Cat Ballou (1965)

As a child, I was surrounded by music. On the radio, on the LPs my parents played so often. The LPs, thanks to the fact that my maternal grandfather had worked with HMV for many years, were a very mixed bag, ranging all the way from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to Runa Laila and Geeta Bali to The Golden Gate Quartet, Harry Belafonte, Jim Reeves, Engelbert Humperdinck…  and one of my absolute favourites, Nat King Cole.

By the time I was in my teens, Nat King Cole had pretty much outstripped everybody else as my favourite among the American (or British) male singers of the 50s and 60s. From Ramblin’ Rose to A Blossom Fell, to my favourite Cole song, Autumn Leaves (which I still sing), there wasn’t a song of his that I didn’t like. That deep, rich voice could make any song come vividly alive. So unforgettable.

Well, today is the birth centenary of Nat King Cole. Born Nathaniel Adams Cole on March 17th, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, Nat ‘King’ Cole learnt to play the organ from his mother, who was a church organist—and he gave his first performance at the age of four! By the age of fifteen (three years after he first began formal training in music), Nat dropped out of school and formed a band with his brother. In 1940, a recording of Sweet Lorraine became his first hit, and from then on, both as a soloist and as part of the band (a trio who called themselves the King Cole Swingsters), he recorded many, many songs—in English, in Spanish (he even toured Cuba and was a big hit there), and even the odd one (like O Tannenbaum) in other languages.

And he appeared in films. Almost always as himself or as a singer, not expected to really act too much.

When I discovered it was Nat King Cole’s birth centenary this year, I decided I had to mark the occasion on my blog. For me, the Nat King Cole film is one I remember watching a tiny snippet of, many years ago. Cat Ballou, which I remember because of one brief clip of Nat King Cole and a fellow singer (Stubby Kaye, though I didn’t know this back then) playing the banjo and singing while all about them is mayhem.

Cat Ballou is the story of Catherine ‘Cat’ Ballou (Jane Fonda), a school teacher (or so we’re told; she is never shown doing any teaching or even within a mile of a school in the entire film). When the story starts (in 1894), Catherine is getting ready to be hanged to death. As the two shouters (Cole and Kaye) sing of Cat—“she’s mean and evil through and through”—Cat remembers how she landed up here, with the gallows being tested out right outside the cell through the barred window of which she’s looking out.

And, flashback to a few months (? perhaps?) earlier.

Catherine, having just graduated, is being put on the train to Wolf City, Wyoming—she’s heading back home to her father. Initially, the teacher/mentor who’s come to see Catherine off nearly seats her pretty young charge next to a handsome young man (Michael Callan)…

…until she realizes that this man is under arrest, and is handcuffed to the older man sitting next to him. Catherine is swiftly taken away, to be seated further down the carriage, with a respectable man, a priest (Dwayne Hickman).

A slightly flustered Catherine tries to make conversation by introducing herself to the clergyman—only to have him introduce himself (in a slurring voice, and looking rather cross-eyed through much of it) as “drunk as a skunk”. Catherine tries to retreat into a book—Tennyson, she tells her inebriated fellow-passenger, when he asks—but the man grabs her book, and sees that, hidden away inside Tennyson’s larger book is what Catherine’s really reading: a novel about the adventures of Kid Sheleen.

Catherine wrests her book back, and shortly after, the clergyman goes away. He makes his way to the privy, where the arrested man has gone along with his captor. There, a swift bit of work happens. The clergyman is no clergyman at all. He is Jed, and the arrested man, Clay, is his partner in crime. They’re cattle rustlers, each with a price on his head (not a big price: one’s worth $25, the other $35).

They jump Clay’s captor, handcuff him to a pipe, and race off. Jed manages to escape, but Clay ends up having to take refuge in the curtained little cubicle Catherine’s occupying. Much to Catherine’s indignation, which she maintains as a façade even though it’s obvious that this outlaw is very much to her liking.

When the furore outside has died down, Clay makes his escape, after kissing Catherine and leaving her all starry-eyed.

