The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) by Johnny Web
(aka Uncle Scoopy, aka Greg Wroblewski)
The "man" in the title was played by Burt Reynolds, who is probably best remembered as a loquacious man, quick with a quip. Uncharacteristically, he plays it completely straight here as a humorless, laconic cowboy. It seems that this cowboy, Jay Grobart by name, will do anything to reclaim his half-Shoshone children who were cared for by their mother's tribe while Jay was in prison for murdering the man who raped and killed his wife, the titular Cat Dancing.
As the story begins, Jay has turned into a train robber who needs a suitable amount of money to repay the Shoshone man who has been caring for the two parentless children. As Jay and his gang make their escape from a highly lucrative heist ($100,000 - roughly equivalent to $2 million 2014 dollars. What a train!), they stumble upon a cultured, somewhat prissy housewife named Katherine Crocker (Sarah Miles), who is running away from her wealthy but cruel husband, a dandy who happens to sport a helluva salon tan, since the actor playing him is George Hamilton.
Sarah Miles alone was sufficient to make any film shoot interesting, as much for her antics off-screen as on. You probably know about her extracurricular hanky-panky with Kris Kristofferson while filming a movie called The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea in 1976. They enjoyed their sex scenes in that movie so much that they staged some additional ones for a Playboy pictorial. Kristofferson's wife, Rita Coolidge, was not impressed by their devotion to the craft, and ended the marriage soon after, a development which Kris professed to regret deeply. Sarah engaged in similar shenanigans on the set of Cat Dancing. During the shoot, her personal assistant and secret lover, David Whiting, was found dead in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances. The resulting investigation and the attendant publicity served to expose the affair between the actress and her assistant, which ultimately broke the back of her marriage to Robert Bolt, a highly respected playwright (A Man for All Seasons) and screenwriter (Lawrence of Arabia).
As far as the movie itself goes, I guess you've probably already figured out that the outlaw and the housewife will fall in love, after she does an appropriate amount of acting aloof before loosening up. The dramatic tension in the film is not a result of the love story between the mismatched couple, but the danger inherent in their trek, as they flee from the site of the robbery to the Shoshone encampment while being pursued and/or threatened by renegade Indians, the woman's husband, a tough Wells Fargo enforcer (Lee J. Cobb), the hostile desert, and dissension within the outlaw band. Since this is a 1970's film, it is also mandatory that the housewife get slapped around by her husband, and raped or nearly raped several times by various outlaws and Indians. That was probably not an inaccurate representation of the West after the Civil War. Let's face it, the "Wild West" sucked for women.
As is typical in many 1970s films, the screenplay spends a great deal of time on character development at the expense of pacing and plot. That element of 1970s zeitgeist is perhaps exacerbated still further by the fact that the screenplay was adapted by a woman from a novel written by another woman, which lends a certain feminist attitude, although scenarist Eleanor Perry claimed that her work was heavily re-written. Perhaps that is so, because she wrote some other films which were widely praised, like David and Lisa and Diary of a Mad Housewife, while The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was greeted unenthusiastically by critics and was so generally forgotten that it didn't make it onto DVD until 2009, and even then merely onto one of those no-frills Warner catalog issues. To be fair, the plot is not all bad. While the outcome of the love story and the chase are quite predictable, there is a very surprising plot twist when ol' Jay arrives at the Shoshone camp and meets his children, an encounter which allows the script to demonstrate some wisdom and depth which lift the film above the level of the cliches found elsewhere in the presentation.
The film score is also a plus, or a least an interesting historical footnote. It's an early effort from future superstar composer John Williams, who was nominated for something like 35 Oscars and wrote just about every familiar mainstream score from every blockbuster you can name: Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Raiders, Superman, etc. (In fact, he's still churning out scores as I write this in 2014.) While the music from Cat Dancing is not one of his more memorable efforts, one of his melodies from this film, with the addition of some lyrics by Paul Williams, became a beautiful and semi-famous Sinatra song called "Dream Away," from the "Ol' Blue Eyes is Back" album.
