Women of the West: Cat Ballou (1965)

So you probably know about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their Wild Bunch, at least in part because there was an extraordinarily popular film about the subject.

The film included a paramour, Etta Place, who was the companion of one or both, and was played Katharine Ross, who was largely used by film directors because of her tremendous physical attractiveness, but Ross was also a terrific actress and was often a little underserved by the roles she got, as here. (She did return to the role of Etta Place for a television movie that made her the main character; we may return to that later).

But there were other women in the Wild Bunch, including Laura Bullion, who may have been a pretty active participants in the Wild Bunch's train and bank robberies, perhaps dressed as a boy. Bullion doesn't appear in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and, as far as I have been able to suss out, has never appeared in a film.

Well, perhaps she did, at least in spirit. "Cat Ballou," which predated the Butch and Sundance film by four years, tells of a fictional female outlaw, played by Jane Fonda, and is set in the world of Buch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — she hires a gunslinger who was part of the Wild Bunch and they regularly hang out at the Hole-in-the Wall, the Wild Bunch's hideout in Wyoming. In fact, Cassidy himself appears, old and grisled and played by Arthur Hunnicutt, who seemed to make an entire career out of playing old and grisled.

Cat Ballou's backstory is a bit like Etta Place's, in that she was supposed to be a schoolteacher, but the character quickly throws on gunslinger duds and starts demanding that they rob trains, and that is more Bullion than Place. So it's not quite the story, but it has echoes, and, with the story of women in the West, sometimes echoes are the best you're going to get.

The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Roy Chanslor, who also authored the novel that "Johnny Guitar" was based on; he also authored "The Naked I," a novel about a stuntwoman turned movie star and her experiments in free love, so Chanslor was unusually interested in women as protagonists. The original Cat Ballou was realistic but deliberately mythic, wrapping itself around an invented frontier ballad telling her story.

The film adaptation seizes upon the ballad and expands on it, making use of deliberately creaky devices borrowed from theater and early film. The whole of it is narrated by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole (who was dying of lung cancer but may not have known it) as balladeers. They constantly interrupt the action with banjos, sometimes offering commentary, sometimes creating transitions, and sometimes intruding into the action.

It's a terrific device, and one that has been repeatedly borrowed: Disney used Roger Miller in the exact same role in their 1973 "Robin Hood," the Farrelly Brothers had Jonathan Richman as a singing narrator in 1998's "There's Something About Mary" (and acknowledged "Cat Ballou" as the source), and Gore Verbinski's 2011 animated film "Rango" had mariachi owls in the role.

But it also gives the film a theatrical feel, and a slightly parodic one, which director Elliot Silverstein encouraged, to some extent, and was powerless to prevent, to some extent. There are reports of Silverstein attempting to coach one of the actors, who would nod, then just perform the scene as outrageously as possible.

This was Lee Marvin, who plays the gunslinger, and plays it as a Mad Magazine illustration come to life. When drunk, which he often is, he splays his enormous body around with a reckless loose-limbedness, and even when sober he seems like a caricature of a Wild West cowboy. Silverstein was apparently advised to just let Marvin do whatever he was going to do, and it earned Marvin an Oscar.

But Silverstein also directs for comedy, staging many of the scenes like a light stage musical, and he provides Marvin with two of his outstanding scenes, one in which the actor dresses in a spectacular gun-slinging outfit like a toreador preparing for a bullfight, one in which both Marvin and his horse are leaned up against a wall, both apparently in a drunken stupor. The latter scene is so visually memorable that, accepting his Oscar, Marvin said he felt half of it probably belonged to the horse.

Marvin was a scene stealer, and it is possible just to write about him, but I am here to write about the character Cat Ballou, and it's not hard to do. She isn't just a straight woman that the filmmakers put a lot of comic actors around — although they did do that: The film also has Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and Tom Nardini turning in memorable comic roles.

Cat Ballou is genuinely the movie's main character, the driver of the story. She makes the decisions that propel the story forward, and the ragtag group of cowboys she assembles around her are there to support her.

Fonda was apparently a bit uncertain about the film, never quite catching the tone of it and rankling a bit that it was turning into a comedy. It doesn't show in the film. Fonda is a very good comic actress, as she has repeatedly proven, and here she draws from the same mixture of coquettishness and bullying that she later brought to "Barefoot in the Park." The men in the film are generally helpless to refuse her demands, even when she starts to demand that they rob trains.

A little about the story: It's a sort of an inversion of the "Liberty Valance" story, which also starred Lee Marvin. The earlier movie told of brutal cowboys going to war with a developing frontier town, and we were expected to side with the town.

This is exactly the same movie, except we are now expected to side with the cowboys. Ballou's father owns a ranch and refuses to sell his water rights, which is preventing the town from developing further. So the developers hire a gunman (Lee Marvin again, this time with a metal prosthetic nose) to kill Ballou's father, and her life of crime is inspired by this. Partially.

At the start of the film, we see Fonda surreptitiously reading a dime novel about Western desperadoes, and when she meets a few on a train, she reflexively helps them. The movie strongly implies that, one way or the other, Cat Ballou was always on her way toward being an outlaw.

There is, I should note, a slight romance in the film between Ballou and Michael Callan's character, who is presented as something of a scoundrel. This is barely touched on in the movie, and it is better for it. It's hard to care about romance when there are trains to be robbed.


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