Jane’s Calamity


One of the Sixties’ merriest cinematic treats, 1965’s rollicking-frolicking CAT BALLOU moseys into town via a limited edition from the galoots at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

A total surprise summer offering, CAT took the nation by storm, delighting both critics and audiences – grossing nearly $21M in its original release.  It finally pushed title lead Jane Fonda into the A-list category, as well as a host of other talented folks.

Westerns and western parodies are genre and sub-genre favorites of mine.  There’s a direct post-WWII evolutionary link that one can follow, if you pull out the comedy team efforts.  In pure begattin’ terms, Son of Paleface begat CAT BALLOU begat Blazing Saddles begat A Million Ways to Die in the West.  This can be gaged by a progression of genre stock character jokes, increasingly vulgar gags (that’s a good thing), overall B-western spoofin’, and strong female protagonists (Jane Russell, Fonda, Madeline Kahn, Charleze Theron), all leaning toward the lawless side.

Director Elliot Silverstein inventively took the standard set pieces and juiced them up, similarly to what Richard Lester did with the musical.  CAT BALLOU tells the tale of a prim and proper school marm who returns home to Wolf City, WY where she finds her once-prosperous rancher father now near-penniless – due to the greedy machinations of those involved and corrupted by the encroaching railroad.  Wolf City has been taken over by Eastern corporation underlings and infested with hired guns – most frighteningly, the noseless Tim Strawn, much to the chagrin of Cat, her pop and her newfound friends (inept uncle-nephew outlaws Clay Boone and Jed and Native American – and possibly Jewish – Jackson Two-Bears).  In retaliation, the resourceful Ms. Ballou decides to hire her pulp (or “penny dreadful,” as they were then called) novel hero, the celebrated Kid Shelleen; however, Shelleen turns out to be a washed-up alcoholic, who can’t keep his holster on, let alone his pants.

How this band of misanthropes become the scourge of the West (well, Wolf City) is a 97-minute fun ride that, unlike Shelleen’s buckskins, still holds up.

The secret to CAT BALLOU was the fact that the script writers, working from Roy Chanslor’s novel, weren’t your standard comic scribes; they were none other than super-serious/noirish icons Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole, Macao, The Man with the Golden Arm) and Frank R. Pierson (Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon).  In addition, the grand supporting cast (with the exception of the same age nephew and uncle appearances by Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) were all Western and noir grizzled punims Bruce Cabot, John Marley, Arthur Hunnicutt (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen, Chuck Roberson, etc., but, specifically, the male lead (more on him later); that said, a sprinkling of occasional screen jokesters smooth over the unshaven edges (Burt Mustin, Paul Gilbert, plus newbie Tom Nardini, and particularly one-time silent screen comedy matinee idol Reginald Denny).

The fact that it was all produced by Burt Lancaster’s former business partner Harold Hecht leads me to believe that (at some point) this was all to be taken somewhat seriously (perhaps with Burt as Shelleen).  The switchover to pure farce, ribbing the likes of Jesse James, Belle Starr, Dodge City, Rio Bravo and even Destry Rides Again made it all refreshing and uproarious.

Back in 1965, I was so taken by CAT that I went back to the Onteora to see it again.  And, then, again (once even convincing my “never repeat” pals to join me for a second helping).  I loved everything about it, not the least being the brilliant idea of sporadic cutaways to balladeers Stubby Kaye and Nat “King” Cole (the latter in his final screen role, released posthumously), who hilariously chronicle the gang’s exploits in song (as composed by Mack David and Jerry Livingston).

Back then, I ironically thought Cat was the most uninteresting person in the show; looking at it in 2021, twenty-eight-year-old Fonda really does play it perfectly – the embryonic awakenings of feminism now more apparent to me (the suffragette asides, her derring-do, dancing with a Native American at an all-white hoe-down, promoting equal rights, shunning marriage as her choice…pretty remarkable).  Of course, all of this takes a backseat to the greatest success of CAT BALLOU, costar Lee Marvin, outstanding, riotous and scary in the dual roles of Shelleen and Strawn (it took me awhile in 1965 to realize that he portrayed both parts).  Like Fonda, CAT BALLOU propelled Marvin to A-list stardom – with the ultimate reward:  the Best Actor Oscar (a rarity for a Western, an EXTREME rarity for a Western comedy!).  The pic garnered another four nominations (Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Editing, Best Original Song, Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment).

The Twilight Time limited edition Blu-Ray (3000) is a beautiful new 1080p widescreen transfer.  The camerawork of Jack Marta looks as crisp and clear as it did during that hot July summer (especially the Custer County, CO exteriors).  A terrific remixed 5.1 soundtrack (also accessible in original 2.0 mono) has a genuine theater vibe (key to enjoying the throwaway one-liners, sound effects and bouncy Frank DeVol score).  Extras abound, too, and include an IST (Isolation Sound Track to listen to the music and songs), mini-featurettes, supplemental audio commentary (including one by Callan and Hickman), and the theatrical trailer.

Think I’m gonna watch it again now.

CAT BALLOU. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP: $29.95.

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