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Cat Ballou

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 17, 2016
Cat Ballou

Elliot Silverstein's 1965 comedy western "Cat Ballou" garnered Lee Marvin an Oscar for Best Actor. It also translated Roy Chanslor's 1956 novel "The Ballad of Cat Ballou" to the screen in a way that transformed the book's relatively serious tone to one of irreverence, complete with a pair of strolling minstrels (Nat King Cole, filmed shortly before he died, and Stubby Kaye) whose sung narration paints a far darker portrait of Cat (Jane Fonda) than the characters warrants.

Cat is on her way home to Wolf City, Wyoming, having been away to college in preparation for an expected career as a schoolteacher. En route, however, she encounters a pair of cattle rustlers: Clay (Michael Callan), with whom she's in love at first sight, and Jed (Dwayne Hickman), who is also Clay's uncle.

Once Cat arrives back at her father's horse ranch, she discovers that since she's been gone a land baron named Henry Percy (Reginald Denny) has been trying to force her father (John Marley) off his land. Percy's latest measure has been to hire a gunslinger named Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin) to kill Cat's father. When Clay shows up in Wolf City looking for Cat, with Jed in tow, Cat hopes the pair can be of assistance, but they're far too mild-mannered. The Sioux ranch-hand Jackson (Tom Nardini) is likewise anything but a hardened killer. Cat, in desperation, sends off for a gunslinger of her own, and ends up with the drunken Kid Shelleen (Marvin, in a double role), whose aim is true when he's had just enough to drink... but one snort too much makes him useless.

Tim Strawn has no such handicap, however, and succeeds at killing Cat's father. When Cat goes to the corrupt local sheriff, he's of no help; in fact, he's all to happy to provide Strawn with a fake alibi. And that, as the saying goes, is when Cat turns e-e-evil. Gathering up her posse of not-so-tough guys, Cat embarks of a scheme for revenge against Percy and the entire town of Wolf City.

Held up against other entries in the genre, such as "Support Your Local Sheriff," "Cat Ballou" stands up well. It's silly and dated, but its many pleasures include plenty of gags, and a riotous scene in which Jackson helps Kid Shelleen prepare for a showdown against Tim Strawn is a master class in comedy.

There are special features aplenty on this Blu-ray release (the first for "Cat Ballou"), and the high definition transfer is clean and bright, plus the soundtrack has been redone in stereo -- improvements noted by Callan and Hickman, who are reunited on one of the two commentary tracks. (They josh and chat like old friends.) The other audio commentary brings together film historians Eddie Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer (editor of Cinema Retro magazine), and Paul Scrabo. (This track is informative, but pretty par of the course and not much fun as hearing the two actors hang out and watch themselves on screen.)

Unusually for Twilight Time, the disc features a new feature -- an interview, conducted in 2007, with Marvin's widow, Pamela, at the Arizona home the two shared before Marvin died. "Lee and Pamela: A Romance" is treated with a documentary approach, and it's a fascinating glimpse into Marvin's life, career, and relationship with Mrs. Lee.

A second, more straightforward interview is "The Legend of Cat Ballou," in which director Elliot Silverstein talks about the making of the picture. It's a rich slice of film history in and of itself.

More usually for Twilight Time there's an isolated score track that allows you to enjoy Frank De Vol's light, dynamic music, and a booklet essay by the smart and always-gracious Julie Kirgo.

This pleasing jaunt through a fairy-tale Old West deserves a spot on your shelf.

"Cat Ballou"
Blu-ray
$29.95
http://www.twilighttimemovies.com/cat-ballou-blu-ray

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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