Varsity Theater, Ashland, OR

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cat Ballou (1965)

All tough guy actors try their hand at comedy at some point in their careers. Arnold Schwarznegger tried it twice in TWINS (1988) and KINDERGARTEN COP (1990). Sylvester Stallone tried it unsuccessfully in RHINESTONE (1984). One of my favorite old tough guy actors is Lee Marvin. He tried it and won an Oscar.

It must have been fun for tough guy actor Lee Marvin to play a character like Kid Shelleen in the western CAT BALLOU (1965) that is atypical of the characters we normally think of Lee Marvin playing.  Usually, Lee Marvin played crooks and army sergeants and hired killers. In CAT BALLOU, Marvin gets to play a drunk gunslinger who must redeem himself and his legend when he's hired by Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) to kill the man who killed her father. Marvin almost always had a crew cut in his films but in BALLOU, he's got a tangled mess of blond locks and gets to make plenty of crazy faces. There was a hint that Marvin could play comedy way back in THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) when he played Meatball, a goofy sailor.

It's Marvin's star quality that gives weight to the film as most of the other actors (including a young Jane Fonda) are mostly unknowns. Marvin won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in CAT BALLOU. Although he's very good as Shelleen and he was playing a character that was somewhat of a stretch for him, it made me wonder who was Marvin up against for Best Actor in 1965 (I looked it up and it was a weak group in 1965 - Richard Burton in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD; Laurence Olivier in OTHELLO; Rod Steiger in THE PAWNBROKER; and Oskar Werner in SHIP OF FOOLS). In a different Academy Award year, Marvin might have won a Best Supporting Actor award but he was good enough in 1965.

I had never seen CAT BALLOU until last week and to prove how little I knew about the film, I had always assumed that Lee Marvin was Cat Ballou.  This is entirely wrong.  Jane Fonda plays Cat Ballou.  Cat short for Catherine. This misconception would be a harbinger for many other pleasant surprises about CAT BALLOU.

From the opening Columbia Pictures logo when the torch bearing woman turns into an animated gunfighter, director Elliott Silverstein makes it clear that CAT BALLOU is not going to be your conventional western. Singers Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye play the Shouters (similar to the Chorus in a Shakespeare play) and appear throughout the film singing The Ballad of Cat Ballou.

We are introduced to Catherine "Cat" Ballou (Jane Fonda) as she boards a train to return to her home town of Wolf City, Wyoming to become a school teacher. Even though she seems the model of decency and wholesomeness, there are hints that Cat has a wilder side to her. She hides a dime story western inside her respectable book. And, she assists handsome outlaw Clay Boone (Michael Callan) escape the local sheriff (Bruce Cabot) by hiding him in her berth when Boone's Uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman) breaks his shackled nephew free during the ensuing train ride.

Cat arrives in Wolf City where she's picked up by her gruff but lovable father Frankie Ballou (John Marley) and his Sioux half-breed ranch hand Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini). Cat soon discovers that the town is not very happy with her father. He won't sell his water rights to unscrupulous land developer Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny) so Percival has hired Tim Strawn (also played by Lee Marvin), dressed in black and wearing a metal sheath over his nose (bitten off in a fight, we're told), to terrorize Ballou and force them to leave. At the town's Harvest Dance, Cat runs into Boone and Jed, still on the lam, and recruits them to help her and her father. But neither man is good with a gun so Cat decides to hire the man she admires in her western novels, the famous gunslinger Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin).

Shelleen arrives in town drunk as a skunk. Cat brings him back to the Ballou ranch to show off his marksman skills to her father but Shelleen fails miserably. But when Frankie Ballou is shot by Strawn, Cat, Shelleen, and the rest of her motley crew band together to defeat Percival and his hired guns. Cat and her gang ride up to Hole in the Wall to enlist Butch Cassidy (Arthur Honeycutt) and his gang of cutthroat outlaws but Butch is old and enjoying the peace and tranquility of retirement. Cat decides to hit Percival and Wolf City where it hurts the most by robbing a train delivering the town's payroll. In the end, Kid Shelleen rediscovers his pride and confronts his nemesis Strawn while Cat Ballou visits Percival, the man responsible for bringing about her father's death, in his private coach. Cat's encounter with Percival will bring her face to face with Wolf City's wrath and the hangman's noose.

Upon viewing the first few minutes of CAT BALLOU, I was not too impressed.  The tone of the film was confusing. Was it going to be a musical with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye singing or a glorified TV western as the town was a familiar Hollywood back lot?  The script by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson based on the novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor is very inventive with lots of twists to the western genre.

I've always liked westerns because of the landscape and locations and once Cat and her father get away from the western back lot town and reach their ranch (shot in Colorado), the film began to grow on me.  Director Silverstein stages a nice sequence at the Harvest  Dance where Cat flirts with Boone, sizes up Percival's gang, and watches over her father all during a square dance routine that breaks into a classic western fist fight with men, women, and children all duking it out.  Another fine scene is the train robbery which blends action and comedy perfectly. In fact, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and THE WILD BUNCH (also 1969) both have train robbery sequences that owe a tip of the hat to CAT BALLOU.

BALLOU is really a coming out party for Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda. Both had played supporting roles in their careers up to this point.  For Marvin, he would become a leading man after his scene stealing, Academy Award winning performance as Kid Shelleen. For Fonda, it's her first leading  role and she is sexy, funny, and completely at ease whether square dancing or racing around on horseback as Cat Ballou. I was impressed with Fonda's shifting between dramatic and comedic scenes. Her Cat avenging her dead father reminded me of the recent TRUE GRIT (2010) and that young girl's quest for vengeance on the man who killed her father.

The supporting cast, although not well known, play the role of their lives in this film. My favorite is Tom Nardini as Jackson Two-Bears, the self-deprecating half breed. Nardini (who's probably Italian-Ameican) continues the Hollywood tradition at the time of Caucasian actors playing Indians in movie westerns. Nardini is flat out funny and has some of the film's best lines and funniest moments.

The careers of Michael Callan as Boone and Dwayne Hickman as Jed never reached the meteoric heights of Marvin and Fonda but both had prolific TV careers and I would say they both give the performances of their careers in CAT BALLOU. Callan starred in one of my favorite guilty pleasures MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and it's a shame his good looks and charm didn't carry him farther.  Hickman is best known as Dobie Gillis from TV's THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS in the early 60's.

Director Silverstein misfires a couple of times with the film especially the anticipated shootout between Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn which is very anti-climactic. Marvin played both characters and I wonder if they didn't have the budget to do a split screen with Marvin or they just ran out of time.  Silverstein, who directed many TV shows prior to this film would make only one other noteworthy film - A MAN CALLED HORSE in 1970.

But he struck gold with CAT BALLOU which brought together an unusual collection of actors that all blend together perfectly in this very original and funny western that mixes action, romance, comedy, and music into a unique film.

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