Cat Ballou: Lee Marvin runs riot in an Oscar winning duel role in this whimsical Western

Cat Ballou (1965), starring Jane Fonda in the title role and Lee Marvin in a duel role is a whimsical Western that at once parodies Western tropes as well as manages to become a classic Western in its own right.

The best actor Oscar is more often than not given to very serious performances; performances where actors have to eat raw bison liver or cut off their noses or hands for the authenticity of their performances. So, it always makes me happy when a comedic performance wins the appreciation of the AMPAS. Despite famous quotes from actors like “Death is easy, comedy is hard” and so on that proves how hard it is to pull off comic performances , the academy, which is mainly constituted by actors, who must know this reality more than anyone else, have always chosen to shun comic performances and reward the ultra-serious performance, or performances where it appears that actors had done a lot of hard work.. Not that I attach much value to Oscars itself, but a look at the list of Oscar winners would give us a good idea as to how actors, filmmakers and critics treat comic performances. Some of the greatest comedic actors like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant or Peter Sellers never won a competitive Oscar. In 1966, Lee Marvin, an actor who till then was more famous for his serious and villainous turns, won an Oscar for his comic performance in “Cat Ballou (1965).” Now this win was considered an undeserving one; more an acknowledgement of Marvin’s newly acquired star status rather than an appreciation of the performance itself. Till then, Marvin had done mostly supporting roles, but in 1965 he rather imperceptibly broke out as a leading mean by top lining both “Cat Ballou” and “Ship of Fools”- which was a a serious ensemble piece and one of the Academy favorites of the year. Marvin also surprised the audience, critics and his peers by giving a very funny performance – something he had never done before, maybe except in a supporting turn in John Ford’s “Donovan’s Reef,” starring John Wayne. Marvin’s reputation before and after “Cat Ballou” would be predominantly that of a serious tough-guy actor and his attempts at comedy in films like “Paint Your Wagon” (he sang in that musical as well) would turn out to be disastrous. But “Paint your Wagon” was, well! if not an outright bad film, was a total mess to put it lightly and Marvin’s performance was just a small part of its problems (Clint Eastwood too was in the film as a singing cowboy). “Cat Ballou” was a well conceived and executed Western comedy which could accommodate Marvin’s zany, over the top humor.

Marvin plays a double role in “Cat Ballou”- he is the menacing killer, Tim Strawn, and the drunken gunslinger, Kid Shelleen; it’s revealed during the course of the film that they are brothers. As Strawn, Marvin is in his typical chilling ‘killer’ mode from movies like “Seven Men from Now” and “The Killers.” It’s as the broken-down gunslinger Shelleen, who needs a drink (or two) to get into crack shot mode, where Marvin display his comedic chops; and Shelleen rides one of the funniest horses in film history. So, it’s no wonder that in his Oscar acceptance speech, Marvin shared his best actor award with that horse. What makes Marvin’s win even more of an outlier is that even taking his two roles together, Marvin appear for approximately half an hour in this 96 minutes movie. His is actually more of a supporting role. The title role of Catherine “Cat” Ballou is played by Jane Fonda in one of her earliest film roles. Today, when one thinks of Fonda, its her political activism and her serious roles in films like “Klute,” “Coming Home” and “The China Syndrome” that comes to mind. But in the ’60s, Henry Fonda’s daughter was more famous for her comedies like Period of Adjustment (1962), Sunday in New York (1963), Cat Ballou (1965), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and Barbarella (1968); her first husband was Barbarella director Roger Vadim. Though Fonda herself doesn’t do much comedy in “Cat Ballou”; she is basically the “straight man” to Marvin and a bunch of funny performers like Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Tom Nardini  and Arthur Hunnicutt. The film is actually a brilliant mix of a straight-up Western tale (of murder, train robberies, gunfighters, evil land barons and revenge) and a musical comedy that satirizes (but do not laugh at) Western archetypes and clichés. Fonda is the hero of the first story, where she is the regular Western avenging angel, and it includes Marvin’s slick killer, Strawn, and stock characters played by stock Western actors like Jay C. Flippen and Bruce Cabot. The rest of the bunch makes up for the comedic part of the film, with musical half handled by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, billed simply as “Shouters,” acting as a Greek chorus, intermittently appearing onscreen to narrate the story through ongoing verses of “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, one of the songs written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston for the film. Of course, all these parts gets mixed up from time to time with very amusing (and not confusing) results. Despite being a mixture of various genres, the film manages a tonal consistency one rarely find in these sort of films.

