Western Wednesdays: ‘Cat Ballou’

Is there a film you’ve tried to watch only to have Fate thwart your efforts again and again? Cat Ballou was on that list for me. I had it recorded on my DVR and lost it, and I don’t know how many times I’ve fired it up via Netflix only to be interrupted or decide I needed a movie with a bit more edge to it. But when I took on Western Wednesdays, I resolved I’d conquer Cat Ballou once and for all.

Perhaps all the build-up and fan enthusiasm (It’s been recommended to me so many times) raised my expectations too high, because Cat Ballou didn’t do much for me. It’s such a classic film I feel like the blame lies with me. I have this kind of abusive relationship with older films, you know. If I don’t love it, it’s my fault. I mean, the AFI ranked it as the tenth best western of all time. It has to be me.

I do have to give Cat Ballou credit for its swinging ’60s enthusiasm. Only in the 1960s could you get away with an action-comedy that features a rousing, continuous sing-a-long by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye. I like to picture these production meetings. “How about Jane Fonda as a sexy gunslinger — and she leads a gang — and we’ll have this singing Greek chorus highlighting the action — and Lee Marvin will play two roles!” “Whatever! Sure! Go for it!”

Nowadays, studios freak out when Johnny Depp shows up on a pirate set with gold teeth and dreadlocks. But a silver nose for Marvin? Hell, why not! We may enjoy a lot more sex and violence, but our films have become far more bland when it comes to sheer wackiness.

This film is actually a fascinating exercise in tone. As I watched it, I kept seeing a darker story buried in all the amusements. A young woman avenging her father? Deciding to revenge herself on the entire United States? That’s running right through True Grit territory and into something epic.

Wouldn’t you know it, the film is based on a serious novel by Roy Chanslor, and it’s reportedly very dark and different. It’s going on my to-read list immediately.  Once again, let’s marvel at the 1960s studio meetings that would take a “real” Western tale of revenge and turn it into a singalong search for blood.

Cat Ballou probably doesn’t work for me because that gritty story is the one I want to see — especially considering it’s a female gunslinger — and yet I do love the irreverence. It’s still fresh and modern, and  it wouldn’t be out of place alongside today’s Pirates of the Caribbean or Sherlock Holmes. If it was made today, it could have been it’s own franchise.

Cat becomes Queen of the Outlaws!  Why don’t we get to see that story? It’s just not fair.

For the way the film cheats Cat, Lee Marvin’s Kid Shelleen is a great character (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a dash of him in Jack Sparrow, and a bit of Cat in Elizabeth Swann) and he steals the show entirely with a performance that runs from comedic to tragic. There’s a wonderful moment when Shelleen does what all misfit characters must, and cleans up his act.

It’s hilarious (I won’t spoil the jokes, but it involves a gloriously flamboyant costume) and sad as he resurrects the gunfighter of dime novel legend. It’s brilliant. Marvin won an Oscar for this, and while it pales to some of his other roles, he deserved it for giving a clown some real pathos.

As I’ve watched several weeks worth of Westerns, one theme has been surprisingly continuous. Many of them take place in a “silver age” of the West, a time when the old legends are passing away. They’re either six feet under, drinking themselves to death, or trying to pass themselves off as humble farmers or ranchers.

Cat Ballou has several moments (undoubtedly remnants of its original story) where it stops and reflects on times gone by and the nature of personal legend and reputation. Shelleen comes to Cat’s attention by way of his dime novel, and he’s not the only outlaw who fails to live up to her expectations. Now that I think about it, I bet there is a lot of Jack and Elizabeth lifted from these two! They’re all cowards and wrecks, and she berates them for it in a very spirited moment.

We love the conceit that Unforgiven was the genre killer that smashed up the facade — “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it!” —  but the truth is that it picked up a theme that’s been going for decades.  Perhaps it was a 1960s thing (In fact, I suspect it does start with the “revisionist” period of Vera Cruz and Sergio Leone) but part of me suspects it goes even further back. James Fenimore Cooper’s Pathfinder series is generally considered the birth of the Western, and that is rife with nostalgia for a wilderness and a hero that’s passing away.

If you want to get really nerdy and academic, it’s a theme that pervades  legend and literature right up through the Greeks. We’re always living in the twilight of heroes, even if they’re the antiheroes of the dust and sweat of our frontier towns.

That’s a lot heavier than Cat Ballou ever pretends to be. I mean, Lee Marvin’s pants fall off when he shoots his gun. He stumbles in on sexual acts so weird he goes back for a second look. (Watch for it.)   This is a story that it’s own dime novel — and you know, the more I think about it, the more I liked it. Now if I could only get the theme song out of my head ….

(Cat Ballou is available on Netflix Instant Watch as have most of the Western Wednesdays so far. Write your own legend into the series by following along.)

  • jaime
    March 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Not Lee marvin’s best movie,but i like it.

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