Cat Ballou (1965)

Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou), Lee Marvin (Kid Shelleen/Tim Strawn), Michael Callan (Clay Boone), Tom Nardini (Jackson Two-Bears), Dwayne Hickman, Nat King Cole, Stubby Kaye, John Marley, Jay C. Flippen, Arthur Hunnicutt

Today Cat Ballou is best known for bringing the Oscar to Lee Marvin and the speech he delivered on Oscar night. Lee said he probably should be sharing the prize with a horse somewhere out there in the San Bernardo Valley, referring to an iconic scene of him and his horse - both under the influence - leaning against a wall.

The titular character is played by Jane Fonda, a young school-mistress returning home to her father in Wolf City, Wyoming after her studies on the East coast. The ranch is threatened by a Company who wants her father's water rights. She asks the two friendly would-be crooks she has met on the train, Clay Boone and his uncle Jed, to defend her rights against these qualified crooks, but they're no match for the black-clad, silver-nosed killer Tim Strawn. Clay therefore proposes to hire the legendary gunslinger Kid Shelleen, whose exploits are immortalized in dime novels. Upon his arrival, it turns out that the once fearsome gunman has become a hopeless drunk who can't even hit a barn at twenty paces ...

Marvin is really marvelous in his dual role as the former sharpshooter with a drinking problem and the hired killer with a nose problem (his nose has been bitten off in a fight), but Cat Ballou has more to offer than just Lee, Marvin & his horse. Jane Fonda (not yet in her activist mood) is at her charming best here, almost looking dangerously innocent, and there are also nice performances by Michael Callen (as the would-be crook fancying her) and Tom Nardini (as the educated Indian appointed by her father because he thinks the Sioux are one of the Ten Lost tribes of Israel (1)). It has a few shortcomings, but the high pace and easygoing-charm of the proceedings make it easy to overlook some of the handicaps, such as a rather patchy script and a couple of lame jokes. Cat Ballou is presented as a frame story, with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye linking the loosely structured story elements while performing The Ballad of Cat Ballou. It was Nat king Cole last movie performance; he suffered from lung cancer and died before the movie's premiere.

As said, Cat Ballou was immensely successful. It was the third highest grossing western from the sixties, after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, and it was also mainly responsible for the revival of the comedy westerns in the second half of the decade. While being a comedy (a rather outrageous one), it also shares some of the melancholic thoughts about the End of the West, expressed in those westerns following the example of Ford's The Man who shot Liberty Valance and Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. The action is set in the 1890s, when the Wild West more and more became a cherished memory. This idea is best expressed in a scene with the group arriving in the legendary Hole in the Wall, a refugee for outlaws, noticing that the outlaws have become old people who want to be left in peace.


* (1) The joke has a serious background; it refers to the tribes of Ancient Israel that disappeared from Biblical (and all other) texts after the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 720 BC by Assyria. Some think it's no more than a myth, others think the story has at least a historic background, but also accept their historic disappearance. However, various ethnic groups across the globe believe they are descendants of the lost tribes, and in recent years people (such as the Bnei Manashe tribe, a Jewish community from India) have received the right to move to Israel.