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CAT BALLOU (director: Elliot Silverstein; screenwriters: from the book The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor/Roy Chanslor/Frank R. Pierson/Walter Newman; cinematographer: Jack A. Marta; editor: Charles Nelson; music: Frank De Vol/Jerry Livingston; cast: Jane Fonda (Catherine ‘Cat’ Ballou), Lee Marvin (Kid Shelleen/Tim Strawn), Michael Callan (Clay Boone), Dwayne Hickman (Jed), Nat ‘King’ Cole (balladeer), Stubby Kaye (balladeer), John Marley (Frankie Ballou), Tom Nardini (Jackson Two-Bears), Reginald Denny (Sir Harry Percival), Jay C. Flippen (Sheriff Cardigan), Arthur Hunnicutt (Butch Cassidy), Bruce Cabot (Sheriff Maledon); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Hecht; Columbia Pictures; 1965)
“Lee Marvin clearly steals the film in his double role as the good guy/bad guy hired gunman.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Elliot Silverstein directs an uneven western parody set in Wyoming in 1894; it tries to refreshen the clichés from the old westerns and in the process becomes melodramatic about those good old days. It’s based on the book The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor, who is cowriter along with Frank R. Pierson and Walter Newman. A box office hit, raking in some $20 million, it helped revive that fallen on bad times sub-genre. Lee Marvin clearly steals the film in his double role as the good guy/bad guy hired gunman.

Catherine ‘Cat’ Ballou returns by train from a finishing school back east to her father’s ranch, prepared to assume the role as a teacher. On the train the proper young lady pretends to be reading Tennyson but has hidden a dime novel about the legendary outlaw Kid Shelleen inside her poetry book. A handsome and charming cattle rustler named Clay Boone (Michael Callan) is helped to escape from the sheriff (Bruce Cabot) by his Uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), dressed as a priest and hiding a gun inside his Bible. Clay makes a pass at Cat and she doesn’t turn him down, but finally resists because he’s an outlaw. Back at the ranch, she discovers her ornery father (John Marley) is threatened that if he doesn’t sell his ranch to the Wolf City Development Corporation, who want it for its watering rights, he will be murdered. The once prosperous ranch has gone to seed, with only an Indian, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), around as a ranch hand. Hired gunman Tim Strawn, who had his nose bitten off and has a silver sticker covering it, murders her dad in broad daylight on the ranch. The angry Cat vows to never cry and get those responsible, and seeks out the two escaped desperadoes from the train for help. They turn out to be soft, never using guns before, with Clay more smitten with Cat than willing to strap on guns to look for Strawn. Before her dad was killed he gave Cat $50 to hire gunslinger Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin), the same character from the pulp book she was reading, but he turns up drunk, without his guns (which were hocked) and useless (unable to hit the side of a barn). Kid Shelleen feels obliged to earn the money he already spend on liquor and obliges Cat by robbing the train holding the payroll to Wolf City’s business venture of building a slaughterhouse (under Cat’s leadership the gang use the Kid’s robbery plan he wrote about in the novel) and then after that success the Kid gets himself cleaned up to kill his brother Strawn. Cat will finish off the villainous big wheel businessman of the WCDC, Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), when she enters his private railroad car promising sex but instead plugs him. Sir Harry was responsible for ordering her father’s murder and stealing their ranch. Sentenced to hang, Cat’s loyal gang helps her to escape in the last second.

Though amusing at times, the many jokes and sight gags that didn’t work made it tough going. The film’s virtues were mainly in Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance. When he’s on camera, everything seems to be working.

The story’s plot lines are cleverly linked by Nat ‘King’ Cole (in his last film appearance) and Stubby Kaye, a pair of banjo strumming balladeers who act as if they were a Greek chorus.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”