The film unfolds in flashback, with the opening scene showing Cat in Jail, getting ready for her hanging. She is branded as angel and devil by the balladeers who then takes us back to the beginning of the story to tell us how a prim school teacher, Catherine Ballou, ended up becoming the notorious outlaw, Cat Ballou. Some months prior, Catherine, then an aspiring schoolteacher, is returning home from finishing school by train to Wolf City. On the way, she unwittingly helps accused cattle rustler Clay Boone elude his captor, Sheriff Maledon, when Boone’s Uncle Jed, disguised as a preacher, distracts the lawman.  After this mini adventure, Catherine reaches her ranch to find that the Wolf City Developing Company is trying to take away the ranch from her father, whose only defender is an educated Indian, Jackson Two-Bears. Clay and Jed also follow her to her ranch and reluctantly offer to help her. Catherine also wires legendary gunfighter Kid Shelleen to come and help protect her father from fast-drawing Tim Strawn, alias Silver-nose, the hired killer who is threatening Frankie; Strawn’s nose was bitten off in a fight and he uses a tin cap to cover it. Shelleen arrives, but he is not the deadly gunslinger Catherine was lead to believe; he is actually a drunken stumblebum who is literally unable to hit the side of a barn when he shoots and whose pants fall down when he draws his gun. Meanwhile, Strawn kills Frankie, but the townspeople refuse to bring him to justice, and Catherine becomes a revenge-seeking outlaw known as Cat Ballou. She and her gang rob a train carrying the Wolf City payroll, then take refuge in the desperado hideout “Hole-in-the-Wall“. Shelleen is shocked to discover the legendary outlaw Cassidy is now a humble saloonkeeper in Hole-in-the-Wall. Shelleen, motivated by his affection for Cat, works himself into shape. Dressed up in his finest gunfighter outfit, he goes into town and kills Strawn, then casually reveals he is Strawn’s brother. Cat poses as a prostitute and confronts town boss Sir Harry Percival, owner of the Wolf City Developing Company. A struggle ensues; Harry is killed; and Cat is sentenced to be hanged. Just as the noose is being placed around her neck, however, her gang arrives and stages a daring rescue.

“Cat Ballou” could be considered one of the several attempts made in the ’60s to reinvent the Western genre. After the golden age of Westerns in the ’50s, the very popular film genre was struggling in the ’60s due to a plethora of Western shows inundating the Television screen. So, the big screen had to offer something different from what was available on the small screen. The studios attempted the “roadshow\spectacle” route with films like “How The West was Won” and “The Hallelujah Trail.” They tried the gritty, revisionist route with films like “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Rio Conchos.” “Cat Ballou”, alongside John Wayne’s “McLintock!” and “True Grit,” were attempts to have some fun with the Western genre; in the case of Wayne pictures, it was also an attempt to send up the star’s iconic Western hero image as well. At the time of “Cat Ballou,” neither Fonda nor Marvin were iconic stars, so the film limits itself to having fun with the popular Western tropes. But unlike “Blazing Saddles” that came a decade later and that would literally break the fourth wall in parodying the genre’s icons, “Cat Ballou,” like “True Grit,” is a very straightforward Western story, with the several ‘send ups’ coming across as embellishments and loving homages to the genre icons rather than ridiculing them. The film aims high and to be highly creative, wild and uproarious and this is established from the very first moment when you have the Columbia Lady (the Columbia Pictures logo) turning into a cartoon pin-up, tossing her robe to reveal a sexy cowgirl shooting all over the screen in pure 60s animation. The dual nature of the film can also be felt in Lee Marvin’s duel roles- one is the very familiar ‘straight’, steely Marvin and the other a parody of it. The meta nature of Marvin’s casting is indicative of the meta nature of the movie as well; one can also notice this mischievous dichotomy in the songs sung by Cole and Kaye: the songs describe one thing but the truth is something else; the songs describe Cat Ballou as evil through and through, but that’s not the case at all; the songs describe Shelleen as a dangerous gunfighter, but what we see is a drunken wastrel who can’s stand up straight. The production values of the film also possesses a similar playfulness- The sets, costumes, editing and photography has an intentionally unpolished feel; kind of like an episode of a cheap TV series, with the film shot mostly on preexisting studio sets that are very bright and colorful. It does not have the bigness or the gloss that the studio Westerns of the ’60s possessed.

