LA INGENUA EXPLOSIVA - Cat Ballou - 1965Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Cat Ballou is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Starring: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Nat King Cole, & Stubby Kaye

Directed by: Elliot Silverstein

Screenplay by: Walter Newman & Frank Pierson

The years 1965 and 1966 marked the end of an era in Hollywood before movies were forced to adapt to the rising counter-culture movement and the changing tastes of America’s youth. Hints of these changes were beginning to show up in some of these films and Cat Ballou was one of them. Ranked among the top 10 Westerns of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008, Cat Ballou is a comedy-western starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, who plays dual roles and earned himself an Academy Award for Best Actor (beating out Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Laurence Olivier in Othello). The film is a big favorite of the Farrelly brothers, who directed There’s Something About Mary and whose use of the Balladeers (the guitar singing duo) was inspired by similar characters played by Nat King Cole (who died of lung cancer a few months before Cat Ballou’s release) and Stubby Kaye.

Cat Ballou is the name of a schoolteacher (Jane Fonda), who travels to Wolf City, Wyoming to visit her rancher father (John Marley, who also played the movie producer who wakes up with a severed horse’s head in The Godfather) at his ranch. When she arrives, she discovers that her father is not very popular among the townspeople because he refuses to sell the water rights of his ranch to the Wolf City Development Company. The company has hired a gunslinger by the name of Strawn (Lee Marvin) to make things nasty for Cat’s father so that he will sell his water rights. However, Cat’s father refuses so Strawn ends up killing him. Frustrated and angered by the refusal of Wolf City’s sheriff to arrest Strawn, Cat decides to avenge her father with the help of a nephew-and-uncle pair of outlaws (Michael Callan & Dwayne Hickman), her father’s Indian ranch hand (Tom Nardini), and the legendary (but drunken) gunfighter, Kid Shelleen (also Lee Marvin).

Jane Fonda is the titular star of the film, but the real star in this movie is hands down Lee Marvin. Playing the dual role of the villain and the hero, Marvin steals the show with his gravelly-voice, physical comedy, and pitch perfect timing. One of the best scenes in the film is where Marvin sobers up and gets into his fancy, black gunslinger outfit as he prepares to finally meet Strawn. I have provided the scene below, but it will be much better appreciated if you watch it in its context. Marvin’s Strawn character is not as well played, but that character barely has any screen time and even less lines of dialogue so what you mostly see for the majority of the film is Marvin’s Kid Shelleen. If you are expecting a Peter Sellers sort of mastery here with the dual roles, you won’t be finding it.

Lee Marvin was infamously one of the toughest guys in Hollywood and he carries that reputation with him into this role. He doesn’t ham up his character here or embellish the role because he doesn’t have to. What we do see here that we have not seen before is watching Marvin explore his comedic side. It is too bad that he did not do more comedy during his career because his comic timing as Kid Shelleen is impeccable. Marvin has said that his horse deserved half of his Oscar and I could not agree more. It is amazing by what the horse handler was able to get that horse to do, such as having the horse drunkenly lean against a wall with a drunk Kid Shelleen sitting on top of him.

As for Jane Fonda, at the time she made Cat Ballou, Fonda was not yet regarded as the serious actress she would become later on. She was still viewed as Henry Fonda’s girl and the films she made before Cat Ballou presented her as being practically ditzy. Jane Fonda was also pre-Socialist/’Hanoi Jane’ so she was not yet averse to playing up her sexiness, which she does in splendid fashion in Cat Ballou in the scene where she tries to seduce a big real estate developer. Fonda essentially plays the straight role in this film – her character is humorless and the wide-eyed optimism and innocence she displays in the crazy, wacky environment she operates in reminded me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. As thankless as her role is, Fonda exhibits feminist independent values (she takes charge to avenge her father, leads an outlaw gang of men, and refuses to conform to the role relegated to women at that time), integrity, and sex appeal.

Unfortunately, without Lee Marvin, who shows up about halfway through the film, Cat Ballou is an average film. To be sure, the film is offbeat, at times likeable, and it plays around with different genres (which is why it does not easily fit into the Western genre classification). However, the film never reaches the absurd heights of the far better Blazing Saddles, which may be due to the less strict ratings board standards of the 1970’s that allowed for raunchier comedy. Moreover, the romance between Jane Fonda and Michael Callan is tepid at best. Fonda rebuffs every advance made by Callan throughout the entire film and Callan comes off as only being interested in having sex with Fonda rather than pursue a meaningful relationship.

Aside from Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, the remaining characters are recycled from countless other Westerns. The outlaw nephew-uncle duo serves as comedy relief that fails to register any laughs. As for the Indian character (who is played by a non-Native American), Jackson Two-Bears, he has the most thankless job of all – he does not provide any humor or drama and his character just ends up being filler.

The plotline of Cat Ballou follows very closely to the plot of the much-better and later-released True Grit (the original, not the Coen Brothers’ remake). I wish Cat Ballou had also stuck with a serious tone like True Grit rather than a comedic one. I would have loved to have seen a more serious Jane Fonda and especially Lee Marvin (as good as they both are) seek revenge and take on a whole town. Furthermore, the theme of the old West dying off in the face of progress, which Kid Shelleen exemplifies and laments, would have been better dealt with in a more serious movie. However, I understand where Cat Ballou was coming from. Beginning in the early 1960’s, there were a number of films like Cat Ballou that took a serious genre and made fun of it. Cat Ballou did this with the Western genre and it blazed the path for later and better films like Blazing Saddles and Support Your Local Sheriff.

In the end, Cat Ballou is a fun, light little Western romp that, at the very least, is worth checking out for Lee Marvin’s funny performance. Also, if you are a fan of Jane Fonda, you might also enjoy seeing this movie and seeing a few hints of the activist and feminist she would later be known for. Otherwise, Cat Ballou fails to leave a memorable impression and mostly registers as your standard Western, but with comedy.