The Cat’s Miaow

I loved Cat Ballou as a kid, and having rewatched it a couple of times recently I can’t believe that I could have forgotten how great it is. I remember forcing a group of my friends to watch this at a sleepover at least once instead of the usual fare (I Know What You Did Last Summer or The Craft). Expect spoilers aplenty and quite a lot of squeeing.

I knew I’d adore it the first time I watched it when, before the film even starts, the Columbia logo lady strips off her dress and reveals herself to be a gun-toting cartoon cowgirl:

These kind of logos- from MGM’s roaring lion to Paramount’s mountain vista- are so familiar, from seeing them at the beginning of every film, that we almost don’t register them. Cat Ballou certainly makes you sit up and take notice!

This caricature is certainly an appropriate mascot for a film which stars Jane Fonda, is set in 1894, and features a wealth of Stetsons and shotguns- it’s definitely a cowgirl film (and cowgirls are awesome). But more than that, it’s a story about hidden layers. Catherine Ballou (Fonda) at first seems like a prim and proper young lady, there’s very little hint of the potential she has to become a gunslinger. And, although this might seem like a silly thing to say about a 1965 comedy western, it’s also a feminist film. Ballou is very much the hero of the piece- ultimately she solves her problems rather than relying on men. She refuses to be broken, refuses to let the men of the Wolf City Development Corporation make her cry, and explicitly refuses the idea that marriage and traditional roles would alleviate her situation.

Another thing Cat Ballou is, which also makes it even more awesome, is a musical. The songs are lots of fun, and performed by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, often with banjos. How can you not love it?

I honestly think that Jane Fonda’s great in this film, her comedic timing is impeccable, but she’s supported by an excellent ensemble cast. The first of whom, Michael Callan as Clay, we meet fairly early on in the film. Catherine, wannabe school teacher, is travelling home to her rancher father in Wyoming after completing her education. She catches sight of Clay but is warned off of him because he’s a convict in cuffs. They end up having one of the greatest flirtations in screen history- although not until the drunk priest she ends up sitting with turns out to be Clay’s Uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman) who manages to help him escape from the lawman, after starting his “Hallelujah brother!” speech far too many times. The fight scene is cheesily terrible, but that doesn’t stop it being a lot fun. Hickman’s great casting as Callan’s uncle, they practically have the same face!

Hickman’s impersonation of a drunk priest is a lot of fun (plus he has a gun hidden in his Bible), but Callan and Fonda really steal the scene, as Clay dives into her bed on the train while searching for a hiding place and the two roll around and argue hilariously. Although thinking about it, maybe the real scene stealer was Jane Fonda’s ridiculous nightgown:

Train meetings are pretty much always good, see Some Like It Hot and A Hard Day’s Night for example, because trains are pretty much always good themselves. Miss Penn and I are so over planes. You have no sense of the fact that you’re travelling, no connection to the fact that you’re in motion or to the places you’re traversing when you travel by air.  Not only do trains supply that in spades, major stations are always in the centre of town rather than on theannoying  outskirts like airports. Plus no one demands that you take all your liquids out of your bag and put them in a clear plastic bag when you board a train. And nobody gets antsy about you taking photos on trains.

TL; DR Trains make me do a happy face

The train doesn’t only herald the beginning of Clay and Catherine’s flirtation (later reprised at hers), it also introduces her secret, hidden obsession with legendary gunfighter Kid Shelleen. Catherine is a total fangirl- hiding her dime novel in a book of Tennyson’s poems and guiltily devouring his adventures. Indeed the only reason that she later invites Clay and Jed back to hers is because she takes them for gunmen which gives them a cachet of cool. And later on she displays her obsession with these stories- she refuses to settle for paltry rustling scams, instead wanting to follow Shelleen’s train robbing plans.

When Catherine arrives home in Wolf City she discovers that her father (John Marley) is being forced off his land by the Development Corporation. He’s only got one friend/employee, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini) who somehow puts up with the fact that not only is Frankie Ballou a horrible grump, he’s utterly convinced that Injuns are the lost tribe of Israel and insists on trying to trick Jackson into admitting it by speaking Hebrew to him- or at least saying “shalom aleichem” a lot. Catherine reveals that she’s still a little bit country, one of the points she seems most horrified by is that these terrible men made her daddy talk to lawyers. Plus there’s a quaint, traditional hoedown which soon descends into a showdown when some of the local lads begin displaying their prejudice towards Jackson (who gets his own back by getting to scalp someone).

