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    Before and After Ballou

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Still heartily enjoyed after 50 years, the box-office hit Cat Ballou (1965) made Comedy Westerns – a merely occasional presence in the past – a happily going concern again. The results were mixed, but each one that followed – The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Waterhole #3 (1967), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and the next box-office behemoth, Blazing Saddles (1974) – has its fans. The “hanging day in Wolf City, Wyoming romp” had many colorful assets, a coltishly game Jane Fonda in the title role, a wonderful supporting cast (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Tom Nardini, John Marley, Reginald Denny, Jay C. Flippen, Arthur Hunnicutt, Bruce Cabot), nimble direction by feature film-debuting Elliot Silverstein (later to go serious with A Man Called Horse) and musical diversion by troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, crooning the catchy, through-threading Jay Livingston/Mack David title ballad. But the film’s most profound before-and-after effect was bestowed on a veteran actor, literally transformed by his performance from a reliable heavy to an iconic leading man. This is expertly captured in historian/archivist Brynn White’s marvelous 2007 Film Comment profile of Lee Marvin, appreciatively excerpted as follows: “In 1962, Hollywood’s popular kids inducted a new member into John Ford’s ongoing exploration of Western mythologies in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Whip held ready, Marvin looms over Jimmy Stewart’s Apollonian good intentions, barking ‘Stand and deliver!’ The embodiment of evil is echoed in every leather-clad Marvin swagger, questioning the who, what, when, where, and why that makes a Hero. Marvin could go from a snarl to a laugh in a split second, and mean both of them equally. In fact, sneers and laughs generally went hand in hand. All along, the actor had been snickering at everyone for thinking things were so black and white until Cat Ballou (1965) supplied him with the right vehicle to show us what was so funny. The Heroic Gunslinger may have been adequate for the pages of the serials, but the tumultuous Sixties had arrived, and it was time to see Liberty Valance gunned down…by Liberty Valance. Marvin’s Kid Shelleen, formerly the righteous deliverer of justice, has lapsed into drunken disillusionment over his own uselessness. Meanwhile, Kid’s bad-egg brother, Marvin again, makes his living as a killer-for-hire. Victim, clown, executioner – all are bred from the same man, it was time for simplistic archetypes to go. His point made, Marvin slumps out of the frame and rides off into a decidedly more nuanced career. Even if audiences didn’t quite grasp the tongue-in-cheek comment on generic oppositions, they were certainly amused. Cat Ballou (with perhaps the manliest makeover montage ever committed to celluloid) won Marvin the Oscar® – in a rare Academy celebration of comedic achievement – and advanced him to the front ranks of a post-Code, postwar industry nearing the antihero renaissance in the Seventies. If he had been our villain in the Fifties, he was our hero (not to mention the new ugly-beautiful) in the Sixties, when the Good and the Bad were less superficially differentiated and violence was an undeniable fact of life. In the hands of the new inheritors of machismo – Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, John Boorman, Samuel Fuller – Marvin was turned outside in. As he told character actor Strother Martin, ‘We play all kinds of sex psychos, nuts, creeps, perverts and weirdos. We laugh it off saying what the hell, it’s just a character. But deep inside, it’s you, baby.’ All these conflicting impulses and inclinations are left to seethe within the Marvin oxhide physique.” White's entire piece can be found here: Featuring the new documentary tribute Lee and Pamela: A Romance, with reminiscences by Pamela Marvin, two rough-and-ready Audio Commentaries and Frank DeVol’s score on an Isolated Track, Cat Ballou rides in on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray May 10. Preorders open tomorrow, April 27.