Catherine goes on her way, and alights at Wolf City, where her father, Frankie Ballou (John Marley) comes to fetch her from the railway station and take her home to his ranch. Frankie has only one helper at the ranch, and he’s very devoted: Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini) is Sioux and because of that is given the cold shoulder by everyone in Wolf City—everyone except Frankie, who’s given Jackson this job, for which Jackson is thankful.

Like Jackson, Frankie too is an outcast of sorts: the Wolf City council (or whatever they call themselves) want his land, and because Frankie refuses to give it up, they’ve been trying everything they can to drive him off it. A tonne of manure has been dumped in his well, he’s been threatened—and now there’s a gunman who’s been brought into town, too. Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), a fearsome character with a steel nose, is deadly.

But Frankie Ballou isn’t giving up. Even if the only person standing by his side is the faithful Jackson.

And now, Catherine. Because, devoted daughter that she is, Catherine decides then and there that she must, must help her father.  She’s still mulling over it at a dance later that night, and Jackson (whom she’s dancing with, even though he tells her not to, since that would anger the townspeople) has a suggestion. If Wolf City has hired a gunman, the way to counter that is for Catherine to hire a gunman of her own.

Who? Kid Sheleen, of course. Catherine laughs; Kid Sheleen is just a character in a book. No, no, Jackson says. Kid Sheleen is real. If Catherine will write a letter, Jackson will make sure it gets to Kid Sheleen.

But before Catherine can even begin to wonder whether that’s possible or not, she sees two new entrants—or gatecrashers, call them what you will—to the dance. Clay and Jed! She remembers that they are outlaws. They carry guns. She has her gunmen.

The dance ends in a free-for-all brought on by someone insulting Jackson, but after the party, the ride back to the Ballou ranch is not just with Frankie, Catherine and Jackson, but Clay and Jed too. Catherine is elated and excited. These brave and daring gunmen will keep them safe from Strawn.

Later, though, two things become clear. One, that Clay—who enters Catherine’s room sneakily and just as sneakily gets into her bed, waiting to snuggle up when she arrives—is fascinated by Catherine.

The other, that these two are not gunmen. They carry guns, but they’ve never used them.

Suddenly, Catherine is left with no gunman. If Strawn turns up, there’s no-one to stop him. So she decides she may as well take up Jackson’s suggestion…

And Kid Sheleen (also Lee Marvin) comes to town. The fastest gun in the West, steely-eyed and firm-jawed and against whom no-one can prevail.

Or is he? Because the man who has to be helped out of the back of the stagecoach (he’s not even in the coach; he’s in the back, with the luggage) inspires no awe, no fear, nothing but shock and horror. This wreck, completely sodden with drink, can’t even walk straight, let alone shoot straight.

What good is this travesty of a gunfighter going to be? They take him to the ranch, and there Frankie puts Kid Sheleen to the test, by drawing a circle on a bit of wood nailed to a wall, to act as target. Kid Sheleen successfully shoots off the weathervane atop the barn.  Frankie by now is so disgusted at the utter worthlessness of Kid Sheleen that he tells Jackson to let the Kid have a couple of swigs from a bottle they’ve got stashed away. He may as well, since he’s been hankering for it, and since there’s no way he can shoot worse than this.

So the Kid quickly downs some of the liquor that’s handed to him—and suddenly comes all afire. He wakes up, he gets all smart and dangerous, and he shoots three bullets slap bang through the centre of the target.

… before he again, within moments, slips back into the muddled state of the chronically intoxicated.

With the result that, the next time Tim Strawn comes calling, he is able to shoot Frankie Ballou dead, with Kid Sheleen arriving, tottering and giddy, on the scene only after Strawn has ridden off.

Cat Ballou was the last film Nat King Cole worked in: even before the film was released, he had died of cancer, at the age of just 45. Based on Roy Chanslor’s (relatively serious) novel, the film had a mostly comic screenplay written by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson, and was directed by Elliot Silverstein. It was shot in a mere 28 days, with Nat King Cole in the final stages of cancer throughout—and it shows in his face, but his voice is inimitable.

