Cat Ballou was based on Roy Chanslor's The Ballad of Cat Ballou, and what started out as an adventure story turned into a Western satire that was shot in approximately 28 days.
“The script was unusual, and I wasn’t sure whether it was any good or not. I’m not sure Lee Marvin knew either,” Jane Fonda remembered. “I have to admit, it wasn’t until I saw the final cut of Cat Ballou that I realized we had a hit on our hands.”
And it was a hit for Fonda’s career too. After Director Arthur Penn watched a rough cut, he decided to cast Fonda opposite Marlon Brando and Robert Redford in The Chase.
Learn more about the Western comedy below!
1. Another star was almost cast.
Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster turned down the role, and Jack Palance wanted it badly. Lee Marvin said, “I started laughing when I read the first line. I didn’t know how good it was, though. Nobody did.” But along with the comedy, Marvin appreciated the reality. "…the part of 'Kid Shelleen' hit pretty close to home for me. It became a reprimand of my drinking habits. I got a good look at myself,” he said. Marvin received his first and only Academy Award win for the part.
2. The horse won an award.
One of the most iconic moments in the film is seeing Lee Marvin drunk on his seemingly-drunk cross-legged horse. The idea was director Elliot Silverstein’s, but the problem was that horses don’t naturally do that. However, thanks to the help of some sugar cubes the wrangler was able to get the horse to perform the trick long enough for them to film it. Smoky the horse won a Craven Award, an award for animal actors, in 1966 for his performance.
3. They lost a cast member before the film’s release.
Similar to a Greek chorus, Cat Ballou features two “street singers” who narrate the tale. Director Elliot Silverstein first thought of Stubby Kaye, whom he had worked with in musical theater before. When the Vice President of Columbia Mitchell Frankovich suggested Nat King Cole for the second, Silverstein knew he was right. Unfortunately, while filming, Cole suffered from the effects of his lung cancer. Nevertheless, when he had down time, he took the time to go fishing with actor Michael Callan. Cole died on February 15, 1965, only a few months before the film's release. “Nat ‘King’ was every bit as kind and wonderful as I had remembered him from my parents’ parties after the war,” Jane Fonda said.
4. Fonda learned from Marvin.
Fonda said, “Being a young woman without much self-esteem, I was easy to take advantage of. The producers had us working very, very long hours on a very low budget.” That’s when Marvin took her aside and explained that if they didn’t say something as the stars of the film, then those who couldn’t speak up about the conditions – such as the crew – would also be taken advantage of. Fonda took the lesson to heart. She said, “I think that speaks reams about the kind of person Lee Marvin was.”