At his acceptance of the Oscar, Lee Marvin opened by saying, "Half of this probably belongs to a horse out in the Valley somewhere".
Nat 'King' Cole had a nightly singing engagement at a Lake Tahoe nightclub. He would commute daily between Lake Tahoe and the set in order to do both. Everyone noticed that Cole was coughing a great deal whenever he was on the set and losing weight, but most figured he was just running himself down with such a gruelling schedule. Unbeknownst to them and to Cole himself, he was already very sick with lung cancer.
Lee Marvin earned just $30,000 for his work here. Following his Oscar win, he was earning up to $1,000,000 for Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Monte Walsh (1970).
Kirk Douglas turned down the role of Shelleen. Jack Palance desperately wanted the role but was never offered it.
The film's horse trainer told Elliot Silverstein that the scene where a horse leans against a wall with its front legs crossed could not be shot because horses don't cross their legs, but that it might be possible if he had a couple of days. Silverstein invoked his rank as director and gave him an hour. The trainer plied the horse with sugar cubes while repeatedly pushing its leg into position, and they were able to get the shot.
Roy Chanslor's original novel was a serious western. The comedy elements were added for the film.
Even though everyone knew that they were making at least a good film, no one had any idea that they were making a classic. Jane Fonda recalled - "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. I hadn't been around when they filmed Lee's horse, leaning cross-legged up against the barn in what's become a classic image, or when Lee tries to shoot the side of the barn."
While Lee Marvin's drunken antics kept most of the cast and crew laughing, it didn't make a fan out of Jane Fonda, who had the job of playing her character straight while the others got to ham it up, and took her role very seriously. Too seriously for Marvin, who according to Dwayne Hickman, was always trying to joke with her and make her lighten up. Hickman recalls that Fonda was "less than enthusiastic about the movie. She wanted to do more serious work and playing straight man to a bunch of crazy characters wasn't her idea of great filmmaking." Marvin's efforts to loosen her up were met with annoyance from Fonda. It didn't help their relationship either that Marvin insulted her French husband Roger Vadim while he was visiting the location set in Colorado. "When he was drunk," said Vadim in his 1986 memoir Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda, "he would tell me that he hated the French. 'But,' he would add, 'I like you because you're half Russian, even though I hate Russians also.'"
Lee Marvin's larger-than-life personality and fondness for tipping back the bottle made the actor a raucous but irresistible presence on the set. "Working with Lee Marvin was an unbelievable experience," said Dwayne Hickman. "Never have I met such an outrageous personality. Lee loved to drink, and the more he drank, the more outrageous he became. He had a story about everything and everybody. He also had very definite theories on acting and a style that was all his own. Lee figured if a little bit was good, a lot would be so much better. As a result, each take of a scene was bigger than the last." According to Hickman, Marvin sometimes used alcohol to enhance his performance as the drunken Kid Shelleen. For instance, the very first scene that Marvin shot was the one in which everyone meets Kid Shelleen for the first time, and he is falling down drunk. "He rehearsed several times," said Hickman, "and then went behind the barn and took a shot of vodka to steel himself. I ran into him in front of his dressing room where he had just gotten sick. When I asked if he was all right, he said, in typical Lee Marvin fashion, 'Tension, baby...just a little tension.'"
Like several other Columbia releases of the 1960s (e.g., Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Strait-Jacket (1964)), this film includes a spoof of the studio logo; in this case, the lady with the torch doffing her robes in animation and turning into a cartoon cowgirl.
Modern-day audiences regard Lee Marvin's Oscar win for a raucous comedy with puzzlement, especially given the heavy-hitting dramas released the same year, such as Darling (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Ship of Fools (1965). At the time, however, Marvin's over-the-top portrayal of two total-opposite brothers was a revelation following a career playing one-note heavies. The actor had never had an opportunity to show his lighter side, and audiences loved what they saw - to the point where Marvin's nomination that year was for Cat Ballou (1965) rather than the far more prestigious and dramatic Ship of Fools (1965).
Based loosely on the true story of the "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" gang, that was one of many robber bands that dwelt between heists at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Wyoming. This is referenced when Sheleen calls the storekeeper in the Hole-in-the-Wall general store "Cassidy". The character of Cat Ballou is equivalent to the real life robber "Etta Place" whose true identity is unknown.
When filming the scene where Kid Shelleen takes a bath and dons his costume, director Elliot Silverstein had all actions timed to the beat of a metronome, its pace increasing when Shelleen takes his guns. He planned to have the scene scored with Spanish guitars following this beat, but the producer was adamantly opposed to anything Spanish in a Western. In the end, electric guitars were used.
Ranked #10 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Western" in June 2008.
Conceived as a lightweight, commercial western spoof, the film unexpectedly went on to garner five Academy Award nominations - Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Score, and Best Song.
According to Jane Fonda, production moved at a brisk pace - "It seemed we'd never do two takes unless the camera broke down. The producers had us working overtime day after day, until one morning Lee Marvin took me aside. 'Jane,' he said, 'we are the stars of this movie. If we let the producers walk all over us, if we don't stand up for ourselves, you know who suffers most? The crew. The guys who don't have the power we do to say, 'Sh*t, no, we're workin' too hard.' You have to get some backbone, girl. Learn to say no when they ask you to keep working.'"
