[Film Review] Cat Ballou (1965)

Cat Ballou poster

Title: Cat Ballou
Year: 1965
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Western
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Walter Newman
Frank Pierson
based on a novel by Roy Chanslor
Music: Frank De Vol
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Jane Fonda
Lee Marvin
Michael Callan
Tom Nardini
John Marley
Dwayne Hickman
Nat ‘King’ Cole
Stubby Kaye
Reginald Denny
Arthur Hunnicutt
Jay. C. Flippen
Bruce Cabot
Rating: 6.7/10

A comedy and western amalgam in 1965, director Elliot Silverstein’s feature debut, CAT BALLOU breathes the last hurrah of the latter genre, a young Jane Fonda is cast as the titular heroine, Catherine Ballou, a schoolteacher-turned-outlaw in Wolf City, Wyoming, assembles a posse of bandits after her father (Marley) is shot dead by an evil hired-gun Tim Strawn (Marvin), to seek for justice and revenge. If the synopsis sounds too gruesome, I can assure you that the film has no design to align itself as a grim gunslinger thriller, you will witness neither blood nor dead bodies on screen, on the contrary, it jollily juggles between a mood-enlightening romance of Cat and Clay Boone (Callan), an outlaw-wannabe who is green, flippant but has a faint semblance of a chevalier, and a rowdy, reckless actioner highlighted by Kid Shelleen (Marvin again), a drunkard, has-been legend marksman.

Notably, the film also heavily features two balladeers (Kaye and Cole, the latter’s presence is his silver screen swan song), narrate the overblown myth of Cat Ballou in the Greek chorus fashion, belt out verses from the Oscar-nominated “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”and other ditties written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which to a certain degree, dangerously teeters on being soporific and cringe-worthy thanks to its smug insistence.

Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his dual impersonations of the two sides of the same coin, a quite atypical occasion where the Academy is overwhelmed by comedic bent other than pathos-outpouring theatrics, Marvin is indeed a blast, to play against a poker-faced Fonda, he munificently dissipate his laugh-a-minute antics of a deadbeat souse, but when it’s time to suit up for some serious matters, he can vigorously reborn as a traditional western hero in all glamor and panache, to humor the ingrained gun-worshiping demographic. Fonda, in her career breakthrough and soon to be sexed up as a sex symbol of the era, is gorgeous to behold, and it is only her could ride that awful mustard-yellow dress in the barroom country-dance-turn-to-brawl tradition. Last but not the least, a politically-correct portrayal of a native Indian, Jackson Two Bears (Nardini), aside from tamely grooming Kid Shelleen with deference in the ritualistic moment, he is the most trustworthy person Cat can depend on, her guardian angel and the one of the most integrity among the gang.

Western has already been long on the wane at the time, CAT BALLOU braves to elevate itself from being a footnote by sticking out as a novel genre-buster with a sheen of popular appeal, thus reaches out an audience beyond its pigeonholed marketability, in fact, that’s something more relevant than the film’s own artistic ambition half-an-century later.

Cat Ballou 1965


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