A legend built on a drunken horse and rider leaning against a wall.
When Cat Ballou was first released in May 1965, it was well-received by both critics and public alike, building a momentum that led to five Academy Award nominations including one for Lee Marvin who subsequently won the award for Best Actor. Many of the reviews seemed to fall all over themselves in their eagerness to trumpet the virtues of two particular aspects of the film: what they suggested was its unique approach to the western — basically a send-up of the genre’s conventions — and the comedic performance of Lee Marvin in the dual role as gunfighter Tim Strawn and the boozing Kid Shelleen. Over three decades later, one wonders what all the fuss was about.
See for yourself on Columbia’s recent Special Edition DVD release.
Even 35 years ago, Cat Ballou was far from unusual in its satirical treatment of the western genre. Along Came Jones (1945, RKO) and especially Destry Rides Again (1939, Universal) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Paramount) had already mined this vein and to better effect. Some of film’s top comedians had also taken their shots at the western, generally with very funny results. Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937, MGM) was the best of these, but Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942, Universal), the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940, MGM), and Bob Hope’s The Paleface (1948, Paramount) were all enjoyable romps as well. In the same year that Cat Ballou appeared, the under-rated The Hallelujah Trail (UA) was released. Also a western spoof, it was generally dismissed at the time partly due to its excessive length. Viewed again now, it seems much the better of the two films. Since 1965, we’ve seen other efforts such as the over-rated but occasionally amusing Blazing Saddles (1974, WB), the very uneven and sometimes forced The Frisco Kid (1979, WB), and Support Your Local Sheriff (1968, UA). The latter, starring James Garner with a great supporting cast, is hands down the best of the western satire films produced since the 1940s.
Cat Ballou began as a novel by Roy Chanslor entitled “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.” The book was written as a serious story, and efforts were first made by a production team that included Burt Lancaster to film it in 1956 as a musical starring Lancaster and Tony Curtis. This idea was eventually discarded, but the idea of a film was revived when one of Lancaster’s production team, Harold Hecht, took the book rights to Columbia in 1963 and suggested it be reworked as a western satire. This was accepted and shooting was conducted during autumn 1964 both on location in Colorado and at Columbia’s main lot and studio ranch.
The story concerns the schoolteacher-turned-outlaw named Catherine “Cat” Ballou (Jane Fonda) who attempts to avenge her father’s murder at the hands of the Wolf City Development Corporation and its hired gun, the silver-nosed Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin). She employs the once-famous Kid Shelleen (also played by Marvin), a hero of pulp magazines, to help her along with several young would-be outlaws (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman). Shelleen turns out to be Strawn’s brother as well as a drunkard who literally can’t hit the side of a barn door. This unlikely combination is able to persevere in the end despite themselves. The story plays itself out in a brisk 96 minutes with the aid of two wandering singers (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye), a sort of Greek chorus, who appear from time to time to relate connecting elements of the tale in song.
One of the main problems with Cat Ballou lies with much of the casting. Jane Fonda has the title role and she makes for a fetching Cat Ballou, but the part is largely a thankless one for the character is mainly a foil for the others, particularly Kid Shelleen. By 1965, Fonda had shown only flashes of the acting capability that would become so evident over the following decade and a half and this role did little to stretch her. She did not look out of place in a comedy film, but neither did she seem completely comfortable. At the same time, as the two young would-be outlaws, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman simply were not believable. They looked like exactly what they were — two young television actors who had no experience in westerns whatsoever.
Less of a problem, however, was Lee Marvin. Although he was not the first choice for the dual role (Kirk Douglas was), he took to it with relish. He certainly knew how to play Tim Strawn after the many supporting parts as a heavy in westerns and crime movies that had characterized his career until the early 1960s. More interesting was the Kid Shelleen character — a distinct departure for Marvin. It’s quite a revelation to see Marvin’s reactions conveyed solely through the use of facial expression in many instances, rather than the rasping voice and physicality that most of his earlier roles had demanded. Was his work worthy of an Academy Award? In most years probably not, but the competition in 1965 was not that stiff, so he won out and popularly so.
The jury is out on the Nat King Cole/Stubby Kaye Greek chorus. At times they’re welcome, but at others you just wish they’d disappear. The problem isn’t the two performers; it’s the rather lackluster song they’re saddled with. Nat King Cole’s voice is always a joy of course, but he was quite ill during the shooting of the film. Cat Ballou was his last film appearance. Before the film could be released, he died following surgery for lung cancer. He was 45.
Basically, Cat Ballou is just not as funny as it would like us to think it is. The opening Columbia logo in which the Columbia lady turns into a cartoon version of a pistol-toting Cat Ballou is the first indication of this. Many of the film’s funny bits just don’t come off and the direction is workman-like at best. One of the best shot sequences — the image of Cat Ballou being viewed continuously through the noose as she approaches the scaffold in order to be hanged — is admittedly just lifted from another film.
Columbia has certainly made the effort to give Cat Ballou a top-notch DVD presentation. The widescreen, anamorphic version preserves the 1.85:1 OAR and is a crisp, richly colourful presentation of the film. Columbia obviously had good source material from which to work; there is virtually no evidence of stray nicks or scratches and the DVD mastering betrays no noticeable artifacts. The sound, mono as originally recorded, is quite pleasing and no detriment to the overall presentation.
Supplements on the DVD include an audio commentary by Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman, a 12-minute featurette that is basically a reminiscence of the filming by director Elliot Silverstein, and five theatrical trailers including that of Cat Ballou. These are in addition to Columbia’s normal talent files, written production notes, and examples of vintage advertising. All-in-all, a very nice package for this film.
Judging from director Silverstein’s performance on the DVD’s featurette, it would have been more interesting to have an audio commentary by him than Callan and Hickman. The latter pair’s commentary starts off with the two basically complimenting each other on how well they did in the film and continues as a folksy rather than authoritative conversation arising from their reactions to what they see as the film proceeds. They seem to be enjoying themselves, but you soon tire of their patter.
Given the absence of a commentary by the director, the short featurette would have benefited from considerable lengthening since what we are shown conveys much useful information and insight. At 12 minutes though, it just whets one’s appetite.
Another tough one! Cat Ballou was over-rated when it first appeared and the 35 years since have not changed that view. Indeed, better western satires have been made during that time. One cannot argue with the effort that Columbia has put forth on the film’s DVD, however. We should hope that all of Columbia’s classic DVD releases are accorded at least such care and supplementary content.