Cat Ballou (1965)
In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about, actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious. Wearing widow’s weeds over her six-guns, she romps through one of the zaniest train robberies ever filmed, a throwback to Pearl White’s perilous heyday. Putting the final touches on a virginal white frock to wear at her own hanging, she somehow suggests that Alice in Wonderland has fallen among blackguards and rather enjoys it. Happily, Cat Ballou makes the enjoyment epidemic. (Review from Time magazine.)
I’m not by any means a fan of Westerns. I can appreciate a good one just as I can appreciate a film from any genre that is well-done or remarkable in any number of ways. My neutrality as far as Westerns are concerned is probably due to the fact that they often lack any real female character development, more often than not strictly studies in masculinity. Once Jane Fonda is thrown into the mix, however, it is almost impossible to come away without some substantial feminine influence. My respect for Jane’s skills as an actress is irrevocably grounded in her performances in Klute (1971) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but is still manages to grow with each film of hers that I see (yes, even after the spectacle of 1968’s Barbarella).
In Cat Ballou, Jane plays Catherine Ballou, a newly minted school teacher who is on her way back home to her father, a significant landowner who has run afoul of some encroaching business interests. The film actually opens with Catherine in jail, fidgeting with a virginal white dress as she awaits her sentence of hanging for murder. Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye provide a musical narration, meant to be reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, and bring the audience back several months from this scene in the jail to explain just how fair Catherine has found herself to be in such a mess. Homeward bound, Catherine is deposited into the care of a masquerading priest, who also happens to be on board in order to spring an outlaw passenger in police custody. Catherine is something of a victim of circumstances, but reluctantly assists in the getaway of the two. Up to this point, Fonda’s Catherine is a skillful embodiment of old-fashioned femininity and virginal naivety, but all the while managing to convey the inner steel that will sustain her after the murder of her father.
Catherine is not home long before her father dies at the hands (or gun, rather) of Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin, who also plays Kid Shelleen), a terrifying steel-nosed gunslinger hired by the businessmen who have now stopped at nothing to wrestle away her father’s water rights. This, despite her having hired gunmen (Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, and the escaped outlaws from the train, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) to protect her father from these same businessmen. Devastated and heartbroken, Catherine vows revenge for here father’s death, seeking refuge with Kid Shelleen, Sioux farmhand Jackson Two-Bears, and Callan and Hickman. They flee to a protected community of outlaws, immediately setting to work at Catherine’s insistence in plotting a train robbery. Unfortunately, the payroll they heist from the train is actually meant to provide much-needed jobs to the townspeople as well as pay for the protection of the outlaw community in which they’re currently seeking refuge. After this, they haven’t a friend in the world.
Cat Ballou was a major financial success at the time of its release, and significantly elevated Jane’s star power. Personally, she was engaged to be married to director Roger Vadim (who would go on to direct her in Barbarella) and the overflow of this joy can clearly be seen in the vivacity and fire of her performance. The film’s satirical treatment of the Western genre makes use of a variety of common cliches, yet is able to turn these elements on their heads in order to move the film beyond a simple self-conscious look at the Old West. Jane’s Catherine is the vulnerable schoolteacher, yet uses this position as a springboard to secure the help of the men around her who also want to protect her. Ever practical, she wears slacks for much of her screen time but never falls from this initial virginal femininity. Catherine is self-assured and self-reliant, open to the charms of lovemaking yet is able to unalterably remain unobsessed with love and courtship. It’s a pleasant and exciting release, but she knows she need not depend on it in order to secure her well-being. Even up to the very end, Catherine’s rescue from the noose is a team effort, not merely another instance of a man having to intervene to save a helpless female. Fonda’s Catherine has already proven that she can take care of herself, but is not averse to the idea of a gallant rescue at the capable hands of Callan, Hickman, and Marvin.