Cat Ballou (1965)

Dir. Elliot Silverstein. Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Callan, Lee Marvin

I wish they’d just gone for it.

There are moments of sheer joy in Cat Ballou. Jed (Dwayne Hickman), in his parson get-up, runs through the same speech half a dozen times in an attempt to get in to Clay (Callan), currently under arrest by a local sheriff (Bruce Cabot); each time, he bobs his head and uses the just same tone of voice as he did the last time. It is the funniest moment of community theater parody this side of Robertson Davies. Kid Shelleen (Marvin), in one of his several emboozling moments, mistakes Frankie Ballou’s (John Marley) funeral for a birthday party because there are candles. Shelleen is also shown to be either the best or the worst horseback rider in the world, unable to mount the saddle properly but also glued to the horse itself. He rides backwards as much as forwards, hanging on for dear life to the pommel with his legs all the way out behind him, screaming all the way. His reminiscences about working for Buffalo Bill are gold, and Marvin shows a gift for physical comedy and bizarre facial expressions which is totally unexpected. Not every actor is great at playing against type (though the roll of actors who’ve done so in great movies is an august one indeed), but Marvin does more than enough as an actor to make it work. Certainly knowing his CV and seeing him in other pictures helps (in ’67, he starred in The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank, aside from a strong supporting performance as the positively rabid Liberty Valance five years before), but Marvin would be funny even if this were the first time one had seen him. Alas that Tim Strawn, the Man with No Nose, is sadly forgettable. The double-casting of Marvin as Shelleen and Strawn is effective from the odd point of view that Cat Ballou works from most of the time, but what makes Marvin funny in this movie or threatening in another is missing in Strawn’s dark hair, silver nose, and raspy voice.

No one in this movie is better than Tom Nardini, who through the luck of the draw has as many wonderful one-liners, and through his rubber face as many impeccable reactions, as the rest of the crowd put together. (One wishes for a Native American in the part, as usual. 1965 was a tough year.) Jackson is afraid that he has accidentally scalped a man, but is enormously relieved when he figures out that he’s got someone’s toupee. He gives someone else some anxiety after he flings it nowhere in particular and it lands in the arms of an unsuspecting white woman. Later on, while everyone in sight is punching Clay in the face, Jackson finds an opportunity to get a swing in. What was that for? Clay asks him. I have a right to participate, Jackson says happily, and it’s all thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment. Cat Ballou also makes a pointed bit of commentary; it would be easy, in this send-up, to make the Indian a drunk. But Jackson doesn’t touch booze at all, and it’s a white man well past his prime whose rejoinder to the redness of his eyes is “You oughta see ’em from my side.” In many ways he must be the most competent character in the entire movie, just about the only hero who never gets drunk, arrested, or both.

But for all of the tumbling foolishness Lee Marvin gets into, and as funny as Tom Nardini is, and as essential as Dwayne Hickman is in his supporting role, this is a movie that falls apart at the seams. Cat Ballou wants to tease westerns while still remaining very much part of the genre. While Marvin, Nardini, and Hickman are taking a genre to task, Jane Fonda and Michael Callan are more or less playing it straight; John Marley is more or less here as well, playing Cat’s stiff-necked dad, though his insistence that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Jews (as he learned from an “ex-congressman”) sort of limits his overall seriousness. The train robbery is goofy – pro tip, don’t take a bath while someone’s robbing the train – but there are still moments which are played for the quality of an action set piece. Shelleen shoots and kills Strawn once Strawn draws on him, which is our sole sober Shelleen scene and thus has to be dramatic rather than amusing. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye are singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” which is a catchy little devil that puts a happy thumb in the eye of folks like the Sons of the Pioneers, but for all their ironic merriment they still describe a pretty conventional plot along the lines of High Noon or Shane. Kaye might sing about how Fonda is playing a devil, but we know it can’t be true (and frankly, Kaye doesn’t pretend it is, either). Jane Fonda may not be quite as trustworthy as her father, but she has his face and even his intonations; for heaven’s sake, she’s sewing a white dress to wear to her hanging. Cole has a song more or less to himself discussing Cat’s grief over the death of her father, which is perfectly serious. Cat and Clay are, disappointingly, a pretty standard couple. They may meet because Clay is an escaped criminal who is stowing himself in her berth, but there are much weirder courtships in movie history. One sort of hopes for Callan to play Hepburn to Fonda’s Grant, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Callan is the weak link in the film, unable to coax much more than a chuckle out of us when everyone else gets at least one belly laugh.

Fonda is funny – certainly she could be as funny as the film’s resident clowns – but the movie still gives her too many traditional beats. The movie spends much too long on her screaming at Strawn. It spends much, much too long on her reaction to her father’s death; Cat goes into town and tells the assembled crooked folks there that they’ll never make her cry. If it’s a play on other westerns, it’s ineffective because it’s not funny. If it’s not a play on other westerns, then it doesn’t fit well in a movie which has made its purpose teasing other westerns. Sometimes she’ll get a good line, like she does when she complains that men always think women have marriage on their minds; unfortunately, that’s Vera Miles’ ethos throughout much of The Searchers and thus it’s hard to be shocked by it nine years later. Nine years after Cat BallouBlazing Saddles was released on an unsuspecting world. Cat Ballou ends with Cat being rescued from the gallows by her gang after she’s been arrested for the murder of Sir Harry (Reginald Denny), the kingpin of the most crooked elements of Wolf City. Blazing Saddles ends with the movie leaving the western motif entirely; one of the most indelible images of the movie is Dom DeLuise trying to put together a Busby Berkeley sequence on the next set. Cat Ballou can’t bring itself to take the western down to its most farcical elements; it’s still propping up the form without ever making it ludicrous.

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