Catherine decides to write to the great Shelleen (Lee Marvin), and ask him to help her and her father out. When he turns up it’d be putting it mildly to call him a disappointment. He tumbles out of the back of a wagon, doesn’t have a gun, can’t even manage to hit the side of the barn once he borrows one and is barely able to stand. All in all Marvin plays him fantastically as a washed up old drunk who’s incapable of anything.

Shelleen represents a nostalgia for the old west and the time of gunfighters, but one that’s tempered by Jackson’s presence and Shelleen’s obvious lack of racism. It’s merely a longing for a simpler time, for a time when legendary status meant something. I really enjoyed Jackson and Shelleen’s friendship- it’s a great example of show don’t tell given that they never discuss their camaraderie and don’t exchange all that many lines, it’s very much conveyed in their scenes together however. And, especially with Jackson’s offer to carry his valise when they first meet, it seems like maybe Jackson idolised him, just as Catherine did. I think Jackson may be my favourite character in the film- and not just because he corrects Catherine’s grammar, he’s also a total Constitution nerd.

Shelleen isn’t Marvin’s only role in Cat Ballou, and when can double Lee Marvin ever be a bad thing? He also plays Stawn, the man sent to kill Frankie Ballou. Stawn also gets a great entrance- although a dramatic one rather that something  fun and musical like Shelleen’s. It’s just as Frankie’s almost convinced the gang of men that Catherine’s sicced on him as guards that no one’s after him, that Strawn appears and shoots him out of nowhere.

It’s this which forces Catherine and her band of merry men to flee to Hole in the Wall, a place about as charming as the name suggests. This is when Cat takes charge- she comes up with the plan to rob the train and manages to talk them all around (mostly by having a hissy fit along the lines of “y’all say you love me, but when I ask you to rob one little train…”) and the heist is exuberantly fun. Cat playing the part of a grieving widow, and then their puzzlement over just how to get the guard to tell them how to open the safe- at least until Shelleen shoots his hat- is hilarious. Watching them becoming proper outlaws is great fun, and not just cos it involves lots of horse riding.

Shelleen actually manages to clean himself up for his face off with Strawn, a dramatic scene with a brilliant pay off at the end when he relates the tale to the rest of the bunch.

But the reason he does all of this is that he’s in love with Cat, as they all seem to be- with the possible exception of Jed. Although he chaperones and interrupts her time with Clay it seems to be good-natured ribbing more than anything else, and he always seems to be on Clay’s side rather than jealous of him. I quite enjoy Cat as the accidental hussy who doesn’t seem to be aware of any of this, if I knew her in real life I’d probably think she was an insensitive bitch but Fonda really sells Cat wide-eyed naivety. Ironically, she poses as an actual whore when she sets out to con Sir Harry (Reginald Denny), owner of the Development Corporation, on another train naturally.

As the film opens with her in jail about to be hanged, her death seems like a foregone conclusion, and by the end of the film you’ve seen her accidentally kill Sir Harry so it all comes together and makes sense. However things clearly aren’t so cut and dried once Jed turns up, dressed as a preacher again. He signals the presence of her gang- including drunk-again Shelleen on a cross-legged horse.

Their madcap rescue attempt is high-spirited and emblematic of just how fun the film is, and that’s a large part of what I love about it. But that’s not all. It makes me indescribably happy that Clay isn’t painted as a hero, that he isn’t the knight in shining armour who solves her problems. It would be very easy to imagine him as such, especially with how fragile she appears at the start of the film, and then the shock of her father’s death. Clay isn’t as useless and cynical as he tries to be either, and Cat’s able to see through him easily. Their romance is sweet, but almost unnecessary, although their over the top flirting definitely adds something.

In some ways the real romantic storyline is between Cat and Kid Shelleen- or at least her idea of him. Her obsession with the stories about him are analogous to a childlike crush, and eventually she has to deal with the fact that the man can’t measure up to the legend and make her own decisions. As a child she idolised- and was terrified of- outlaws, but when she finally gets to Hole in the Wall she realises that they’re just people, people like Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt), who get old and are fallible. And she also has to come to terms with the fact that being an outlaw isn’t as simple as she thought. By stealing from Sir Harry they’re putting Hole in the Wall itself at risk, and by stealing the payroll they’re not just taking from the rich- but from everyone.

Cat Ballou raises these issues lightly rather than providing a real answer, but I think questioning the relationship between stories and reality is always interesting- and has a touch of the post-modern about it. When Cat and her men go riding off into the distance the audience doesn’t know where they’re headed, but I assume that they’re questing for a more simple kind of place where not every question has such a complicated answer. And I think that’s somewhere we’d all like to be able to reach sometimes.

Why yes, that is gratuitous Sam and Dean. Just because.

4 thoughts on “The Cat’s Miaow

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