Would the Western comedy favorite Cat Ballou (1965), which galloped onto movie screens 52 years ago tomorrow and became of its year’s Top 10 box-office hits, have the same audience-pleasing impact if the producer’s first choices for Cat (Ann-Margret) and the sly dual roles of the perpetually soused Kid Shelleen and his gunfighter doppelganger Tim Strawn (either Kirk Douglas or José Ferrer) had played the parts? It seems a bit of a stretch, but later on, it was said that Douglas (wrapped up in the World War II heroics of In Harm’s Way and The Heroes of Telemark) regretted not getting a shot at doing a comedy change-of-pace and Ann-Margret fired her agent when she learned he passed on the part without telling her. Happily, Jane Fonda “read the script and liked it,” Bill Davidson wrote in Jane Fonda: An Intimate Biography: “‘I just kept laughing out loud, which I had never done before while reading a script.’” Director Elliot Silverstein “was bedeviled by the casting choices he was given until The Wild One happened to be on television one night. Watching Lee Marvin fall off his motorcycle, Silverstein knew he would make a better choice. Following his wife and agent’s recommendations, Marvin read the script (by Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson, from a novel by Roy Chanslor), and recalled, ‘I started laughing when I read the first line. I didn’t know how good it was, though. Nobody did,” Dwayne Epstein recounts in his biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank. “I thought it would be just another little flick. But the part of Kid Shelleen hit pretty close to home for me. It became a reprimand of my drinking habits. I got a look at myself.” Fans got a look at a friskier Fonda and a more uproarious Marvin than they had seen in their previous screen work. Silverstein told Davidson: “We used a technique that worked perfectly: Jane played her part absolutely straight, as if this was a real Western. That made everyone else’s crazy antics seem even crazier, especially Lee Marvin’s. So I believe that Jane, playing it straight and taking everything seriously, and being a Little Mary Sunshine, was the key to the success of the entire picture.”
As audiences settled in for the sidewinding saga of a prim young lady whom fate transforms into the unlikely leader of a ragtag outlaw gang settling scores in the corrupt town of Wolf City, Wyoming, in 1894, intermittently narrated in song by the two troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, they saw a startlingly fine and fun Marvin as well. “The real beauty of Marvin’s performance,” Robert J. Lentz details in The Films of Lee Marvin, “comes as the film moves on, taking Kid Shelleen from his original drunken state to an almost childlike state of wonder (‘My plan?’ he keeps asking), to the seriousness of a gunfighter facing death and back again to a drunken stupor. Marvin gives the role his all, bypassing subtlety in the name of comedy, dropping his pants, losing his balance, barking his dialogue and crossing his eyes for whatever laughs he can get. Marvin’s performance is indeed nuanced, providing glimpses of Shelleen’s true temperament and character beneath the mugging, but Shellen is a role requiring an over-the-top sensibility, and Marvin doesn’t back away from making himself look foolish when it is called for. Shelleen can also be seen as a spoof of Marvin’s own larger-than-life role of Liberty Valance, filmed just three years earlier. In both films, he borders on the absurd, walking the fine line between outrageousness and ridiculousness. Marvin’s is a good performance, but Oscar® caliber?” Apparently so, as several major reviewers and Hollywood insiders began floating the possibility of such recognition.” Lentz continued: “Marvin’s chances…were immensely improved by his second film of the year, in Ship of Fools. This dramatic film provided a point-counterpoint comparison of Marvin’s comedic and dramatic skills and ensured that Marvin would be remembered when award time came.” Marvin was decisively remembered with Best Actor laurels from the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the British Academy, the Berlin Film Festival and on April 18, 1966, the Academy Award®. Audiences got a look at an incredulous Marvin clutching his statuette and declaring, “I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley.” Lentz notes: “One other cast member won an award for his performance in Cat Ballou: Smoky, Kid Shelleen’s gray horse. Smoky was honored [in the American Humane Association’s Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, or annual PATSYs] with a Craven Award for his acting – particularly the scene near the film’s climax in which he, with front legs crossed, and Marvin are leaning against a brick building, looking hung over. That image is evidently a spoof of James Earle Fraser’s famous statue of the tired Indian entitled The End of the Trail, and has become the movie’s most indelible image.” The magic of serendipitous and ultimately correct casting is there for your inspection, along with two celebratory Audio Commentaries and two deft documentaries, including the Twilight Time original Lee and Pamela: A Romance, via Twilight Time’s splendidly outfitted, punch-drunkenly entertaining Cat Ballou hi-def Blu-ray.