“I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the valley.”
–Lee Marvin, upon accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1965
Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda), a naive schoolteacher turned vigilante, sits in jail awaiting her execution by hanging. As a duo of singing cowboy minstrels (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye) wonder aloud how such a girl got into such a mess, we flash back to the beginning of Cat’s story. After graduating from a teacher’s college, Cat heads west by train to visit her father, Frankie (John Marley), in Wyoming. The train is also transporting the recently captured Clay Boone (Michael Callan), and Cat is instantly attracted to the criminal (and vice versa). Clay’s uncle, Jed (Dwayne Hickman), poses as a preacher and helps free Clay from custody. While Dwayne safely jumps from the train–after an “encouraging” push from his nephew–Clay ends up ducking into Cat’s berth to hide from the sheriff, and against her better judgment, Cat covers for him … and is rewarded with a big kiss before Clay himself manages to jump.
When Cat arrives at her father’s homestead, she’s shocked to discover that the place has gone downhill in her absence. Frankie’s Sioux ranch hand, Jackson (Tom Nardini) tells her that a new development company intent on building up Wolf City has tried to secure her father’s water rights. Cat’s homecoming is interrupted by the arrival of “Silvernose” Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), whose literal “silver nose” disturbs Cat. Frankie orders the man off the property, and Jackson tells Cat that Silvernose is a hired killer. Though Cat is frightened, Frankie assures her that he is unafraid.
Soon after, at a square dance, Cat discovers that the sheriff intends to do nothing about the troubles the company has caused her father. Jackson suggests that since the company has a gunslinger, she needs one, too, and tells her to contact Kid Shelleen (Marvin, in a dual role), a famous gunfighter, to help defend Frankie’s property. Later, when Jed and Clay crash the dance (and it dissolves into a free-for-all), Cat invites them to come home with her as added protection.
When Kid Shelleen arrives in town, he’s severely hungover and unable to function without a snort of whiskey. Although he demonstrates a keen hand with a gun when he wants to, his drunkenness ultimately gets the best of him. Shelleen decides to stay on to earn his pay, though he reacts with dismay when he learns that his opponent is none other than Tim Strawn.
The next day, Strawn shoots Frankie (while Shelleen sleeps through the entire thing). Cat chases Strawn to town on horseback, but when she arrives soon behind him and accuses the gunman of murder, the sheriff refuses to acknowledge Strawn’s guilt, claiming that Silvernose had been in town during the shooting. The development company lays claim to Frankie’s land, and a grieving Cat resolves to find her own justice. Forming a gang with Clay, Jed, Jackson, and the incapacitated Shelleen, she devises a plan to get revenge on the development company.
Events quickly spiral out of control as Cat plots to rob the train carrying the development company’s payroll, Shelleen (who is enamored of Cat, despite her love for Clay) finally forces himself to sober up enough to go after Strawn (about whom Shelleen knows more than he lets on), and Cat confronts Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), the owner of the development company who hired Strawn, resulting in Percival’s death and her conviction for murder. Can Cat’s gang come together and save her from the hangman’s noose in time?
Released in 1965, Cat Ballou is an engaging mash-up of drama, romance, Westerns, and slapstick comedy, and certain elements of the film parody Western tropes quite effectively. Though Cat Ballou doesn’t go to quite the same satirical lengths, in many ways, its comedic-Western blend can be seen as a precursor to the 1974 Mel Brooks-helmed Blazing Saddles. And its influence can still be seen in some latter-day comedies such as There’s Something About Mary (1998), directed by self-professed Cat Ballou fans the Farrelly Brothers (who recently helmed this spring’s big-screen revival of The Three Stooges); Mary borrows the paired narrators/Greek chorus device from Cat Ballou, and uses it in a similar manner as the earlier film, to move the plot along.
