• Cat Ballou

    Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
    Released on: May 10th, 2016.
    Director: Elliot Silverstein
    Cast: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Dwayne Hickman, Nat King Cole, Stubby Kaye, Tom Nardini
    Year: 1965
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    The only film for which Lee Marvin ever won an Oscar, 1965’s Cat Ballou begins, quite simply, with a song. The Sunrise Kid (Nat King Cole) and Sam The Shade(Stubby Kaye) play their banjos and sing together about the life and times of our titular cowgirl who, when we met her, is about to be hanged.

    From there we flashback a bit to a train. A beautiful young woman named Catharine Ballou (Jane Fonda) has just finished getting her education and plans to be a teacher. She’s taking a train back home where she winds up inadvertently helping out a wanted man named Clay Boone (Michael Callan) and Uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman). They escape but before Clay hops out the window to freedom, he gets her name. Cat meets up with her dad, Frankie Ballou (John Marley), and his ranch hand, an Indian named Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini) who Frankie insists is Jewish. He’s not. It isn’t long before Cat realizes that her dad’s in trouble. There’s a corrupt developer looking to get him off the land so that he can move in on it and to make that happen, he’s employed a gunfighter named Strawn (Lee Marvin), a striking figure dressed in black who wears a tin plate over his nose (we hear he got it bitten off in a fight).

    Soon enough, Cat meets Clay again, not at all coincidentally, at a dance. She asks them to help her keep Strawn away from her old man, and they agree, but insist she hire herself a gunfighter of her own. She’s heard the stories of Kid Shelleen and sends him a letter and fifty dollars for his help. Shelleen arrives (Marvin again), and they soon learn he’s a raging drunk who literally cannot hit the broad side of a barn. When Strawn winds up killing Frankie, however, Cat rallies the guys and before you know it, she and they are robbing trains and making a name for themselves as outlaws. Eventually, however, Cat will want to get revenge on the man who killed her father and Shelleen will have to earn his keep.

    A western comedy that is really and truly funny, Cat Ballou does pretty much everything right. The location shooting is beautiful and the cinematography does a great job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west. The film is colorful, it’s quick in its pacing, and it’s really well put together from a technical stand point. The costumes look great and the sets all look realistic enough. It’s an attractive looking picture, through and through.

    And then there’s the casting, the performances and the way in which the actors interpret the characters. John Marley is hysterical as the curmudgeonly old man bound and determined to stay on his land even if someone does fill up his well with a ton of manure. He might not be playing with a full deck, but he’s got a good heart as we see in his dealings with his daughter and with Jackson. As Jackson, Tom Nardini is immensely likeable. He’s funny, charming and clearly committed to helping out Frankie and later Cat as best he can. If the film occasionally plays his part to racial stereotypes (he hoots and does a war cry and at one point scalps someone by accident!) well, the movie is a product of its time, but it’s clear that he’s one of the smarter, more balanced characters in the film. Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman are pretty fun to watch here too. Callan, as Clay, has got the hots for Cat the moment he lays eyes on her. We know early on he’ll make his move, there’s no real surprises there, but it’s fun to watch him build up to it. Hickman is great too, particularly in the opening train scene where he’s impersonating a drunken padre in his attempts to save his nephew. Throw in Nat King Cole (who sadly passed away between the time that shooting ended and the movie was released) and Stubby Kaye as the travelling troubadour types, and the movie wins before we even get to the leads. They do a great job with the singing as well as the comedy that is a big part of what their characters bring to the show.

    But yeah, the leads. Jane Fonda is adorable here. She starts out as prim and proper and does her best to stay that way but we all know early on in the film that she’s going to find herself. Once she takes on her outlaw guise, she’s funny, smart, fun to watch and insanely attractive. At the same time, there’s a sweetness about her character that’s completely charming, even when she’s robbing trains. Marvin is also great here. As Strawn he’s the bad, tough dude you’d expect him to be, but that part isn’t really all that big even if it is important. As Shelleen, he’s a cartoon character come to life in a lot of ways. At times seemingly made of rubber he contorts his face and his body into seemingly ridiculous forms and he plays the drunken, aging gunslinger beautifully. Of course, once he inevitably cleans up his act, his character goes from sloshed to suave and Marvin, being Marvin, makes it look effortless, easy and completely natural.


    Cat Ballou debuts on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a beautiful AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in the film’s original 1.85.1 widescreen aspect ratio. Detail is outstanding here, not just in close up shots where you expect it but in the medium and long distance shots as well. The location photography is gorgeous to look at while there’s plenty of depth and texture evident throughout the movie. Skin tones look nice and natural while black levels stay strong and deep but simultaneously manage to avoid crush related issues. Color reproduction looks spot on and the image is clean and free of print damage while still maintaining a nice, natural amount of film grain. This is an excellent looking image.

    DTS-HD tracks are offered in the film’s native English in your choice of 2.0 and 5.1 mixes with optional subtitles provided in English only. Both tracks sound very good. The 5.1 mix, not surprisingly, spreads things out – you’ll notice this mostly with the score and the songs but also with some of the scenes that have more active sound effects going on. Dialogue stays clean, clear and properly balanced in both mixes and neither track suffers from any hiss or distortion related issues. No complains here, the movie sounds almost as good as it looks.

    The extras on the disc kick off with an audio commentary from actors Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman that originally appeared on the DVD release from 2000. The two have clearly got a great affection for the film and for the work that everyone did in front of the camera here. They keep it fairly light, sharing some stories about working with Marvin and Fonda but tending to talk more about their characters, what they tried to bring to the film and their thoughts on the movie as it plays out in front of them. A second audio commentary gets film historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo in front of the mic to talk up the movie’s history. This is the better of the two tracks as it lets the three commentators delve into the history of the movie by talking about the book that the film was based on, offering some historical information on the director and the cast members, some insight into the effectiveness of both the comedic elements and the music used in the film and quite a bit more. It’s thorough, detailed and nicely paced – a very interesting listen.

    Also found on the disc are two featurettes, the first of which is the half hour Lee And Pamela: A Romance, which is a great interview with Lee Marvin’s widow, Pamela Marvin. This is a pretty fascinating piece for Lee Marvin fans, as Pamela opens up quite a bit about her relationship with her husband while offering plenty of input about what he was like off camera while still throwing in some interesting anecdotes about his work and his career. The second featurette is The Legend Of Cat Ballou, which originally appeared on the old DVD release. Here Elliott Silverstein looks back on making the film and offers some interesting anecdotes about putting the picture together.

    Additionally, the disc includes the film’s original theatrical trailer, an isolated score option in DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo, static menus and chapter selection. Included alongside the disc in the clear keepcase is an insert booklet of liner notes that contains an essay from Julie Kirgo, who rightly notes, among other things, that Jackson is the one we want Cat to run off with in the end! She also talks up what went into getting the movie adapted from the book, the leads’ performances and the effectiveness of the comedy in the film. The original one-sheet art is reproduced on the back page of the book, while a newly commissioned piece graces the front cover.

    The Final Word:

    Cat Ballou is a lot of fun. It’s quick, it’s full of action and adventure, it’s plenty comedic and it’s performed by a great cast. Twilight Time have brought it to Blu-ray in grand style with an excellent presentation and some impressive extra features as well. All in all, a great release.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!