I don’t like Westerns…except for all the Westerns I like. No matter how many Westerns I actually enjoy, I find it hard to get past the prototypical idea of the American Western since conversations about the genre always focus on the many serious, dramatic Westerns. But you know what, we should talk more about funny ones like the delightfully silly Cat Ballou, which, like Johnny Guitar, is the rare female-fronted Western. Coincidentally, both films are based on novels by Roy Chanslor, but screenwriters Walter Newman and Frank Pierson took serious Western The Ballad of Cat Ballou and turned it into comedy Western Cat Ballou, which kind of makes this movie the Slumber Party Massacre of Westerns. As such, you may come in expecting a powerful story about a strong, complex woman only to be disappointed. Nobody wants to hear someone ask whether a film is feminist, least of all a man, but if this film may not be as feminist as one would like, is that an actual failure of the film? What is the film’s actual intent in its portrayal of its heroine?
For my money, the key to understanding the film is in “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” which resembles the classic ballads regaling audiences with the tales of gunslingers (as seen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, for instance), but here it goes one step further into good old-fashioned mythmaking, like in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also starring Lee Marvin!). The song paints Cat Ballou as a hardened outlaw who’s about to be hanged in Wolf City, Wyoming in 1894 for killing a man, and there’s a kernel of truth there, but time and time again, it proves to be inaccurate. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye even present opposing views of her, the former describing her as an angel and the latter as a devil (the Devil, even!), before somehow agreeing that she’s “mean and evil through and through.” At no point in this 96-minute movie does Jane Fonda ever portray Cat Ballou as “mean” and/or “evil.” (She does have the smile, eyes, and face of an angel though.) Clearly, then, this ballad is a lie, and they’ve been told to sing the legend. In most Westerns, this simply means that certain plot details are fudged, but this film pokes fun at that trope by asking the audience to imagine this aspiring schoolteacher has led a “life of sin” (which is really closer to…a week of sin).
As the film progresses, the song becomes even more obviously discordant with reality. One of the most repeated lines in “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” is “They’ll never make her cry,” painting her as a stone-hearted tough gal, but literally in the scene after that line first appears, Cat Ballou totally cries because “a horse ranch idiot, a drunken gunfighter, a sex maniac, and an uncle” won’t help her avenge her father’s death. It’s natural to cry, and Cat Ballou is throwing rocks at a bunch of men, so it’s not like she’s weeping alone in a barn. But the song masculinizes her since that’s how these stories go. As if to counteract this stripping of her gender, the song applauds her “crafty female brain” that planned every detail of the train heist, which is a kind fiction given that, in the preceding scene, Cat specifically credits and thanks Kid Shelleen for that plan!
Kid Shelleen presents the biggest obstacle to Cat Ballou’s actually being a movie about a badass lady gunslinger, and he also presents the most evidence that Cat Ballou is not actually a movie about a badass lady gunslinger. He comes pre-mythologized in books that Cat herself loves, but when he enters the film, it’s via “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” and Cole and Kaye introduce him exactly as they introduced Cat, with Cole calling him a killer and Kaye doubling down on the Devil references. And once again, their song proves untrue as Kid Shelleen is revealed to be a drunk…who does know his way around a gun, plans a train heist, has a Batman suit-up montage, and actually kills the villain of the film. When you’ve got Lee Marvin (two Lee Marvins!), I understand why you’d want to use him (twice!), but Kid Shelleen seems to pull so much focus that the film becomes as much his as it is Cat Ballou’s. But if Kid Shelleen gets an entire verse of her song to himself, doesn’t that indicate he is, in fact, an important part of her legend, which still remains her legend? No one else in Cat’s gang is mentioned by name. Is he pumped up at Cat’s expense, or are they fulfilling different roles in the story?
Because here’s the thing: Cat Ballou never comes off as a weak, simpering woman. It’s only that she looks weak compared to, say, Vienna from Johnny Guitar, and that she’s not a sharpshooter like Kid Shelleen. Perhaps she’s portrayed differently in the novel — this is the comedy version — but the film doesn’t make fun of her. She has plenty of agency, and she’s clearly the leader of the gang! That part the song gets absolutely right, as this “dash and daring desperado led her gang with cool bravado,” and they would indeed follow where she’d lead. (They don’t “make the country bleed” though, guys, calm down.) She’s the one who recruits each individual member, and she’s the one who spends fifty whole dollars to hire Kid Shelleen. She’s annoyed that men think women only want marriage! That’s feminist, right? Jane Fonda’s surprisingly fierce in her earnestness, showing a different kind of strength than your usual rootin’-tootin’ cowboys do.
Cat Ballou is an interesting character because she’s a perfect balance between the ultrafeminized damsel and the masculinized female gunslinger. “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” makes her out to be the latter because people only think in binaries, but actually, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. You can be in the middle! You can be tough and still ask for help. You can kill a man and also cry. Perhaps the question isn’t whether Cat Ballou is as tough and hardened as her male counterparts but rather why we need her to be.