What I liked about this film:

The Ballad of Cat Ballou, the song the two shouters sing every now and then throughout the film. It’s not as if the action really stops: it goes on in the background. It’s just that Nat King Cole and Subby Kaye come onscreen, with their banjos and/or guitars, and sing a song that comments on what’s going on—often hilariously at odds with what is really going on. (The “I say she’s the devil!” is about a Cat Ballou who’s really not such a very evil woman, as it turns out, and the “steely-eyed Kid Sheleen”, with “the eyes of a killer” is more bleary-eyed and bumbling than anything else). It’s a delightful song in all ways: delightful lyrics, a very catchy tune, and superbly sung.

The comedy. I love me a good comedy, and there was so much in Cat Ballou that was laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is slapstick (the free-for-all at the barn dance, Percival’s attempts to have a bath in a moving train), but a lot of it comes through in the situations and—equally importantly—through the dialogue, which is fantastic. This little exchange between my two favourite characters from the film is an example (Kid Sheleen, having managed to overcome his dependence on drink, chooses absolutely the wrong moment to fall prey to liquor again):

Jackson: “Kid, Kid. What a time to fall off the wagon! Look at your eyes!
Kid Sheleen: “What’s wrong with my eyes?
Jackson: “Well, they’re red. Bloodshot.
Kid Sheleen: “You wanna  see ‘em from my side.”

And, Lee Marvin as Kid Sheleen. As Tim Strawn, Marvin doesn’t have a big role, and he’s there only for a few scenes, very briefly. But as Kid Sheleen, he rules the film. It may be called Cat Ballou, but I think it should have been named Kid Sheleen instead. Marvin won a very well-deserved Oscar for the role.

What I didn’t like:

The killing of Frankie Ballou and Cat’s subsequent assertion that she will not cry. In a film with a serious tone through most of it, this would be perfectly acceptable. In a total farce like Cat Ballou, this came across to me as jarring. The death of the heroine’s father, and the heroine’s very heroic reaction (and no, despite her being the so-called protagonist of the film, Cat Ballou isn’t really infallible or completely heroic throughout): those are elements that just don’t sit well with the rest of the film. One moment, it’s all nutty and farcical, then suddenly it slips into a few minutes of bleak drama—before hauling itself back.

But. That’s a few minutes, that’s all. On the whole, Cat Ballou is a delightful film. A good, solid comedy that is also a good Western: the American Film Institute’s Top Ten List of Westerns includes Cat Ballou.

Thanks for the music, Nat. May your songs live on.

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4 thoughts on “Cat Ballou (1965)

  1. You know, earlier this year I was looking at birth anniversaries of famous people – that’s how I came to know of the Herman Melville bi-centennial – I cam e across Nat King Cole’s name. It did come to my mind whether you might want to write a piece on Cat Ballou and since I have a good copy of it handy, I thought of asking you if you want it, but I guess it must have slipped my mind. Anyway, here we are, without any intervention on my part :)

    I haven’t seen the full film but from snippets, it does promise a rootin’-tootin’ good time. Marvin was a revelation here – till then, he had mostly played heavies and tough guys. That must have helped his Oscar chances tremendously. Maybe it also contributed to his casting in the big-budget musical Paint Your Wagon. If it did, then it was a backward career move as the film turned out to be a big bomb, one of the biggest box-office disasters Hollywood had seen up till then.

    • That’s a bit of a coincidence! But plausible, too, I guess, since Cat Ballou is probably one of Nat King Cole’s best-known films. :-) Thank you for the thought, though. :-)

      Marvin is truly a revelation here. He is such a far cry from his earlier roles (well, the entire film, for that matter, really does spoof Westerns pretty well). I must admit that though I’ve heard of Paint Your Wagon, I’ve never been sufficiently curious to watch it. Perhaps it’s just as well…

  2. I saw this on TCM, and prominently remember it for the singing narrative. If I remember right, those two go on singing with the most jolly expressions, even when all violence is happening in the background. I guess that made it funny, you knew it’s not going to be dark or anything.

    • That is exactly what stayed with me over all these years! There is so much happening in the background, so much violence or preparation for violence, but even with all the dust flying around and the blows being exchanged, they’re happily going on singing.

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