There's also plenty of 1970's nostalgia to be had in this film. You'll not only get a dose of 70s sensibility, but you'll see all your old friends in the process. In addition to those already mentioned, the great supporting cast includes Bo Hopkins, Jack Warden, Jay "Tonto" Silverheels, Robert "Exidor" Donner and James Hampton (who must have been a good buddy of Burt Reynolds, because they never seemed to get too far apart).
WARNING, TOTAL SPOILERS BELOW:
There are two major plot problems:
(1) We and Katherine are originally led to believe that Jay killed his wife's rapist and murderer. The first big surprise is that Jay actually killed the man because he thought him to be his wife's lover. And that man did not kill Cat Dancing, Jay did in a jealous rage, and he did so in front of his children. The second surprise is that the man really had raped Cat Dancing, so Jay had killed his wife for no reason, despite the fact that his son was tearfully trying to tell him the truth.
I don't mention this because I have any objection to that dark and downbeat plot twist. In fact, as I implied in the main body of my review above, it thought it was a great relief from the predictability of the remainder of the script.
It created a serious plot hole. The housewife fell in love with Jay because she thought he was actually noble in his dealings with his wife and children. When she found out that he had been lying to her, and that he killed his wife in front of his kids in a fit of rage which made him incapable of listening to his son's pleas, her reason for loving him should have departed, or at least should have moved immediately to shaky ground. The script does not deal with this. The same night she heard this revelation, she was again making love to him with the same goo-goo eyes, as if nothing had changed, leaving nothing but Stockholm Syndrome to explain her infatuation. I don't buy it.
(2) The Wells Fargo tracker eventually let Jay go free because the outlaw had turned in the saddle-bags full of money, whereupon the tracker concluded "it's all here" (counting $100,000 in bills and coins from a cursory glance, no less). The scriptwriter (or the re-writer) seems to have completely forgotten that a band of drunken renegade Indians burned a lot of the paper money in a fire, and that one of the outlaws ran off with a portion of the money. Therefore, the money could not have been "all there," and therefore, the Wells Fargo agent should have brought Jay to justice.
So, in typical Hollywood fashion, Burt Reynolds ended up with both the girl and his freedom, but neither of those developments made any sense in context, a fact which perhaps serves to explain why this film is nearly forgotten.
Book to Screenplay adaptation:
This section again contains major spoilers, for both the book and the film
The screenplay begins as an extremely faithful adaptation of the book. About the first half of the movie, perhaps a little more, follows the book in every significant way including characterizations, descriptions, dialogue and plot. That fact is interesting in its own way, but the real food for thought comes when the script stars to diverge from the book, and we try to analyze why that happened and whether it made the movie better, worse, or just different.
The screenplay follows the book until a member of the outlaw gang named Dawes, the Jack Warden character who had run away from the renegade Indian attack with some of the money, surprises Jay and Katherine in an abandoned mining town. In the book, Dawes rapes Catherine while Jay is napping, but since she just wants him to leave, she fails to report the rape to Jay, who splits the money with Dawes, then bids him a reasonably amicable farewell. In the movie, Dawes ends up dead in the mining town, and Jay ends up with all of the money.
