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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Cat Ballou

It's often been said that comedy gets short shrift at the Oscars, and I suppose that's true. Only three comedies have won Best Picture (You Can't Take It With You, Tom Jones, and Annie Hall), and as far as I'm concerned, only two purely comic performances have won Oscars--Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Lee Marvin's in Cat Ballou.

I was only four years old when Marvin won, so I don't know what all the circumstances were. The other nominees were dramatic ones--Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Laurence Olivier for Othello, Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, and Oskar Werner for Ship of Fools. Steiger and Marvin were the only Americans, and only Olivier had won before. I've seen four of these performances, and Steiger's is the most obviously Oscar material.

But, Marvin's performance is great. He plays two roles (off the top of my head, I believe it's the only Oscar-winning performance in which an actor plays more than one role). He is both the cold-blooded killer Tim Strawn, who wears a prosthetic nose (it was bit off in a bar fight) and the gunfighter Kid Sheleen, once a hero of dime novels, now a drunken shell of a man.

The title character is played by a young Jane Fonda, before her trip to Hanoi (and what a beauty she was--and still is). She is a prim woman of the west, about to become a teacher. She is returning home after her schooling on a train and gets involved with a couple of bumbling outlaws (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman), helping them escape. Then, when she arrives at her father's ranch, she finds that he's being forced out by higher powers, who have hired Strawn.

Fonda, a fan of dime novels, hires Sheleen, and she's disappointed to see the drunken wretch who arrives. He can shoot for a few moments after he's had a drink, but then turns into a stumblebum. It's his drunken antics, with eyes rolling and physical contortions, that make him so funny. Marvin had spent a career playing tough guys, and his departure into physical comedy may have been the reason voters chose him.

Anyway, Fonda's father is killed (in one of the great gags of the film, Marvin mistakes the candles around his coffin for birthday cake and sings a rousing verse of "Happy Birthday to You") and Fonda and her "gang" rob a train to get back at the company that had her father murdered. Marvin cleans up his act and faces off against Strawn, and Fonda kills the company president and is scheduled to hang. All this is sung to us by a pair of buskers (Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole) acting as a Greek chorus in a terrific ballad. I'm still humming it in my head, and singing "Wolf City, Wyoming."

Cat Ballou is very funny and is not be to taken seriously for one minute. Hickman is very funny, especially when he disguises himself as a drunken preacher ("I'm as drunk as a skunk"). One of the great sight gags is late in the film, when Marvin is atop his horse, leaning against the wall, the horse with his legs crossed. I believe this is based on a statue, but I can't find that information anywhere. If anyone knows the name of the statue, please comment. When Marvin accepted his Oscar, he said, "I think half of this belongs to a horse in the valley somewhere."

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