She has the smile of an angel (Fights like the devil)
The eyes of an angel (Bites like the devil)
The face of an angel (I say she’s the devil)
She’s mean and evil through and through
Cat Ballou has an unconventional opening. We open on an old west city street in the 1890s. The primary focus is the “Shouters” (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye). They play their instruments and sing the very “old timey” title song. It shows that this is an unconventional film. Cat Ballou is very different from the westerns which came before it. The film seems to point towards the revisionist westerns which would follow in the coming decades.
Cat Ballou follows Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda) a schoolteacher recently returned to her home town of Wolf City Wyoming. While she’s home, Cat learns her Father (John Marley) is embroiled in a land battle. Local contractors are pressuring Frankie to sell his land. The stubborn man refuses, and is shot outside his house by Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin). As a result of her grief, the distraught seeks out to avenge her Father. With nowhere else to go, she teams up with a rag-tag group of old west characters. There’s the drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen (also Lee Marvin), outlaw Clay Boone (Michael Callan), Boone’s uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman) and her father’s former ranch hand, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini) making up the outlaw gang.
Westerns featuring a woman in an active lead role are seemingly rare until the mid-1960s. There are a few films which stand against the norm: Johnny Guitar and The Furies come to mind, as well as musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Calamity Jane. However, men largely dominated the genre. In Cat Ballou, Catherine begins as a meek and timid schoolteacher. However, the death of her father starts her on a drastic transformation as she starts on revenge narrative to bring down Sir. Harry Percival (Reginald Denny). While the film is a Bechdel Test fail, it is purely due to the lack of other female characters in the film. Cat is a woman in a man’s world, and she seems to thrive that way.
There is a surprising lack of sexualization of Cat within the narrative. At the beginning of the film, Catherine is a stereotypically chaste schoolteacher. As she evolves into the outlaw gang leader, she dresses largely like the boys. There are only a handful of times after her father’s death where she is seen in a dress. The most notable is as as she finally tracks down Sir Percival, and uses her sexuality to get close to him. The second time occurs while Cat is in prison. There is a thin romantic plot line with Clay, but the promise of sex is largely absent. The two remain seemingly chaste, the focus remaining first and foremost on Cat’s revenge quest.
The most apparent sexualization of Cat is outside of the narrative, and in the film’s advertising. The posters often show star Fonda bent over and standing spread eagled in a very suggestive manner. In some of the artwork, she wears a particularly low-cut dress she never wears in the film. In some of the advertising, she holds her gun in an overtly sexual position. Coming in 1965, Cat Ballou was a few years before Fonda’s star making (and sexually charged) roles in films like Barbarella and Klute. The film’s marketing likely isn’t capitalizing on Fonda’s star persona. While she was a talented up-and-comer at the time, her most popular roles were still to come.
The film features some stellar performances by not only the supremely talented Jane Fonda, but also the diverse and equally talented group of character actors backing her up. As was stated earlier, Marvin won an Oscar for his against type, comedic turn as Shelleen. Dwayne Hickman also shines in his supporting role as Jed. Hickman is best known for his 4 year run in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
As with a number other films we’ve looked at in this series, the film seems to almost reverse itself in the end. Remember, everything is a product of its time in history. The film concludes with Cat about to hang for her crimes. She stands on the platform with the noose around her neck, but her gang stages an escape. As they swoop in to save the day, Cat drops into the waiting funeral wagon, and she and Clay ride off into the sunset. As they kiss and recline on the white satin of the funeral wagon, it’s reminiscent of a couple riding off after their wedding. The wagon might as well have tin cans dangling from the back of it.
Cat Ballou is a unique, comedic western which came out of the mid-1960s. The film, which spotlights the female leader of an gang of old west outlaws, is rare in the classic Hollywood era. The movie, despite some minor problems, is incredibly fun, and gives a hint to the more progressive, revisionist westerns which became more popular into the late 1960s and 1970s.