It’s Movie Time: Cat Ballou

As always, Spoiler Alert.

One of the few positive memories I have of my father was the time we spent watching westerns together. He loved westerns, but until I came along, no one else in the family had any interest in them, and I think he was pleased he finally had someone to watch them with. We mostly watched John Wayne movies, and my father would be quite silly during them, doing things like ‘refusing’ to watch romantic scenes – because The Duke was such a big, strong, heroic-type man that he was above all that silly stuff, dontcha know. The two of us would giggle and cheer our way through westerns while the rest of the family looked at us like we were nuts.

Cat Ballou isn’t a John Wayne western, and I think that’s partly why it sticks out in my memory. It’s a comedy from 1965, starring Jane Fonda as Cat, and Lee Marvin as both the drunken gunslinger Kid Shelleen and his villainous counterpart Tim Strawn. And I can remember, precisely, the reason that I rented it for us to watch.

It was Kid Shelleen’s horse.

My father was two things: a frustrated farmer, and a Mountie. The reason that I grew up in a little village far outside the city was that my father wanted to have a farm, but my mother put her foot down. She didn’t want to be as isolated as living on a farm would make her, but he didn’t want to live in the city, and village life was the compromise they came up with.

More than a farm, though, I think what my father wanted most was a horse. He loved horses. And while we never owned one, his job as a Mountie, and his status as an experienced horseman, did present him with a unique opportunity to exercise the RCMP Musical Ride’s horses once a week. My father carpooled, and on Wednesday evenings, he would stay in the city after work. My mother would load me into the car, we’d drive into Ottawa to pick him up and take him to the stables, and watch while he and a few other members put the horses through their paces.

I was very young, and have never been a fan of horses, so I was quite bored most of the time. But I did get to ‘ride’ one of the horses once. His name was Rascal, and I sat perched atop the saddle while my father led him around the ring. While it didn’t make me like horses any more, I look back on it with fondness, as it’s one of the few times I remember my father setting aside his characteristic viciousness and simply sharing something that was special to him.

Which brings us to Kid Shelleen’s horse.

Kid Shelleen is an alcoholic who spends most of the Cat Ballou falling-down drunk. At one point, the only way he can stay atop his horse is to lean against the wall, and my father simply loved the horse’s stance, with its front legs oh-so-casually crossed (something which is, apparently, ‘impossible’ to get a horse to do). He said that he couldn’t believe they got the horse to stand like that so often that I wanted to see it for myself, so I rented the movie.

And I did laugh. Not as hard as my father did, but I’ve always been uncomfortable around drunkeness, and didn’t (still don’t) much care for that part of the film. Personally, I think other aspects of Cat Ballou are far more engaging.

First off there’s Cat herself. It’s pretty rare for westerns to have a female protagonist. Women existed either to be delicate little flowers who needed to be saved by the hero, or to start off hating the hero, only to end up falling for him as he heroes his manly way through the film. But none of the men in Cat Ballou are of the hero type. Cat is. Looking to avenge her father’s murder, she comes up with the plans and wrangles the group of misfits surrounding her. And while she does fall in love with one of those misfits, it’s not because he shows her her proper place in the world. It’s because they’re compatible, and there’s been a mutual interest between them since they first met.

Second, there’s the music.

There are two ‘shouters’ in Cat Ballou, played by Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye. They appear multiple times in the film, singing The Ballad of Cat Ballou, acting as a chorus, filling in story details and creating a bridge between scenes. They’re the highlight of the movie, especially Cole, whose music I grew up listening to and whose voice makes my knees go wobbly. Plus, the song itself is catchy as hell. For days after I watch the movie, I’ll find myself humming it, maybe even belting out a “Cat Balloooooouuuuu! Cat Ba-loo-oo-oo!” here and there, and it always makes me smile.

Most everything about Cat Ballou makes me smile, in fact – from the movie itself to, more importantly, the memories I associate with it. In that way, it’s the perfect piece of entertainment.

To see other posts in my venture to watch my movie collection in alphabetical(ish) order, click here.

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