CAT BALLOU was the delightful surprise hit of 1965, winning Lee Marvin a left-field Oscar for Best Actor, adding another feather in the Fonda cap (Jane Dept.) and raking in the bucks; a gross of $25,100,000 made it the 7th most popular movie of the year. Walter Newman (The Big Carnival, The Interns) and Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon) wrote the script, lifted off a non-comic novel written back in 1956 by Roy Chanslor (Johnny Guitar). The first feature helmed by TV director Elliott Silverstein, along with Marvin’s coup, it saw Oscar nominations go up for the Screenplay, Film Editing, Music Score and Song. “He did it! He missed the barn! ”
Wyoming, 1894. When a crooked developer (the words go together) uses underhanded and eventually lethal means to grab the family farm, scrappy ‘Catherine Ballou’ (Jane Fonda) fights back and earns notoriety. Four men help her, in a semi-helpful fashion. Brash cattle rustler ‘Clay Boone’ (Michael Callan) takes a shine to Cat, while his laid-back uncle ‘Jed’ (Dwayne Hickman) tags along, as does Native American ranch hand ‘Jackson Two Bears’ (Tom Nardini). Then there’s legendary gunfighter ‘Kid Sheleen’ (Marvin) whose crack pistol skills contend with his equally mighty booze-swilling displays.
“She killed a man in Wolf City, Wyoming/ Wolf City, Wyoming/ Killed a man, it’s true/ And that is why they’re hanging/ Hanging Cat Ballou.”
Acting as Greek Chorus throughout the 96 minute lark are strolling troubadours, the ‘Sunrise Kid’ (Nat King Cole) and ‘Sam the Shade’ (Stubby Kaye). Filling out the scenery—Colorado, because it looked more western than Wyoming?—are veterans like John Marley, Jay C.Flippen, Reginald Denny, Arthur Hunnicutt, Bruce Cabot and Burt Mustin.
Fonda at 27—pretty, sexy and spirited—is more appealing than in her other films of the period; the surprise success was a major step up in her career climb. Michael Callan kept working but his big-screen run topped out with this, as did Dwayne Hickman’s. Jane’s a dish and they’re likable, though most of the material is just mildly amusing. Two crucial aspects gave the movie its gusto and ensured lasting popularity as a nostalgia piece. First off, Lee Marvin’s wonderful comic performance—he plays dual roles—dominates everyone else: he’s a riot. It’s really supporting work (he doesn’t show up until 37 minutes into the picture), but every scene he’s in is choice (love the “grooming & preparation” business with Tom Nardini).
The other essential element is that irresistible theme music, scored by Frank De Vol, with Cole & Kaye delivering the “The Ballad Of Cat Ballou”, written by Mack David & Jerry Livingstone—so hum-causing it’s addictive. At one point the rollicking number blends into the lovely “They Can’t Make Her Cry”. Critics, aside from acknowledging Marvin, often shrug this movie off, but mention it to any ordinary fan (from that era, anyway) and they can’t help but smile. *
* The great, beloved Nat King Cole died four months before the film was released, from cancer, only 45. Lee Marvin’s Oscar win propelled the 41-year-old tough guy into full-fledged stardom, though many carped (and still do…whatever) that his Oscar should have gone to Rod Steiger’s ‘serious’ work for The Pawnbroker or Richard Burton’s equally ‘downer’ The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I actually prefer Steiger’s work that year in Doctor Zhivago. Comedy is at least as hard as drama, but is rarely given the same sort of validation.
Personal note: As a kid, went to see this with my parents. It was double-billed with The Long Ships. Just before leaving for the theater, my folks had a big row (over what? who knows? I was ten, and a Dad-Mom argument was just an argument, generic; thankfully rare, but never enjoyable to hear). Anyway, Cat Ballou was so much fun, it healed the damage and everyone came home happy. Thank you, Kid Sheleen!