Cat Ballou, 1965.
Directed by Elliot Silverstein.
Starring Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Tom Nardini, John Marley, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye.
A young woman employs a famous gunman to protect her father’s ranch but finds him to be very different than she expected.
The American Film Institute puts Cat Ballou at number 10 in their “Top 10 Westerns” list. It sticks out a little from the other films on there. Along with The Wild Bunch, it is a Western that’s more reactionary than conservative – bawdy and comical instead of slow and restrained. It must be pretty good to keep out Rio Bravo, you would think. Suppose it depends on how you like your Westerns.
The Wild Bunch is rightly placed in the “Top 10” as it was genuinely revolutionary for its genre. It’s like what punk did to prog rock in the late 70s. Cat Ballou is similar in that it captures the rising spirit of the 60s. The film has Jane Fonda as its female protagonist, an actress who characterised that era; its colour palette takes cue from the bold shades of The Forbidden Planet; the pace can often become farcical and the main cast is overwhelmingly young.
Cat Ballou opens at the end, with the titular character (Jane Fonda) being prepared for her execution. How did she get in such a malarkey? Cut to a train journey where she was an aspiring schoolteacher, prim and proper, on her way out West to see Frankie Ballou, her father. His ranch is under threat from the Wolf City Developing Company, one of those evil, faceless corporations that need little explanation. Silvernose (Lee Marvin) is its hired gun and physical presence, stalking the ranch to scare Frankie out. He has a silver nose-strap, you see. Probably something to do with Capitalism.
This 60s agenda transfers well onto the Western. The honest, hardworking homesteader up against the powerful ranch owner is a classic Western narrative. The Ol’ Western philosophy, of a plot of land available to all, accommodates the 60s’ human rights cause. Feminism is given the most attention, showing Cat’s growth into a strong leader. She needs to be to battle against the Company and its Silvernose.
She whips together an improvised ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang from the uncle and nephew outlaws, Jed and Clay Boone (underused), her father’s Indian farm hand, Jackson Two-Bears (wise-cracker/annoying) and the legendary, chronic alcoholic gun-fighter, Kid Shelleen. Here is the film’s stroke of genius. Lee Marvin plays him too.
Shelleen is fuelled by liquor and struggles to aim his gun if not intoxicated. Booze to Shelleen is what spinach is to Popeye. This is largely played for laughs throughout the film, apart from his first scene. To test their hired gunslinger, Frankie nails a piece of paper to the barn wall for Shelleen to play target practice. But he can’t stand still, as though he’s swaying on some imaginary boat. He begs Frankie for just a drop of drink to steady his hand. You can see Cat’s disappointment in the old hero, part of a trailblazing group she used to “whisper the names of when we were young”. This moment of disaffected youth is bitterly genuine.
Revitalised by the liquor, Shelleen declares the gunfighter’s day is over, to then fire two bulls eye shots. You can’t ride around as a romantic outlaw anymore, at least not how it was in his age. Last time he rode through Tombstone, there was a skating rink over the O.K. Corral.
In an interview, the director, Elliot Silverstein, said he never decided on the film’s tone before shooting, and hoped Marvin’s performance would give him an idea. In his first scene above, Marvin had the crew in fits of laughter playing the desperate drunk, but felt something wasn’t right. For the 7th take, Silverstein asked him to “make me cry”. Although it worked perfectly for this scene, this initial confusion explains the film’s disjointed tone.
The humour doesn’t stand the test of time. In some parts it’s too camp, and in others it slightly misfires. But because of its energetic performances and chaotic tone, Cat Ballou is enjoyable on other levels. The jokes may be dated, but the occasional dramatic moments – often the ones set to diegetic music – are quite moving. There’s a melancholy in the old, weathered gunslingers being usurped by a female protagonist and youthful supporting cast, and the film sometimes realises that. But then again, it depends on how you like your Westerns.