Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) is about to meet her maker. She was captured for a heinous crime and now sits in prison as the gallows are prepared outside, with the citizens of Wolf City eager to see her hang for all the trouble she has caused them. But how could such an innocent-looking young woman have created such upheaval? For the answer to that, we must travel back in time to the point she was leaving her school, having trained as a teacher, and on the train she met a couple of ne'erdowells, cattle rustlers who were travelling with her, and would be a big part of her life from then on...
They're not all who will be significant as Cat - Catherine - is heading to see her father Frankie (John Marley) who lives on a ranch outside Wolf City, but the corrupt officials there want to hound him off his land for their own devious ends. If this is coming across as a straight ahead Western, with the novelty of a female lead, then that's the way the source novel was, but for the movie there was a twist. Long in development, a style was settled on and that was comedy, spiced up with musical numbers though oddly not performed by the main players: for the songs, Nat 'King' Cole (who had died by the time this was released) and Stubby Kaye were our unlikely crooning Greek chorus.
Which was a very successful conceit, with the balladeers commenting on the action as it unfolded, both in humorous verse and more melancholy form for the sad bits. It wasn't those two who won the attention however, as this was the film which won Lee Marvin his Oscar in the dual role of gunfighters, one mean and coldly efficient, Strawn with the silver nose (it had been bitten off in a brawl), the other Kid Shelleen, the hero of Cat's favourite pulp novels who turns out to be a real person. So who better to defend her father against the baddies than him? Alas, once he arrives it's clear the years have not been kind, as he's a raging alcoholic who can barely hold a gun - so can Cat whip him into shape?
She can, assisted by those terrible twosome she met escaping the law on the train, love interest Clay Boone (Michael Callan) and his uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), and to show how progressive this is, her right hand man is an Indian, Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini), who was her father's best friend and now becomes invaluable to Cat. All these men are quickly devoted to her, and with Fonda at her most luminous you can well understand why they would be, but to get even with the authorities in Wolf City they must break the law, and she proves especially ingenious in the way to carry out that. The sense of injustice meted out to Cat and her unofficial family is never far away, and kept this compelling.
Unfortunately, what was less compelling were the jokes, as while going the comedy route was a good idea, the fact only a few scattered laughs are the result meant this could have been a lot wittier; as it is they tended to fall back on slapstick, which while the cast were capable, felt tired. But there were compensations, as a regretful air permeated the tale which prompted the audience to genuinely hope Cat and company win the day, not only because those they are battling fall back on such nasty methods of meddling, getting away with their wrongdoing because they have the law in their pocket and allowing Strawn to kill Frankie with impunity, then claiming to know nothing about their crimes when Cat confronts them. So it may not have been hilarious - though Marvin was excellent value, the fact that he was an alcoholic in real life tended to make the laughter in his direction uncomfortable - but there was a spirit of muddling through against the odds which won you over. Plus the horse. Music by Frank De Vol.