My dear old uncle Dave of Vermont recommended I add Cat Ballou to my film list. “Two Lee Marvins,” he said, “you can’t beat that.” I had only heard of Lee Marvin from his mentions in Terantino films, so I expected him to play a gun-slinging hardass like Mr. White, or the outlaw Josie Wales. While Lee Marvin’s character, Kid Sheleen, does play a gun slinger, “hard” is not the ass prefix I’d ascribe to him.
Drunkass. Slackass. Oldass. Those would work. This hokey, folksy film leans heavily on Marvin’s slapstick and alcohol abuse, as well as a pair of folk musicians–Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaybe–who pop up from time to time turning the narrative into song and creating, in real time, the American legend of Cat Ballou. It’s fun to find Nat King Cole, young and trim, waiting behind every scene with a banjo or sitting at a piano.
But Lee Marvin also plays Kid Sheleen’s brother, Tim Strawn, who wears a silver nose, black outlaw attire, stalks Cat and her gang and, on orders from Sir Harry Percival the oil and railroad tycoon, shoots Pa Ballou dead. The oil company needs his ranch, you see, for the rights to the water. This sends Cat on a train-robbing rampage, intending to make the industry bleed. Using Kid Sheleen’s plan, they come away with tens of thousands of dollars.
The train action is foreshadowed at the start of the film when Cat, on her way home from the girl’s academy sneaking the tales of Kid Sheleen Inside her copy of Tennyson, meets her love interest, Clay Boone, and his uncle Jed. Clay’s in custody and uncle Jed, disguised as a priest, busts him out. Cat gets caught up in their escape and helps Clay hide behind the curtain in her intimate sleeper car. A few scenes later they reunite at the hoedown.
The fifth member of the crew out to cause havoc after Pa Ballou’s death is Jackson Two-Bear, Pa’s ranch hand and an Indian trying to assimilate after the U.S. wiped out his people. Though Kid Shelleen doesn’t mind working alongside a native, he says, because the American Government screwed both Indians and gunslingers, “except [gunslingers] didn’t get no reservation or taught how to weave rugs.” A politically correct audience might cringe at the jokes made at Jackson’s expense. Later, when then gang’s breaking up, Clay and Jed suggest Jackson go back to his native ways. “You try living out in these mountains naked nothing but a stone axe.”
It seems the American West and its victims have gotten a taste of luxury and are reluctant to give it up. However, in contrast to the close confines of Cat’s sleeping car, Sir Percival has a train car all to himself filled with decadent furniture and curtains, an original Tintoretto painting, and even a wine pantry. He’s so stinking filthy rich that during the train robbery his servant is assisting him in his bathtub, pouring on the hot water and staying handy with a towel. The halting train spills his water–a royal inconvenience–and wearing only his towel he marches out into the car with the common folk to get some answers. Kid Shelleen, of course, pulls the towel away causing the women to shriek and the men to chortle.
It’s in Sir Percival’s opulent rail car that Cat sneaks in, disguised as a prostitute named Trixie, and shoots him dead. For this she must hang, which catches us back up to the start of the film with the dusty town getting ready for a hanging. City officials snicker, a crowd of Puritanical women in black bonnets chant and hoist signs that read “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and the gang gets back together to save Cat from the gallows. They ride away in freedom and impunity, the Kid drunk as a skunk and falling out his saddle but somehow able to keep hold of the reins. All is well in the world.