Maybe I Just Don't Like Jane Fonda
I can't help wondering how Richard Burton felt about losing Best Actor to Lee Marvin for this. I mean, arguably, this wasn't even a leading performance for Lee. I'd put it to you that there [i]is[/i] no male lead in this movie, and if there is, it's one of the younger men, probably the one who's trying to seduce Jane Fonda through the whole thing. I know I keep saying that comedies should win more Oscars, and I really do believe that. Comedy is harder than it looks; it has to be, because if you can see the work, it isn't funny anymore. However, some comedic performances are harder work than others, and this one simply isn't very difficult. It's a character Lee Marvin had played many times before, and about the only difference here was that he was playing it for laughs. It was also definitely a laughing-at character, not a laughing-with character.
Young Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda) is going to hang. She killed a man, and with the help of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, our Greek chorus, we enter flashback to when she was a sweet, innocent graduate of some finishing school or another, returning home to her father's ranch in Wyoming. She ends up encountering a pair of criminals (Michael Callan as Clay Boone and Dwayne Hickman as Jed) before getting there. Once home, she discovers that her father is being pressured to sell his ranch to a development company. They have brought in a gunslinger, Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), who has a silver nose because someone bit his off in a duel. So the Ballous' ranch hand, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), suggests that Cat hire her own gunslinger. Clay and Jed find their way to the Ballou ranch, and they hire Kid Shelleen (also Lee Marvin). Who turns out to be a total drunk and unable to prevent Tim Strawn from killing Frankie Ballou (John Marley). So for some reason, Cat decides they need to become bank robbers, and they end up seeking revenge against the town and the head of the development company.
I'll admit I wasn't paying the closest attention to this movie, but I think I missed a lot. I would look away, then look back, and some major development had happened in the movie, and I'd missed it. I didn't see the death of Frankie Ballou. I just saw Cat trying to kill Tim Strawn. In fact, I missed that he and Kid Shelleen were both played by Lee Marvin, because Tim Strawn didn't have a whole lot of lines. If I had, the big reveal about their characters would not have been a surprise at all. And in fact, when Kid Shelleen was talking about Tim Strawn just before that reveal, I assumed that he was giving information we already had and that I just hadn't noticed, being distracted by something more interesting. I guess that makes Marvin's Oscar win for the movie a little less ridiculous, but only a little. So he had a double role as [i]two[/i] surly, drunken gunfighters. Does that mean he deserved to beat Baron Larry?
As for Cat herself, I didn't really understand her character arc. She went from a prim young lady, albeit one who read dime novels slipped into her copy of Tennyson, to deciding that the solution to all their problems was to rob a train. Seeking vengeance on the company, I can understand. But she seemed genuinely surprised to discover that they had stolen the company's payroll, so it wasn't deliberate on her part that I could tell. Or maybe that was something else I missed. I understood why she rode off with the various outlaws (and the Indian); she literally had nowhere else to go at that point. Her father was her only relative, and somehow--you will not be surprised to know that I missed how--the development company owned the ranch. Okay. However, couldn't she have gone somewhere to be a schoolmarm? I thought that was what she'd been trained in, but no. Train-robbing. Which she does turn out to be pretty good at, but still.
This is before the rise of the Revisionist Western, which you may recall that we have defined before as "a Western where you don't like any of the characters." I didn't like Cat much, but that was probably because I just don't seem to like Jane Fonda much. I did, however, like Jackson a fair amount. I wanted more about him. And if you're going to have a Greek chorus in a Western, sure, have it be a couple of singers, one of whom is Nat King Cole. This also, four years before [i]Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid[/i], has Butch Cassidy, here played by Arthur Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt is one of the prominent figures of my childhood, as he would the next year play Bull in [i]El Dorado[/i]. The movies are fairly different, but the thing they have in common is that they are about the heroes of our Western legends growing old. This Butch owns a saloon/general store in some small town, apparently not being inclined toward going to Bolivia. He tells Kid Shelleen flat out that no one cares anymore. That was never quite true, but it was, when this movie is set, true enough.