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As a comedy/western that came out during the tail end of the "classic Hollywood" era, Cat Ballou is one of the last happy-go-lucky examples of the genre, an inoffensive and light-hearted romp that aims to make the audience walk away with a warm smile. It was made a year after Sergio Leone rewrote the rules of the genre with A Fistful of Dollars. The Italian retooling of the western, coupled with Sam Peckinpah's upcoming ultraviolent take on the genre, violence and cynicism with an operatic tone was about to take over.
Not that there was anything wrong with this change. I'm a huge fan of Peckinpah and spaghetti westerns, and have always thought that a more gruesome approach to the depiction of a period where violence was the primary driving force made more sense. Cat Ballou, on the other hand, was a classic western where the good and bad guys were clearly defined, even though it contained some of the edge that examples of the genre would exploit to a greater degree later on.
Some categorize Cat Ballou as a western parody. I don't think that's the case. With its ruthless skewering of genre tropes, the great Blazing Saddles is a western parody. Cat Ballou fully embraces those tropes to tell the fairly predictable revenge tale about the title character (Jane Fonda), a passionate woman who hires an alcoholic gunslinger named Shelleen (Lee Marvin) to avenge the murder of his father. There are some satirical touches here and there that foreshadow edgier material that was to envelop Hollywood during the years following the films' release, but they are few and far between.
A running gag about Cat's father (John Marley) being convinced that his Native American farmhand (Tom Nardini) is one of the original Israelites, thanks to the teachings of the then recent religion of Mormonism, sneaks in some clever criticism of this theory. There's also an extension of the famous theme from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Inspired by the dime novels about the many heroic actions of Shelleen, Cat's convinced to hire him, only to find a drunken mess who can't shoot straight unless he's hammered. It's a simple but effective lesson on anticipating the difference between legend and reality.
Otherwise, Cat Ballou is a fairly superficial romp, one that successfully extracts entertainment value from its many physical gags, bookended by Greek chorus-style musical segments by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye. The final act of the film really shines as Cat and his gang turn into lovable outlaws in order to get back at the powerful landowners who killed Cat's father. The one problem with this is that the story takes too long to get there. In fact, we're almost at the halfway point when the inciting incident takes place, propelling the characters into tangible and focused action.
The legendary Lee Marvin, playing two characters as the aloof yet loyal Shelleen and the evil henchman Strawn, is the main reason to check out Cat Ballou. His dedication to physical comedy, as he drunkenly wiggles around while trying to shoot anything in sight, infuses the film with endless humor and energy. Fonda, on the other hand, looks visibly bored, as she has to play the "straight man" during most of the film. In fact, Fonda herself stated that she had a hard time with the production, since she had to be the "reasonable" character while other actors got to have fun with their roles. Moving Cat's dive into becoming an outlaw earlier in the story could have helped this obvious handicap.
As a classic Hollywood western, throwback or not, Cat Ballou sports a colorful and bright look. The 1080p transfer stays very loyal to the film's original look, while providing a clear video presentation without any noticeable video noise. It also sports a healthy amount of grain.
We get two DTS-HD tracks, 5.1 and 2.0. In both of them, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye's musical performances come across in a vibrant and clear way. I'm guessing that's the one aspect that fans of the film will look forward to in terms of appreciating the uncompressed sound mix. As far as the dialogue and the sound effects are concerned, the 5.1 track doesn't really add much to the 2.0 presentation as far as surround presence is concerned. Long story short, you'd be perfectly satisfied with either option.
Audio Commentary with Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman: Two of the principal actors from the film talk loosely about their experiences with the production. The conversation frequently switches to the other projects they were working on at the time, as well as friendly banter about the same roles they were both going for.
Audio Commentary with Film Scholars Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo: This is the commentary to listen to if you want to learn the most about the film's production and reception.
Lee and Pamela: This 40-minute documentary is a real treat for fans of the great Lee Marvin. Compiled from a series of intimate interviews with Marvin's wife Pamela, as well as footage of personal items from the couple's beautifully rustic home, this is a must see if you're interested in Marvin's life and influences.
The Legend of Cat Ballou: A 12-minute featurette, from the original DVD release, where director Elliot Silverstein briefly goes over the film's production.
We also get a Trailer.
Those who have heard that Cat Ballou is a western parody might be disappointed at how light it is on the parody elements. But if you go into it as a fun enterprise with energetic physical gags, an impressive ensemble cast, and some catchy tunes, you'll have a good time. For established fans of the film, on the other hand, this gorgeous Blu-ray is a must-buy.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com