked at the Oscars that he probably owed half the award to his horse.) He also gets an impressive “suit up” sequence when Kid Shelleen finally sobers up, and his performance as Tim Strawn is suitably intimidating as well. He really makes the picture, and it’s hard to believe it would have been half as good with someone else as Shelleen.
Cat Ballou would be a decent western without the comedy, but with it, it’s a very funny film with some memorable roles. Whether it’s Cole and Kaye singing the praises of Kid Shelleen just before he passes out in the street, or Frank Ballou trying to speak Yiddish to Jackson Two-Bears, or Jane Fonda putting on her sex kitten act to get close to the company owner while playing a character who clearly has little idea what she’s doing, there’s a lot to laugh at. It’s a fun, funny film and well worth checking out.