Cat Ballou

Cat Ballou (1965)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Vintage Advertising, Trailers, Talent Files

The image of a drunken cowboy on top of a drunken horse with crossed legs, leaning against a brick wall, has long become the most recognized visual associated with Elliot Silverstein’s 1965 Western comedy "Cat Ballou." It has most likely become iconic because of its pure visual impact, but at the same time it completely embodies the spirit of the film and its essence in a way no other picture ever could. Unimaginable today, the movie was a sleeper hit when it was first released in 1965, and no one in the studio had real faith in the success of the picture. When it eventually took off like a rocket through word-of-mouth, it quickly got the wide distribution, accompanied by the recognition it ultimately deserved. Columbia TriStar Home Video now gives is a digitally remastered version of this splendid movie on DVD that is sure to please the many fans and hopefully make many viewers new fans of this imaginative film.

Catherine "Cat" Ballou is the only daughter of a cranky farmer in Wyoming, who is constantly harassed by the locals. As the railroad eats its way through the country, Ballou’s land is becoming very valuable to the railroad people, but instead of acquiring the pastures legally, they revert to hiring Tim Strawn, a silent gunslinger, to intimidate the farmer. Cat in return hires the legendary gunfighter Kid Shelleen for protection – or whatever is left of him. A drunkard without a gun of his own, Shelleen is hardly the protection she had hoped for and then, one day, Strawn shoots Cat’s father in cold blood.

Seeking revenge, Cat and her friends become outlaws, dead-set on making the town and the railroad pay for the hideous murder. They start robbing trains – with a nicely woven-in cameo by some of the most legendary bank robbers in the Wild West – and eventually decide to take the owner of the railroad hostage and make the city bleed.

Hilarious, sad and yet inspiring, "Cat Ballou" features the perfect mix of social commentary and parody to make the movie work. Bolstered by beautiful images of the Wild West and larded with a variety of enjoyable characters, the movie strikes exactly the right balance between seriousness and hilarity. Jane Fonda puts in a great performance as Cat Ballou. Amidst the most absurd moments and situations, surrounded by jolly characters, she manages to play Cat with a seriousness that amplifies the comical quality of her co-stars. Lee Marvin plays the double-role of Tim Strawn and Kid Shelleen and shines in either of them. Whether he is the silver-nosed wordless gunslinger, or the burnt out boozy drunkard, his performance is as hilarious as you will ever get to see the actor. With incredible riding stunts, Marvin’s characters make a mockery of Wild West stereotypes and become the pivotal points of the movie that break up much of the story’s tension for comic relief, which ultimately became the recipe for the movie’s success.

The DVD that Columbia TriStar Home Video is serving up here contains a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version of the movie in its original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as well as an <$OpenMatte,open matte> full screen presentation on the disc’s flip side. The transfer is generally clean and without distracting defects throughout. The image has a very silk quality, a result of the way colors were processed for the original movie. This slightly pastel color scheme has been nicely transferred to the disc, giving the movie a splendid look that conjures up nostalgic feelings about the Hollywood heydays the moment the film starts rolling. The well-saturated colors of the film are nicely complemented by deep blacks and shadows that maintain a lot of detail without breaking up. Although there is some grain evident in the movie itself, some noise reduction has been applied to give it a stable look. Some edge-enhancement has been applied to give the image additional sharpness, but both have been used very carefully to make sure no distracting artifacts have been introduced with them. The compression is mostly free of artifacts such as <$pixelation,pixelation>, and the level of detail of the transfer is maintained throughout.

The disc contains a 2-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono audio track that is fully adequate for the presentation. Clean and without distortion, the audio may not have the dynamic range of modern mixes, but the sound on this DVD is always coming across nicely, fully complementing the images on screen. Dialogues are well integrated and always understandable and free of any sibilance.
No discussion of "Cat Ballou" would be complete would be complete without mentioning the film’s great musical accompaniments, such as "The Ballad Of Cat Ballou" and "They’ll Never Make Her Cry." Brought to the screen by music legend Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as two god-like observers and storytellers, these songs immediately set the right mood for the film in the beginning. At the same time they are great devices to keep the story rolling and to bridge certain gaps in time and space that are dictated by the story’s narrative. The performances of the songs themselves are beautifully presented on this DVD with great clarity and undistorted glory.

The DVD also contains an audio <$commentary,commentary track> by actors Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman. The two are an entertaining bunch, that take constant potshots at each other. With exciting anecdotes and interesting tidbits, this <$commentary,commentary track> is not only highly informative but also exceedingly entertaining. While going along the movie, both of them throw in memories, thoughts, ideas, jokes and other remarks regarding the actors and the production, and then fall back to comment on particular scenes in the movie as they flicker over the screen. Very entertaining stuff, indeed, and well worth listening to!

The featurette "The Legend Of Cat Ballou" is also a great addition to the release that features interviews with director Elliot Silverstein in which he reminisces about the development of the movie. Talking about the cast and some interesting anecdotes from the shoot of the movie, this 12-minute featurette gives viewers a nicely nostalgic look at how this movie initially came about and why it turned out the way it did. The release is rounded out with a gallery of vintage advertising, the movie’s theatrical trailer, talent files and production notes.

"Cat Ballou" is a whole lot of fun, and I have to admit that I had almost forgotten how entertaining the movie actually is. Whether it’s Jewish Indians, drunken horses, or any of the other hilarious elements that made this film a classic, this DVD brings out the irreverence of the movie in all its glory and makes it a highly amusing experience. Among Western parodies, "Cat Ballou" takes the cake!

Cat Ballooouuuu…. Cat Ballooouuuu…. Cat Ballooouuuu….