The film’s appeal is mainly down to its writing and acting and how well the overall tone of the film is orchestrated. The film marked the directorial debut of Elliot Silverstein. he had previously worked on Television and directed several episodes of “Have Gun will Travel” and “Twilight Zone.” He directed few films in his career, of which “A Man called Horse” is the most famous. He has a nice feel for both comedy and the Western genre. With the help of his writers, Walter Newman and Frank Pierson, Silverstein has managed to do what very few directors have done- to take a serious novel like Roy Chanslor’s “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” and turn it into a comedy; something like what Stanley Kubrick did with “Dr. Strangelove.” Despite the low-tech nature of the film, Silverstein manages to execute some great scenes- a lengthy barn dance that involves singing, dancing and conversations done in one unbroken take is a tour de force; The scene where Kid Shelleen literally cleans up and gets made up as some medieval knight in preparation for the big showdown is another one; the most iconic image from the film is the one where Marvin and his horse is seen leaning against a building, both of them apparently drunk. Silverstein also manages to get the best out of his cast. Jane Fonda is feisty and sexy as hell in the lead role, though except for the scene where she dresses up as Trixie, the sultry vamp, the film does not exploit Fonda’s sex kitten appeal the way “Barbarella” does. In this film, She is pretty much the wronged cowgirl in hat and spurs out for revenge. Michael Callan as Clay Boone, Cat’s would-be love interest and Dwayne Hickman as Callan’s “uncle” are pretty good.  Frankie Ballou (Cat’s Father) is played extremely well by John Marley; a curmudgeonly rancher who has some odd but strong views on the true origins of the Native Americans. Tom Nardini is wonderful as the educated Indian ranch hand who goes along on Cat’s quest, none too willingly. He is the most normal and levelheaded character in the film and he gets some great dialogue- the one involving Custer is a hoot. Western-vet Arthur Hunnicutt turns up as an old & weak Butch Cassidy- four years before Paul Newman would immortalize the legendary outlaw in another Comic Western.

But the film belongs to Lee Marvin, who, despite not having that much screen time, dominates the film. His ‘Walker’ from “Point Blank” might be Marvin’s most iconic and definitive screen role\performance, but Shelleen\Strawn along with “Monte Walsh” might be Marvin’s best. It is far more difficult to carry off a role like this than to excel in a serious dramatic part. This is part comedy part drama, part real part pastiche and the actor has to switch between these modes repeatedly. Lee Marvin plays all this it to perfection. Right from Shelleen’s introduction scene when the rear of the stagecoach is opened and the crumpled up gunslinger rolls out on the ground, Marvin is pitch perfect. One could say that for Marvin, who was a notorious drunk in real life, playing a drunk is not much of a stretch, but Kid Shelleen isn’t any drunkard, he’s a gunslinger who can’t do with and without the liquor: if he’s too drunk, he’s ineffective, if he’s sober, he’s shaking. The portions were Shelleen is in dire need of liquor is very dramatic; at least that’s how Marvin plays it, as straight drama. The humor in the sequences are more situational, and in the reaction of other actors around him. Take the bar scene in the Hole in the wall, where he is desperate for a drink and is desperately trying to catch the moment to propose a toast – “I’ll drink to that!“; his face conveys the sadness of an utterly broken down man and every time the conversation is close to inducing a celebration he springs to life; in this scene, even though he is at the edge of the frame and he is not acting funny and the focus is on the other actors, he is the one setting its mood. The rest of the time, he’s in full on comic mode and provides most of the laughs. His funniest scene, apart from all the horseback acrobatics that he and his horse indulges in, must be Kid Shelleen’s rendition of Happy Birthday at Frank Ballou’s funeral. All in all, I would say Marvin’s Oscar was well deserved.


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