Sunday, May 01, 2005

DVD review: Cat Ballou

"Wolf City, Wyoming/ Wolf City Wyoming."

The songs from Cat Ballou will stick in your head. We're not sure that's a good thing. Though sung well by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye (who sing them onscreen), these fast-paced songs intended to move the story along also end up stuck in your head.

The other thing you'll notice in this 1965 film directed by Elliot Silverstein is the acting. Lee Marvin won an Oscar for playing Kid Shellen and another character in the film (we don't want to spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn't seen it yet). Marvin is hilarious. But so is the rest of the cast. There's not a clunker in the cast.

Jane Fonda does a wonderful job as Cat Ballou. Knowing what's in store later in her career, it's easy to see where she's headed in retrospect. But what about at the time?

Judith Crist, in the New York Herald Tribune,: "Jane Fonda is marvelous as the wide-eyed Cat, exuding sweet feminine sex appeal every sway of the way." Time magazine noted: "In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious."

Barefoot in the Park, The Game Is Over, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Klute, et al were all in the future at this point. But you can see the groundwork for those performances in this one. What's also interesting is that you can see Fonda's first American role with a range. Not just of emotions, but also for the character herself.

Cat Ballou (the title character played by Fonda) starts off as a retiring school teacher freshly trained. She has a secret passion for gun fighter stories. As the movie zips along, Ballou quickly takes part in armed robbery, faces execution, and other things.

The script is genuinely funny, but the direction leaves a lot to be desired. Crowd scenes are especially difficult to watch. Take the barn dancing/barn fighting scenes where you're constantly trying to locate characters in the frame. If they were staged carefully, they weren't filmed that way. It's a mess and the easy thing to do is just accept that it's going to be that way.

The performances and the script carry this film. Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson wrote the script (based on a novel by Roy Chanslor). The script zips along, the actors are left to their own devices and the director seems to be on an extended smoke break.

Fonda's up for the challenge. As the anchor holding the film together, she provides both the gravity and the light touch and drives the film. Fonda had been the film lead in American films before, in "sex comedies." In the time period, that largely meant you were interested in romance and more but you strongly guarded your virginity. A lot of actresses were capable of that, a lot of actresses weren't capable of more than that. Given her chance to drive a film as the lead, not the female lead, Fonda proves she's to what it takes. (Marvin won his Oscar for best supporting actor.)

Being a 1965 film, sadly, she has to guard that maidenhead but thankfully, Cat Ballou has other things on her mind. Avenging the death of her father being chief among them. She's also got to keep the rag tag band that makes up her "posse" together. But again, her physcality has to be noted. The tension she brings to her body in a potential love scene on the train, the way she's jerkily extending herself only to pull back, prepares the audience for the moment early on when Cat will have to make a choice. It's the body movements as much as the lines they keep you from being shocked when school marm Cat suddenly turns into outlaw of the west. Near the end of the picture, there's a slow walk to a knoose that could go overboard into Joan of Arc-ness but, even then, Fonda had the steady touch and knew how to hold her head and carry herself so that you root for her instead of giving up hope and thinking, "They're going to kill that girl!"

Very few actors seem to truly inhabit their characters and their space. Brando comes to mind as an exception. Fonda is another one. In stillness or in motiong, she pulls you into the frame and you feel as though you're watching a full blown person, not a sketch comedy character.

Fonda's already got the comic timing (had it Sunday in New York and Period of Adjustment), but she's filling out as an actress. Watching the film today, you're able to appreciate both what an opportunity this was for an actress and how up to the challenge Fonda was.
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