Reviewed by: Brett Willis
|Featuring:||Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Tom Nardini, John Marley, Reginald Denny, Arthur Hunnicutt, Nat “King” Cole, Stubby Kaye|
|Producer:||Harold Hecht | Associate Producer: Mitch Lindemann | Screenplay by: Walter Newman and Frank Pierson, based on the novel “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” by Roy Chanslor|
There are endless surprises in this Western-spoof comedy, set in Wyoming in 1894 when “things aren’t like they used to be.” The fun starts even before the opening credits, with the studio logo getting into the act (the only other time I’ve seen that done was in “Waterworld”).
As the story opens, Katherine Ballou (Jane Fonda) is waiting to be hanged for murder. In an unusual touch, Nat Cole and Stubby Kaye appear in that scene and again throughout the film as troubadours, helping the story along through their lyrical narrative. (I think it’s a waste for Cole’s fantastic voice to be used on material like this; but if it didn’t bother him, why should it bother me?) Most of the balance of the film is a flashback, showing us how we arrived at “hanging day.”
An Eastern development group headed up by an Englishman, Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), wants Frank Ballou’s (John Marley) ranch, but he’s not selling; so the developers bring in hired gun Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin). Daughter Katherine (“Cat”), just returned from training as a schoolteacher, secures her own hired gun, Kid Shelleen (also Lee Marvin). Cat has also picked up some questionable characters on the way home—Clay Boone (Michael Callan) and his uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman, TV’s “Dobie Gillis”). The young Indian ranchhand, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), rounds out Cat’s “gang” and affords some opportunity for comedy anti-racist material. Marvin’s work as the alcoholic, over-the-hill Shelleen earned him an Oscar as well as awards at the Golden Globes, the British Academy and the Berlin Film Festival. And Hanoi Jane’s role lets her do everything from showing off her cleavage to fighting the evil Capitalists.
Sample Content Warnings (remember that most of this is played for laughs): There are several killings with firearms, but no blood shown. Some foul language, including stuff like “Watch your d* language in front of my daughter.” Shelleen’s antics while drunk or hung over would be hilarious, if drunkenness were funny. (See Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35) Jed’s role also includes comedy drunkenness; and he impersonates a minister and conceals a weapon in a hollowed-out Bible as a trick to spring people from jail. Other content that makes light of Christianity includes some of the Cole/Kaye lyrics and a band of do-gooders at the hanging singing an off-key rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River.” After her father is murdered, Cat refuses to cry and lets her grief turn into hate; so his gang’s war against the developers is somewhat justifiable, but is motivated by revenge. Cat gets into Sir Harry’s bedroom disguised as a prostitute; as she removes her wrap and shows her low-cut gown, she asks how he likes the wide-open spaces; then she pulls a gun while he’s pouring the champagne. Shelleen relishes a particular killing; I can’t explain why without giving away a plot twist.
There’s some fairly lighthearted comedy mixed in with the heavier stuff, but I wouldn’t recommend this film for anyone who’s still at an impressionable age.