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June 12, 2007

Action Heroine Blog-a-thon: Cat Ballou

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Elliot Silverstein - 1965
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

As much as I like Cat Ballou, the film never quite lived up to the promise in the animated pre-credit scene. The Columbia Pictures torch bearer sheds her robe to become a cowgirl with a six-shooter blazing from each hand. Even in the posters and publicity pictures, Jane Fonda appears ready to shoot her way through the film. While Fonda remains firmly the brains of her bunch of outlaws, as the title character, she's mostly the foil to the guys who have most of the fun.

There is a bit of proto-feminism, especially in a scene where Fonda tells Michael Callan that she's not interested in marriage. Mostly Cat Ballou fails to take full advantage of Jane Fonda, one of the few actresses who could have, and should have been able to follow in the boots of Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns or Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. The film might have been different had it been made when Fonda was more politically conscious, in terms of Cat Ballou not only calling the shots but firing them as well, but it's also probable that Cat Ballou would have been less fun. It should be noted that Cat Ballou and Johnny Guitar are both based on novel by Roy Chanslor. Fonda helps out in a train robbery, and ends up accidentally shooting the industrialist responsible for her father's death in a later scene. Fonda is mostly an observer while the train robbery takes place, while in her encounter with the industrialist, she is dressed as "woman of the evening". For the character of Cat Ballou, the feminine overwhelms any suggestions of the feminist.

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It has to be recognized that although Cat is the title character, the story actually belongs to the gunfighter, Kid Shelleen. Producer Harold Hecht bought the rights to Roy Chanslor's book as a possible vehicle for Burt Lancaster. As an independent producer, Hecht offered the role to Kirk Douglas and Jose Ferrer. Lee Marvin was director Elliot Silverstein's choice. In the transition from book to film, Hecht changed the story from a straight western to a comic tale of revenge. It was also Hecht's idea to have the narrative partially relayed by the two itinerant minstrels. The most inspired bit of casting was pairing Stubby Kaye with Nat King Cole to provide the musical commentary. Ann-Margret reportedly was offered the starring role but turned it down. Certainly, given the chance, Ann-Margret could have imaginably been a rough-and-tumble cowgirl, had the filmmakers allowed her to be one.

Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman provide a somewhat informative commentary on the DVD which informs us that Roger Vadim hung around the set, the western town was filmed on the same set as High Noon, and that Cat Ballou was a relatively low-budget film as far as Columbia Pictures was concerned that turned out to be a major hit.

Jane Fonda later became the "Queen of the Galaxy" in Barbarella. As far as Hollywood and Europe were concerned, the rare times a woman could be an action star would perhaps be in a spy film. Even then, seeing Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise, or Honor Blackman stealing Goldfinger was unusual. Only a few people were paying attention to the Hong Kong movies starring Connie Chan Po-chu and Cheng Pei-pei. There are at least a couple of reasons for Jane Fonda not becoming an action heroine - that action films then as now were seen primarily as the province for boys, and that the films were not where one usually found serious acting opportunities. On its own terms, Cat Ballou is an enjoyable film. But there was also an opportunity lost, had Jane Fonda done a bit more than look good in her form-fitting jeans.

For more action, check out The Film Experience.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 12, 2007 12:15 AM


i totally agree that fonda was very underused in cat ballou, but boy that's a funny movie! i love it and fonda is always so orgasmic!

Posted by: Lucas at June 13, 2007 10:29 AM

you know this must have been why i was never gung ho on this film though my memory of it is fuzzy. i love love love Fonda in just about everything but i was disappointed when i finally saw this.

i kept wondering why it was about Lee Marvin

Posted by: Nathaniel R at June 13, 2007 12:48 PM

Yup. You really hit the nail on the head there about why I've always found "Cat Ballou" kind of vaguely dissapointing and why I haven't seen it since I was college (or was it before, all I remember is that's it was in L.A. long deceased revival house, the Fox Venice). I really expected her to be a lot more active. I was misled by the song, which right now I can't get out of my head. "She's mean and evil through and through..."

Posted by: Bob at June 13, 2007 04:10 PM

I really like Cat Ballou and I can remember watching the movie with my uncle (it was one of his favorite films) when I was a kid, but I haven't seen it in many years. Now I'd like to give it another look soon after reading your post about it.

Posted by: Kimberly at June 13, 2007 04:21 PM

I was just watching Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead. I think I need to see Cat Ballou.

Posted by: Curtis at June 14, 2007 06:52 AM