Many Western films are often very serious, featuring murder, revenge, and epic shootouts. It’s rather surprising, then, that one of the genre’s most enduring efforts, Elliot Silverstein’s “Cat Ballou,” is an out-and-out comedy, taking the very serious Roy Chanslor novel “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” and sprinkling it with a whole lot of laughs.
Narrated through song by music legends Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole, the story has the makings of your archetypal Western: “Cat Ballou” stars Hollywood legend Jane Fonda as the titular Cat Ballou, who is about to be executed in Wyoming. Before this, we go back in time to learn that Ballou is an extremely determined and confident woman who will do whatever it takes to protect her family, specifically her father’s ranch. While the elements are there to make it a standard Western, the fact that the lead character is female was a huge change for a genre typically dominated by men (who, by the way, are the prominent characters in every other film on this list). Lee Marvin stars in an Oscar-winning double role as the menacing Tim Strawn and the drunken mess Kid Shelleen, both of whom are gunslingers.
“Cat Ballou” is hilarious, while providing plenty of surprises and standout moments. It’s genuinely exciting to see a genre that has a reputation for being stuck in its ways receive such a glorious send-up, and we’re willing to bet that’s why the film comes in at number 10 on the AFI’s list of the best Westerns.