Cat Ballou

Starring: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan

Director: Elliot Silverstein
Released: 1965

Mood: If you thought Jeff Bridges was hilarious as the surly boozehound Rooster Cogburn in True Grit and didn’t think there could possibly be a Western lead more outrageously drunk than that let alone one who won an Oscar for it. 

In his review of The Frisco Kid, Roger Ebert opened with a line that got me curious: “Once a long time ago on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, of all places, I saw Cat Ballou and was forever after spoiled on the subject of comic Westerns.”

I rarely agree with Ebert, especially about Westerns. But I still needed to see this Western comedy that left all others behind. 

It turns out there are a bunch more reasons I needed to watch Cat Ballou:

  • The character of Cat Ballou is super loosely based on Etta Place, who was played by Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which I literally just watched)  
  • Cat Ballou is #10 on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Westerns AND #50 on their list of the 100 Funniest American Movies
  • ‘Cat Ballou’ is a card in the Western game Bang!, one of my favourite games of all time, yet I never noticed that the card showed a woman with her arms full of stolen loot (plus I always got Cat Ballou mixed up with Panic)

But the best reason of all to watch Cat Ballou is Lee F*cking Marvin

If you’re going to do a silly Western you need silly music, and Cat Ballou has it in spades. The movie opens in post-Civil War Wyoming, with town minstrels played by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye cheerfully strumming ‘The Ballad of Cat Ballou’ on banjos.

Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) is about to hang for murder. The ballad and the movie travel back in time to recap how an aspiring school teacher turned to a life of crime. 

After a chance encounter with outlaws Clay Boone (Michael Callan) and his uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), Cat returns home to her father’s ranch. But the vocal anti-railroad rancher Frankie Ballou (John Marley) has pissed off a lot of people, including the sinister Tim Strawn. It quickly becomes clear that Cat needs more firepower to keep daddy alive.

Enter Kid Shelleen! Cat sends for gunfighter Shelleen (Lee Marvin), but the cockeyed man who literally falls off the wagon isn’t exactly a heroic badass. 

With Shelleen staggering around shit-faced and Clay obsessed with getting into her pants, Cat has to take matters into her own hands

illustration of a fancy moustache

Apparently Roy Chanslor’s 1956 novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou was a serious work, but the movie is almost non-stop jokes and pratfalls and bar room brawls. I didn’t find it as gut-busting-funny as The Villain or Support Your Local Sheriff, but you get tons of flawless physical comedy from Lee Marvin.

Minor spoiler alert ahead.

Marvin was known for his serious roles. In Cat Ballou he’s running amok across the screen, fully sloshed and hamming up every possible physical schtick. It’s a total 180 from his turn as Liberty Valance, and I’m here for it. Marvin just KILLS IT.

I mean, it helps that he was apparently actually drinking to get into character. But he nails every little nuance. 

In his first big scene, you watch him recharge like Popeye as he hits the bottle and it’s a f*cking masterclass: his voice, the mannerisms like his eyes blinking at different times – everything changes slightly with each swig, yet remains fully over-the-top.

One of the onlookers comments, “I never seen a man get through a day so fast”, and you really did just watch an entire movie’s worth of range in just a few minutes.

Marvin also spends a great deal of time dangling drunkenly from his obliging horse while being chased. On set, the trainer was given just one hour to teach Smoky the horse how to lean on a wall like a lush, and somehow pulled it off to create this famous scene

Marvin’s performance is so good that he snatched the 1965 best actor Oscar, against the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. When he accepted the award, he said, “I think that half of this belongs to a horse someplace out in the Valley.” Smoky the horse did win his own Craven award in 1966; he didn’t quite outperform his rider (like Ott the horse in The Villain), but it’s still a fantastic piece of horsey cinema

And THEN you get the bonus of Marvin in a dual role as the villainous Strawn! This guy wears an iron cap on his nose, which is supposed to be ominous but reminded me of Steelbeak from Darkwing Duck. I didn’t realize it was also Marvin until almost the end of the movie. 

  • Fun Fact: Kirk Douglas turned down the role of Kid Shelleen (which Jack Palance wanted but was not offered), while Ann-Margret’s agent turned down the role of Cat Ballou without her knowing. 
illustration of a fancy moustache

Jane Fonda is quite good as Cat Ballou, it’s just hard to notice much else whenever Marvin is on the screen. 

I actually didn’t have an opinion of Fonda going into this movie – I don’t know her films, so to me she’s just this badass who has been fighting for equality and the planet since forever (here’s a timeline of her epic activism).

Fonda’s Cat is wide-eyed and sweet, but also one tough cookie. It was apparently annoying and difficult to be the straight woman around Marvin’s drunken tomfoolery, but Fonda managed to balance Cat’s naïveté with a stubborn determination.

The character of Jackson Two-Bears is actually pretty great, even though he’s played by yet another white guy (Tom Nardini) in heavy makeup. Yes, there’s a cringe-worthy war-whooping sequence during one of the brawls. But Jackson is portrayed as super smart (correcting Cat’s grammar), loyal, handy in a fight, and full of surprises. 

There’s a ‘training’ montage where Kid is getting sober, and Jackson has to put him into a corset. Without a single word, it’s one of the funniest bits of the movie. 

And when asked why he punched out Clay, Jackson has this hilarious retort: “I got a right to share in the fun without regard to race, creed, or colour, according to the 14th Amendment.”

illustration of a fancy moustache

The only downside to Cat Ballou is the supporting characters of Clay and Uncle Jed. Dwayne Hickman was actually a year younger than Michael Callan, and their performances are virtually identical, so I spent the entire movie confused as to who they were. Then I couldn’t buy into the romance, because Clay was literally the least interesting person on the screen. 

That, and the fact that it was Nat King Cole’s last project. He found out he had lung cancer toward the end of shooting, and died before the movie was released. 

Cat Ballou is really funny, and definitely worth a watch. It’s the kind of weeknight Western delight that can make up for all kinds of crappy days.