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Cat Ballou

My birthday projects are designed to end on my actual birthday, so I generally put great care into choosing which entry will be posted on the big day of July 18th. This year, the honor goes to a suggestion by my own father. When he heard about the project, he tried to think of a hidden gem from the past. Some retro film that’s — perhaps unfairly — fallen into obscurity.

So here’s Cat Ballou, a 1965 musical western parody starring Jane Fonda as the eponymous gunslinger. We may as well start with this context, because it’s going to be a crucial factor for any audience coming in cold.

Right off the bat, it’s a western parody. To a modern audience, any film of that genre — especially one made in the mid-20th century — will be forced to toil under the long and heavy shadow of Blazing Saddles. Sure, it’s not exactly fair comparing any movie to one of the all-time greatest comedies ever produced, but the comparison with another western parody is nonetheless unavoidable. There is, however, one problem: Blazing Saddles wasn’t released until 1974. In fact, Mel Brooks’ film debut with The Producers was still two years off when Cat Ballou hit screens.

Then we have the matter of our lead character. Catherine Ballou is introduced to us as a woman who’s been sentenced to death for killing a man, and a couple of balladeers (we’ll get back to them later) break the fourth wall to sing about how she’s a hardened killer. But we flash back to her arrival at Wolf City, Wyoming, to see for ourselves that Cat is actually a wide-eyed, innocent, and perfectly harmless girl who wants nothing more than to be a schoolteacher. Also, she tends to be surrounded with men who want to jump her oblivious and naive bones. And to repeat, she’s a Jane Fonda character.

The whole time this movie was running, I could have sworn I was watching “Barbarella Goes West.” Until I looked it up and found that Barbarella wasn’t released until three years later.

The point being that so many crucial aspects of this film were done better by far more iconic movies that have come along in the time since. Does that make Cat Ballou any worse on its own merit? Of course not. But that does mean the film hasn’t aged very well. To wit: The film’s lopsided pacing would be enough to turn away most modern viewers on its own. But compare it against the rapid-fire delivery of consistently great humor seen in Blazing Saddles, and it’s no fucking contest.

Anyway, let’s get on with the story. I’ve already said that Cat Ballou first comes to Wolf City, Wyoming, with the goal of becoming a schoolteacher, but it turns out that she has family in Wolf City as well. Her father, a stubborn old coot named Frankie Ballou (John Marley) has a farm near the city, and he’s been keeping it with the help of a full-blooded Sioux named Jackson (Tom Nardini). Unfortunately, the Wolf City Development Corporation wants the farmland vacated so they can build a railroad through it. They even go so far as to hire Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), a notorious hitman who wears a silver nose. Because his first was bitten off.

Since Cat is desperate for help and the local sheriff is too crooked to provide it, she procures the assistance of Jed and Clay Boone (respectively played by Dwayne Hickman and Michael Callan). She thinks that they’re hardened criminals because they’re wanted men, you see, only to find out that they’re cattle rustlers who’ve never killed anyone. So she moves on to Plan B: Hiring Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin again), a famous gunslinger whose exploits have been told in song and story. Only problem is, he’s too perpetually drunk to walk straight, much less shoot straight.

So let’s take a look at what we’ve got here: A schoolteacher, an Indian farmhand, a couple of cowards, and a drunkard. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our lead cast. They may very well be the unlikeliest gang of misfits ever to menace the West, and most of the film’s comedy stems from the fact. With this in mind, you can perhaps understand how they completely fail to stop Frankie from being murdered and his land bought away. So Cat declares revenge on the people who ordered her father dead and the city too corrupt to do anything about it.

Getting back to the Blazing Saddles comparison, it’s worth noting that both films had unorthodox protagonists (a black man in Saddles and a woman in Ballou). Yet one was about a sheriff and the other is about an outlaw, so they both explore different aspects of the Western genre. In fact, Cat Ballou offers its own humorous take on a train robbery, which seems like a considerably huge blind spot for Saddles, now that I think about it.