The film's next significant divergence from the book comes in Jay's revelation of the past events that led him to kill his wife (Cat Dancing). In the book's version, Jay had originally found out from his son that his wife had been with other men, so he killed them and her in a jealous rage. He received a long prison sentence and, worse, later found out at the Shoshone encampment that his son had lied. Cat Dancing had never been with any other man, and the three men Jay killed were (of course) completely innocent. They were simply three men that Jay had noticed looking at his lovely young wife, so he either beat or browbeat Cat into admitting that she had been with them. Jay was unable to believe that the beautiful young woman really loved him, and so he had been constantly jealous of the attention she received from other men. In the film's version, there was only one man and he really had raped Cat, but Jay refused to believe the sex was non-consensual. In his mind, his wife had taken a lover, even though his weeping son tried to tell him that Cat Dancing was innocent. The film's version softens Jay's crime in that he killed one man who was either Cat's lover or her rapist. We don't condone his vigilante justice in the film's version, but we can understand it. In the original literary version, however, Jay had not only murdered his innocent wife, but three innocent men as well. While we can understand why he was enraged at the actions of his wife (remember his son had made up the story of her infidelity), we can't feel even the slightest empathy for his actions toward the three men. Their guilt was entirely fabricated in Jay's jealous imagination.
Finally, the film created a happy Hollywood ending. The Wells Fargo agent felt that got his money back (even though this was actually not possible based on previous plot developments, as detailed above), so he let Jay and Katherine go free. I guess I don't have to explain to you how unlikely that would be, even if 100% of the money had been recovered. The book, on the other hand, ended realistically. The Wells Fargo agent and Katherine's deputized husband eventually tracked down the fugitive couple. Katherine's husband shot and killed Jay, whereupon Katherine, who was by then in love with Jay, proceeded to deliver a fatal gunshot to her husband. The books ends with her fainting in the realization of what had occurred, with the Wells Fargo agent catching her as she was falling, her ultimate fate unspecified.
In the book, Jay had a conscience and was capable of remorse and regret, but was ultimately unable to do the right things, and paid the proper price for his actions. In the film, Jay got away scot-free and got the girl, even though people had died in the train robbery that he masterminded, and even though the revelations from his past limned a portrait of a uncontrollably violent and jealous man who had killed a woman that loved him, while their children watched and his son begged for their mother's life.
It's been my experience that tinkering with some parts of a plot almost always creates a domino effect upon other developments hinging on the original unaltered details. Rarely, if ever, does a screenwriter manage to keep all the corollary events consistent with the changes he or she made. It is worth nothing that this film's two major plot holes, as detailed above, did not exist in the book, but were created by the screenwriter's having changed some of the original plot elements without changing other details that depended on those elements.
1) In the book, Katherine did not have to find out the truth about Jay's past in the Shoshone encampment, and he had not been hiding it from her. He had already told her the truth about the multiple homicide (or at least what he thought was the truth), and she had already accepted that he had killed his wife in a jealous rage. She wasn't thrilled with the truth, but she felt that staying with Jay was still preferable to returning to her husband. She and Jay found out about the son's lie at the same time, but that gave her no reason to change her opinion of him. Whatever the truth ultimately happened to be, the fact remained that Jay felt he had a proper motivation at the time of the killing, and Katherine had already accepted that. The revelation of the son's lie was a traumatic experience for Jay, because he then realized that he had killed innocent people, including a wife who loved him. Katherine, on the other hand, had no reason to change her opinion of him.
2) The Wells Fargo agent did not let Jay go free, and had no intention of doing so. While the amount of the monetary restitution had no real impact on that decision, Jay had in fact returned less than half of the money, because some was burned by the Indians, and the remainder was split 50-50 with Dawes.
(In all fairness, perhaps I should not blame the "screenwriter" for these problems, since I have not seen Eleanor Perry's original script. I can't determine if the source of the inconsistencies came from her or from the extensive re-writing process which she publicly deplored.)
Setting aside the inconsistent or illogical plot elements for a moment and getting back to the central question of whether the changes from the book made the film better, my verdict is that they did not. They were obviously intended to make the film more commercial by making Jay a better person and by avoiding the book's downbeat ending. Despite that, the film was not a box office success. On the other hand, the happy ending turned the story into a routine Hollywood film which now seems more like the predictable studio Westerns of the 50s than the groundbreaking cinema of the 70s. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), which had the grit and the grim ending that this book warranted, is now remembered as a classic film, while Cat Dancing, a pretty good but not great movie, is barely remembered at all.