The "shouters" are identified as "Professor Sam the Shade and the Sunrise Kid" in their song, but Stubby Kaye was supposed to be the Sunrise Kid and Nat 'King' Cole was to be Professor Sam the Shade. As they sang the song, however they indicated by their body language that Kaye was the Shade and Cole was Sunrise. The tight shooting schedule, or perhaps the director's recognition of the comedic irony of the switch resulted in it being left In the final edit.
This film inspired NBC to make two different pilots which aired on consecutive days in 1971: Cat Ballou (1971) with Lesley Ann Warren, and Cat Ballou (1971) with Forrest Tucker.
As she was sharing time between France and Hollywood at the time, Jane Fonda dubbed herself in the French-speaking version.
Aside from the grueling pace, the cast had a wonderful time making the film. Lee Marvin in particular seemed to relish his dual role as Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn. "Lee was playing this whole thing with a kind of bravado that caused his colleagues on the crew to break up laughing on every take." said director Elliot Silverstein in a 2000 interview. There were times during the shoot, however, when Silverstein was uncertain about the direction that Marvin was taking the character of Kid Shelleen. It was clear that regardless of how Silverstein wanted a scene played, Marvin had his own ideas. Often he would just nod his head at Silverstein's directions and play the scene in the way he saw fit. When producer Harold Hecht noticed how Marvin's comedic performance kept the cast and crew in stitches, he convinced Silverstein that Marvin's instincts were right.
Lee Marvin's Oscar winning performance in this film is his only Academy Award nomination.
Is the favorite film of actor Bryan Cranston, who has said he took comfort from the film as a child following his parents' divorce.
The cast and crew had to work fast for the location shots since they needed to beat the inevitable Colorado winter weather and finish up before the first snowfall.
Producer Joachim Heider was wary of Lee Marvin's seemingly uncontrolled performance during production and at one point planned to fire Marvin. But director Elliot Silverstein told Hecht that if Marvin left the picture, he would as well.
In 1956 the film was originally announced as a musical to star Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the brothers eventually played by Lee Marvin; several years later, John Saxon was linked to the project, most likely playing some version of one of the younger characters portrayed by Dwayne Hickman or Tom Nardini.
When the Colorado location shoot was done, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood to complete filming at the studio. The entire shooting time including the location work took an economical six weeks.
Jane Fonda reportedly didn't understand the film when she read the script, but because she was under contract to Columbia Pictures at the time, she had no choice but to take the role of Cat Ballou.
Lee Marvin essentially reprised his Kid Shelleen character four years later for his portrayal of Ben Rumson in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Ironically, where critics had lauded the scenery chewing of his earlier performance, they crucified his work on the same grounds in the later film. Of course, in this film Marvin doesn't attempt to sing.
Frankie Ballou claimed that he heard a lecture by an ex-Congressman who claimed that the Sioux were one of the lost tribes of Israel. In the 18th and 19th century, suitable for the time period of the film, there were scholars who entertained that notion. In 1831 a Bible professor named Epaphras Jones noted similarities in European Jews and "Aborigines in America".
The sculpture "The End of the Trail" was not Remington, but, in fact, was done by James Earle Fraser who, among many other things, designed the Buffalo nickel which was minted from 1913 to 1938.
Frank Pierson was the 11th writer on the script, following on the heels of screenwriter Walter Newman.
Lee Marvin unexpectedly catapulted to stardom in 1965 through two polar-opposite performances in Cat Ballou (1965) and Ship of Fools (1965), and the momentum of his shift from supporting actor to bona fide movie star led to what many consider an undeserving Oscar for a glorified supporting role in Cat Ballou.
The train used in the movie was owned by Everett L. Rohrer, who played the engineer in the movie.
Lee Marvin doesn't make his entrance as Kid Shelleen until thirty-six minutes into the film. As Cat Ballou (1965) runs only 97 minutes and Marvin does not appear in every scene, the actor had roughly a half-hour's worth of footage to establish two characters, making his performance one of the Oscar-winning roles in the Best Actor category with the shortest amount of screen time. The only actor to achieve a Best Actor win with less screen time was Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931).
Lee Marvin and his horse leaning against the building is a direct sendup of the Frederick Remington sculpture "The End of the Trail."
Robert Phillips has a minor role as one of town bad guys. Phillips and Lee Marvin would appear together two years later in The Dirty Dozen (1967), where Phillips plays one of the prison guards.
Jackson Two-Bears remarks in the beginning of the film that he was just a young child during Custer's last stand. That would be about right. The graduation photo of Catherine Ballou says it was 1894, and Custer's last stand was 18 years earlier. Two-Bears looks like he would have been a kid then.
Lee Marvin previously wore the same hat (or an identical one) in The Twilight Zone (1959) episode, The Twilight Zone: The Grave (1961).
Included among the American Film Institute's 2000 list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies at #50.
Cat Ballou is a character in the card game "Bang! Gold Rush" (2011) along with several other famous old western names.
Lee Marvin did not click with Jane Fonda on the set. He said she was too pretentious.
The performances of Nat 'King' Cole and Stubby Kaye are delivered entirely through song.