Cat Ballou is a 1965 comedy Western musical film starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual role. The story involves a woman who hires a notorious gunman to protect her father's ranch, and later to avenge his murder, but finds that the gunman is not what she expected. The supporting cast features Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and singers Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, who together perform the movie's theme song, onscreen, throughout the film.
The film was directed by Elliot Silverstein from a screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson from the novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor. Chanslor's novel was a serious Western, and though it was turned into a comedy for the movie, the filmmakers retained some darker elements. The film references many classic Western films, notably Shane.
Catherine "Cat" Ballou, who wants to be a schoolteacher, is returning home from boarding school by train to (fictional) Wolf City, Wyoming, to the ranch of her father, Frankie Ballou. On the way, she unwittingly helps accused cattle rustler Clay Boone elude his captor, Sheriff Maledon, when Boone's Uncle Jed, a drunkard disguised as a preacher, distracts the lawman.
Arriving home, Cat learns that the Wolf City Development Corporation is scheming to take the ranch from her father, whose sole defender is his ranch hand, educated Native American Jackson Two-Bears. Clay and Jed appear and reluctantly offer to help Catherine, and she hires legendary gunfighter Kid Shelleen to help protect her father from gunslinger Tim Strawn, the hired killer who is threatening him.
Shelleen arrives, and proves to be a drunken bum whose pants fall down when he draws his gun, and who is unable to hit a barn when he shoots. Strawn kills Frankie, and when the townspeople refuse to bring Strawn to justice, Catherine becomes a revenge-seeking outlaw known as Cat Ballou. She and her gang rob a train carrying the Wolf City payroll, then take refuge in "Hole-in-the-Wall", where desperados go to hide from the law, but are thrown out when it is learned what they have done, since Hole-in-the-Wall can only continue to exist on the sufferance of Wolf City. Shelleen, inspired by his caring affection for Cat, works himself into shape, dresses up in his finest gunfighting outfit, and goes into town to kill Strawn, casually revealing later that Strawn is his brother.
Cat poses as a prostitute and confronts Sir Harry Percival, the head of the Wolf City Development Corporation. A struggle ensues, Sir Harry is killed, and Cat is sentenced to be hanged. With Sir Harry dead, there's no hope for Wolf City's future, and the townspeople have no mercy for Cat. As the noose is placed around her neck, Uncle Jed appears, again dressed as a preacher, and cuts the rope just as the trapdoor is opened. Cat falls through and onto a wagon and her gang spirits her away in a daring rescue.
Cole and Kaye, billed simply as "Shouters", act as a Greek chorus, intermittently appearing onscreen to narrate the story through ongoing verses of "The Ballad of Cat Ballou", one of the songs written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston for the film.
In his Oscar acceptance speech, Lee Marvin concluded by saying, "I think, though, that half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in San Fernando Valley," a reference to the horse Kid Shelleen rode, which appeared to be as drunk as Shelleen was.
At the 38th Academy Awards, the film also generated nominations for:
At the 23rd Golden Globe Awards, the film also generated nominations for:
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Cat Ballou was acknowledged as the tenth best film in the Western genre.