Lee Marvin didn’t get many chances to show his comedic side; in fact, I can only think of two off the top of my head: the John Wayne/John Ford outing DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) and the 1976 spoof THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (I’ll be charitably silent about 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON!). Then there’s the comedy western CAT BALLOU, for which Marvin won an Oscar in the dual roles of drunken, broken down outlaw Kid Shelleen and hired killer Tim Strawn. Marvin’s marvelous, but if the truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Marvin to play a hard drinker and a macho tough guy… there’s a little bit of Lee in both personas!
We know we’re in for a good time right off the get-go when the fabled Columbia Torch Lady morphs into an animated, six-gun packin’ cowgirl, a sure sign not to take things too seriously. CAT BALLOU concerns prim young Catherine Ballou returning to Wolf City, Wyoming to become a schoolteacher only to find her father’s ranch being threatened by the railroad company. When her father is killed at the hand of silver-nosed Strawn, Cat seeks revenge on the railroad along with her compatriots Clay Boone, a cowardly cattle rustler who’s hot for Cat, Clay’s Uncle Jed, who passes himself off as a man of the cloth, and ranch hand Jackson Two Bears. Cat hires a gunslinger of her own, the notorious Kid Shelleen, whom she’s read about in dime novels. What she gets is a broken-down drunk who literally can’t hit the side of a barn without a few belts in him!
Cat and company ride out to the infamous Hole in the Wall to meet the fearsome Butch Cassidy, who’s not so fearsome any longer… Cassidy and his gang are all old and decrepit now! But Cat’s determined to avenge her father’s death, starting by pulling off a daring train robbery. Then it’s on to railroad boss Sir Harry Percival, where she disguises herself as a hooker named ‘Trixie’, and winds up accidentally shooting the lustful old codger, arrested for murder, and sentenced to hang…
Marvin first appears rolling out the back of a stagecoach, and proceeds to steal the show with his comic antics. He’s half in the bag most of the time, but my favorite scene occurs when Shelleen tries to sober up and get back in shape for a showdown with Strawn, assisted by Two Bears. He takes a bath for the first time in years, then is strapped into a corset and dons his old gunfighter clothing and pearl-handled Colts ready to do battle with the enemy. The fact that Marvin plays both Shelleen and Strawn means that Lee Marvin actually ends up gunning down himself! The Academy should’ve given Lee two Oscars for that!
Jane Fonda stars as Cat, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to outlaw queen. The movie was made during Jane’s formative film years, and the surprise hit did a lot to boost her stock as an actress to be reckoned with in the future. Jane fits right in with the Western milieu, as befits the daughter of oater favorite Henry Fonda . Michael Callan (Clay) and Dwayne Hickman (Jed) get their best screen roles in this one, and Tom Nardini (Two Bears) is a favorite of mine from AIP exploitation fare like THE YOUNG SAVAGES and THE DEVIL’S 8. John Marley plays Cat’s dad, Reginald Denny is villainous Sir Harry, and sagebrush vets Bruce Cabot , Arthur Hunnicut (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen , and Burt Mustin appear in small roles.
One fun aspect of CAT BALLOU is the presence of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels acting as a Greek chorus throughout the film. If Cole’s velvet voice sounds a bit gruffer than usual, it’s because he was suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him, four months before the movie was released. The pair stroll along singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, written for the film by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which also earned the film an Oscar nomination. Frank DeVol’s score, Chris Nelson’s editing, and the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated, as well. Director Elliot Silverstein marks his feature debut; he would go on to helm only five others, including the Richard Harris Western A MAN CALLED HORSE. Straddling the fence between comedy and Western can be tough, and most are played too broadly, but in CAT BALLOU Silverstein and his game cast (especially Marvin) and crew make it work, and it’s one of the genre’s best. This CAT is sleek entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!