Cat Ballou (1965): Silverstein’s Western Spoof, Featuring Lee Marvin in Oscar-Winning Performance

As directed by Elliot Silverstein, Cat Ballou might have been the first Hollywood picture to explicitly spoof the traditional Western genre.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Cat Ballou
Cat Ballou Poster.jpeg

theatrical release poster

The ingredients: a star vehicle for the then rising actress, Jane Fonda, a self-conscious camp approach to the Western genre’s basic conventions, and a selling campaign based on idea of a “put-on” Westerns, made this 1965 film popular at the box-office.

Up until Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles,” a decade later, “Cat Ballou” was the only comedy Western conceived as a genuine spoof rather than biting satire of the genre. These and other films began a trend of taking the West and the Western less seriously, sort of “tongue-in-cheek.”

Jane Fonda, just a round the corner from turning into a sex symbol by future husband Roger Vadim in “Barbarella,” plays a naive, well-behaved schoolteacher from the East, who’s forced to turn an outlaw, a train robeber.

Though designed for Jane Fonda, the film proved more influential for the career of Lee Marvin, who had been a character actor, usually playing heavies and villains (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). Catapulting Marvin to major movie stardom that lasted about a decade, “Cat Ballou” supplied him a dual role, for which he won the 1965 Best Actor Oscar.

Marvin plays two roles that caricatured the cowboy role identified with him in the past. The first is Kid Shelleen, a whiskey-soaked but good-hearted gunfighter, and the second is Shelleen’s antagonist, Tim Straun, a black-clothed villain, who wears a silver nose since the real one had been bitten off in a fight.

One of the film’s highlights is the elaborate ritual through which he goes in preparation for a gunfight as a lovable old drunken wreck of a gunfighter, who mistakes funeral candles for a birthday celebration. Another highlight is a comic scene with Shelleen atop a horse that’s apparently as drunk as he is.

Amiable, if slight (and a bit silly), Cat Ballou also benefited from its popular score, composed by DeVol, and the hit song, “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” with music by Jerry Livingston and lyrics by Mack David.

The movie was hugely popular at the box-office, earning more than $20 million


Directed by Elliot Silverstein
Produced by Harold Hecht
Written by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson, based on The Ballad of Cat Ballou (novel) by Roy Chanslor
Music by Frank De Vol (score)
Mack David (songs)
Jerry Livingston (songs)
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Edited by Charles Nelson

Production company: Harold Hecht Productions

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: June 18, 1965 (Los Angeles)

Running time: 96 minutes

Jane Fonda as “Catherine” Cat Ballou
Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen / Tim Strawn
Michael Callan as Clay Boone
Dwayne Hickman as Jed
Nat King Cole as Shouter – Sunrise Kid
Stubby Kaye as Shouter – Sam the Shade
Tom Nardini as Jackson Two-Bears
John Marley as Frankie Ballou
Reginald Denny as Sir Harry Percival
Jay C. Flippen as Sheriff Cardigan
Arthur Hunnicutt as Butch Cassidy
Bruce Cabot as Sheriff Maledon
Burt Mustin as Accuser
Paul Gilbert as Train Messenger
Frank DeVol as Undertaker
Cast notes

Cole and Kaye, billed as “Shouters,” act as a Greek chorus, intermittently appearing onscreen to narrate the story through ongoing verses of the theme song “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.”