Cat Ballou: Ten Things To Know About The Movie

Cat Ballou starring Jane Fonda

Here are 10 trivia facts about Cat Ballou from 1965, which originally appeared as our Mystery Movie Quiz on our Facebook page. There are lots of pieces of behind-the-scenes information about this movie.  Please feel free to comment and add more trivia we might have missed.

1. It was named by AFI as one of the 10 best of its genre.

In 2008, Cat Ballou was ranked by the American Film Institute as being among the 10 greatest films in the “Westerns” category. If there was a category for “Comedy Westerns,” it would probably be high up on that list, too.

2. This was the director’s first feature film.

Between 1954 and 1965, Elliot Silverstein directed episodes of some very high-profile TV shows, including Omnibus, Route 66, Have Gun, Will Travel, Dr. Kildare, The Twilight Zone, The Defenders and more.  However, it wasn’t until 1965 that Silverstein made his big-screen directing debut with Cat Ballou. A few years later, he had another highly visible film, A Man Called Horse (1970), and since that time has mostly concentrated on television.  For trivia buffs, Silverstein was David Cassidy’s stepfather for a short time.

3. One of the actors starred in a hit TV series.

Although it’s true that Michael Callan appeared in dozens of TV shows through the years, it is Dwayne Hickman who is fondly remembered as being linked to one very popular series; He was the sex-obsessed title teenager in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis from 1959-1963. Earlier, he had a four-year stint as Bob Cummings’ kooky nephew in The Bob Cummings Show (1954-1959), also known as Love That Bob — but it is as Dobie that Hickman became best known.

4. One of the actors died a few months before the film’s release.

Nat King Cole’s rambling troubadour, performing alongside partner Stubby Kaye, was the singer-turned actor’s last and possibly best screen role. Cole was a well-known song stylist from the 1940s until his death from lung cancer in 1965. During that time he collected 28 gold records for such popular hits as “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Too Young,” “Sweet Lorraine,”  “Mona Lisa” and “The Christmas Song.”

Nat King Cole was also the host of an eponymous TV variety show in 1956, which he starred in for 47 episodes until the show was cancelled, at Cole’s own request. Being an African-American star of any TV series was rare in the 1950s, and cancellation was inevitable when sponsors couldn’t be found due to the racial attitudes, particuarly those of the country’s South, at that time.

5. One of the stars plays two roles.

When Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou sees her life hit every obstacle, she employs the help of two outlaws (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman) and–on the advice of  loyal hired hand Jackson Two-Bears (convincingly played by Tom Nardini)–sends for legendary pulp-fiction hero Kid Shelleen. It is discovered as the film progresses that Shelleen has a twin brother, the villainous gunslinger Tim Strawn. Both parts are played to perfection by Lee Marvin, who took home the Best Actor Academy Award that year. It is (as of 2011) the only Oscar ever awarded for an actor playing a dual role in a film.

Interestingly, Marvin was not the first choice for the part of Kid Shelleen and his sibling.  Kirk Douglas turned down the part, although oddly enough he eventually did play a similar dual role in 1979’s  The Man From Snowy River.  And it’s been said that Jack Palance lobbied for the part, which he desperately wanted, but it wasn’t offered.

6. A railroad is prominently featured in the story.

After her father is gunned down by the town’s locals, Cat Ballou is convinced it is the work of the railroad, in particular its head man Sir Harry Percival, charmingly played by movie veteran Reginald Denny. Cat and her gang intend to get revenge by becoming train robbers, which is done better in the planning stages than in the actual execution.

7. The movie has very little in common with the book on which it’s based.

With the exception of some of the characters and the location of Wolf City, Wyoming, Roy Chanslor’s book, “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” is very different from the Columbia Pictures movie: a tale of revenge, yes — and a very sweet love story. It seems everyone loves Cat, even Kid Shelleen, who is no boozing has-been on the written page, but a capable cowpoke. And oh, yes — the book is an entertaining,  straightforward western novel and the buffoonery is only found on the screen.

Lee Marvin and the famous drunk horse8. An animal performs an unnatural feat in the film.

The memorable scene where Lee Marvin’s horse is seen leaning against the wall, looking drunk with his legs crossed, almost didn’t make it into the movie. Because horses don’t “naturally” cross their legs, the animal’s trainer told director Silverstein that scene couldn’t be filmed. Afterward he thought that, with a few days’ work, it might be possible. When Silverstein reminded the man that time was of the essence and offered him one hour to do it, the trainer went to work and produced one of filmdom’s greatest visuals. The scene was finally realized when the horse was fed cubes of sugar while his legs were gently plied into just the right position.

When Marvin accepted his Best Actor Oscar for his performance, he started by saying, “Half of this probably belongs to a horse out in the Valley somewhere.”

9. A major Hollywood studio broke with tradition and changed its famous logo for this film.

As the film starts, the iconic and very proper Columbia Pictures “Torch Lady” quickly switches to an animated sequence — becoming a cartoon version of the film’s main character, Cat Ballou, unsheathing her six-shooters and firing them up in the air. Great fun! Incidentally, there were supposedly five other movies that used the same device. Does anyone know them?

10. The lead star was a leader in the home video exercise industry.

Thanks to Jane Fonda, the VHS and Beta home video industry got off to a great start with her top-selling videotape, The Jane Fonda Workout.  It was also the very first RCA CED videodisc — remember those? Jane’s videos were a big hit thanks to her own prowess as a savvy businesswoman and mentor to thousands…and her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner helped keep her high-profile image on the forefront for many years.

Now spend a minute with some scenes in this trailer from Cat Ballou (1965):