Alas, the leaden pacing has a seriously adverse effect on the film’s comedic timing. Huge swaths of screen time go between jokes, and many of them don’t land properly when they come. Though mercifully, there are exceptions (“Is a square dance anything like a war dance?” “This one is.”). Additionally, the “parody” aspect has some neat surprises, since Cat’s criminal activity has some unforeseen consequences that the film goes into. After all, she’s going against a huge corporation that’s funneling unlimited cash into Wolf City, so what happens to the city if she actually gets her revenge?

Moving on, the film is also sort of a musical. I say “sort of,” because the songs all come from the same two balladeers who break the fourth wall to act as a kind of Greek chorus. One of them is played by Stubby Kaye, a famed character actor with decades of experience on Broadway. The other is played by the one and only Nat King Cole himself, who acted out his part after being diagnosed with lung cancer and died four months before the film was released.

So much talent between the two of them, and it’s wasted on lyrics that get very annoying for how repetitive they are. I get that the songs are supposed to be comical, describing Cat and her companions as more badass than they really are, but the joke doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s beaten so thoroughly into the ground. Though to be fair, I’ll grant that establishing the balladeers as unreliable narrators does wring a bit of suspense from the prologue.

Luckily, the rest of the cast fares much better than Cole and Kaye do. Fonda makes for a lovely protagonist, Hickman and Callan are both charming if a little bland, and Navini shows a delightfully wry sense of humor. But the MVP is unquestionably Lee Marvin, who steals the whole show. Though Marvin excels as Strawn — and it can’t be easy to look seriously threatening while wearing a giant silver nose — his performance as Kid Chelleen is the true heart of this picture.

This is a character who’s equal parts comedy and tragedy (Case in point: There’s a scene in which Kid quite literally shows that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.), and Marvin is masterfully capable of walking that line. His physical performance is remarkable in itself, full of twitches and shakes that elicit pity for this pathetic drunkard. But when the script gives Marvin a joke, even one that should have fallen completely flat (“I’ll drink to that!”), he consistently makes it funny. And of course, his montage of drying out and suiting up is sufficiently awesome with the perfect hint of humor thrown in. Granted, Marvin takes a while to really hit his stride, but then, so does the rest of the movie.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this very famous shot that happens in the film’s closing moments. Not only is it a hilarious image in itself, but it’s a shot that very nearly didn’t make it into the movie. Horses aren’t naturally capable of crossing their legs like that, and it took a solid hour of sugar cubes and coaxing to gently ply that horse’s legs just so. When Lee Marvin took his Best Actor award (yes, this movie won Lee Marvin the Academy Award for Best Actor, though I suspect that he mostly got it just for being Lee Marvin), he famously said in his acceptance speech that “that half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in San Fernando Valley.”

(Side note: I was surprised to discover that for some reason, NBC was really desperate to make a TV series out of this movie. In 1971, the network aired no less than two TV movies of “Cat Ballou,” both intended as pilot episodes for ongoing series. One of the TV adaptations starred Jo Ann Harris in the title role, with Forrest Tucker as Kid Shelleen. The other had Lesley Ann Warren as Cat, alongside Tom Nardini himself reprising the role of Jackson. Details are scarce, but I presume that these pilots were intended as more faithful adaptations of the Roy Chanslor source novel.)

Ultimately, Cat Ballou is very much a product of its time. It’s a western parody that had the good fortune of being released before Blazing Saddles, and a musical that had overwhelming talent to help salvage the subpar songs. Of course, I’m sure that the passing of Nat King Cole did the film a couple of favors at the time of release as well. More importantly, it was made back when movies were more free to take their time and pacing wasn’t nearly as much of an issue.

It’s a charming little film with quite a few good performances to enjoy. Unfortunately, the joke-to-runtime ratio isn’t anywhere near high enough that I can call it a forgotten classic. That said, if there are any fans of old-school cinematic comedy out there, you really should have seen this by now.

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