It may be called Cat Ballou, but there is no question that the movie ultimately belongs to Lee Marvin … and his horse. In the dual role as the wastrel Kid Shelleen and his evil brother, “Silvernose,” Marvin is sheer perfection, adding just the right touch of pathos and menace to each character as he convincingly stumbles through the film. The role in Cat Ballou marked something of a turning point in Marvin’s career, which up until then had been defined by more villainous or dramatic supporting roles. But his performance in this film revealed Marvin’s abilities as a leading man and a comedian, paving the way for such notable parts as Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and the odd Western musical Paint Your Wagon (1969). [Side note: whenever I think of that last film, I always think of the episode of The Simpsons where they parody Wagon, and Homer and Bart are horrified to discover it’s a musical. Homer: “Wait, wait, wait–here comes Lee Marvin. Thank God! He’s always drunk and violent.” Cut to Homer and Bart’s horrified expressions when Marvin bursts into song.]
And let’s just talk about that horse. The movie–as per any Western–is overrun with horses. But this one is just something else. In one of the final scenes of the film, Shelleen and his horse sleep off a bender. Leaning against a brick wall, head lowered, front legs crossed, the horse looks just as inebriated as his barely-coherent rider. It’s an iconic, hilarious image, and the one that is perhaps most associated with Cat Ballou. Marvin’s Oscar acceptance speech may have poked fun at the amount of attention the horse received, but the animal was an award-winning “actor” in his own right: in 1966, Smoky the horse received the Craven Award from the American Humane Association. The award, part of the annual PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) Awards that were given to animal stars from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, recognized animal performers who were not regular “actors” in film. Smoky joined a long line of horsey winners when he was given the prize for his role in Cat Ballou. But the horse’s performance was far from effortless. According to the IMDb entry on the film, the director, Elliot Silverstein, gave the horse trainer an hour to get Smoky to cross his legs for his big scene, and it took a lot of sugar cubes to make the horse finally willing to cooperate!
In spite of the attention-grabbing performances of Marvin and his horse, which virtually steal the movie, Cat Ballou should also be noted as the film that made Jane Fonda a full-fledged star. Though she had been acting since the early 1960s, and had scored some level of success with films such as Period of Adjustment (1962) and Sunday in New York (1963), it was not until she took on the title role in this film that Fonda was able to fully step out from beneath the shadow of her famous father, Henry, and be declared a formidable actress in her own right. Cat Ballou was the first in a series of high-profile roles for Fonda, culminating in seven Academy Award nominations in the 1970s-1980s (and two wins, for 1971’s Klute and 1978’s Coming Home).
As famed as she was as an actress, however, Fonda’s political and social activism drew much more attention during the heyday of her career. Her anti-war activities during the Vietnam War made her an infamous figure, particularly in the wake of the “Hanoi Jane” incident in which Fonda was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun, an action that was seen as a slap in the face to American soldiers who had been targeted by such machinery during the conflict. In the aftermath of that photograph’s publication, still shots from the hanging scene in Cat Ballou were doctored and used to encourage anti-Fonda sentiment amid calls for charges of treason against the actress. [On another side note: my high-school U.S. history teacher LOATHED Jane Fonda with a passion. I will never forget the day she stood at her podium in front of our class and launched a thirty-minute diatribe about how much of a traitor Fonda was to this country. It was, to say the least, a surreal moment, and one that always comes to mind every time I see a Fonda film!]
It’s also worth mentioning the great supporting cast, including Dwayne Hickman (television’s Dobie Gillis), John Marley (who would have an infamous horsey encounter of his own in 1972’s The Godfather, as the movie producer who ends up with a horse’s head in his bed), character actor Reginald Denny, and last but not least, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as the singers who function as the narrators of the film. Cole was in the midst of an ongoing battle with lung cancer while making Cat Ballou. It would be his final film, as he sadly died before its release.
Cat Ballou may not be your typical Western, but in my book, that’s a good thing. It’s a great “gateway” film for those (like me) who are unfamiliar with the genre or who are otherwise reluctant to embrace Westerns–the comedy makes it much more accessible–and much more enjoyable!–for us “tenderfoots.”
This post is my contribution to the Horseathon, hosted by our friend Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. Make tracks to her blog to see all of the equine-friendly entries on tap this weekend!