Cat Ballou (1965)

Cat Ballou (1965)I have avoided this film for sometimes, putting my nose up at the very idea of a western spoof, making fun out of the genre, mocking. It was another biting the bullet time when I decided to watch Cat Ballou (1965) which is so rich in not just the level of humour but the subtext of the plot.

A rare film that places a woman in the lead role, for a western being a male dominated genre that is a great leap, only a few that I can think of have been made with an actress in mind. Such as Rancho Notorious (1952) for Marlene Dietrich. With a member of the Fonda family in the lead, she cannot be easily sidelined, when it comes to Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou a newly qualified school teacher who comes home to her father, in hope of finding a job. Before she can even reach her home she is thrown into the company uncle and nephew team Clay and Jed Boone (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) a duo of rustlers who lead Catastray.

Once she is back with her father, an elderly rancher Frankie Ballou (John Marley) who fears that his land and life are under threat from a slaughter-house that is being proposed. We see a black figure of a villain lurking in the shadows, a clear cliché of the western villain which had recently been personified by Lee Marvin who indeed plays the role of the man with a silver nose and brother of Kid Shelleen. 

Many of the hallmarks/conventions of a western of commented on in some form. From the mob that is made up and chases the train robbers is sped up to mock the genre, which first did this back in the 1930s to speed up the action.

It took me a while to get used to the two singers who kept the pace with The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye which at first was full on more contemporary eyes. When at the time of release the genre was growing tired. Taking it back to its roots, and increasing the colour and design of the film we have a heightened experience of the wild west.

I would probably need more time and several re-watches to fully understand what the film is saying about the genre. From the drunken gunfighter, a dying breed of man, with the introduction of the law there is no place to celebrate the gunfighter’s. All the old towns that were a home to them are gone or going quickly, people no longer care for them as skilled men, men to be feared and respected. What is to be feared now is the train which has been rolling across America for around 50 years, allowing people to be connected in ways never seen or experience before.

Of course away from all the intellectuallising of the film which I really want to do, it’s a fun film, a break away from what a western can be, when they are at their best. I am now ready to take on another spoof – Blazing Saddles (1974) which really questioned the genre as it was facing a cruel death in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.


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