Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Forever commemorated as the source of a Simpsons musical gag, Paint Your Wagon is
indeed a title that gets rented on the basis of its action hero stars, only to turn out to be an
old-fashioned musical. Well, not exactly. Of all the roadshow 'family' pictures of the 1960s, it's
the only one to be re-rated PG-13, for 'thematic material.' Hailing from the stage way back in 1951,
the adaptation of this bloated, ill-guided spectacular points up exactly what not to do when bringing
a Broadway play to the movie screen.
In wild and wooly California in the gold rush days, miner Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin)
digs a grave for an accident victim and discovers a promising gold claim, which leads to the
instantaneous founding of a miner's camp. Rumson also takes care of the
victim's brother, who he nicknames Pardner (Clint Eastwood). The two are the best of friends until
Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) comes along, an unhappy 2nd bride in a Mormon marriage. The polygamous
husband sells out, and as high bidder, Ben wins a bride. She's adventurous and willing, but
demands that Ben build her a real cabin in this tent city. After various bouts with jealousy, and
adventures like stealing a wagonload of prostitutes for the camp, real trouble brews when Elizabeth
falls in love with Pardner as well as Ben. Proclaiming she loves them both, Elizabeth suggests a
Following the success of Sound of Music, Hollywood got the complete idea that a roadshow
blockbuster musical could be made from anything. Adapted by Paddy Chayefsky as a 'lusty' tale of
multiple marriage in the Gold Rush days, the story here is as tasteless as anything ever sold to the
public as family entertainment. Millions of middle-class Americans took their kids to Paint Your
Wagon, and probably came away thinking that all of Hollywood had gone to the devil.
There's a spot of
romance in the picture, but most of the time it uses its 'one woman-two men' theme for cheap laughs.
The real subject of the film is the plight of horny working men, who are seen as harmless clowns. The
word 'horny' is actually used a couple of times! A
major diversionary plot point is the conversion of a pious young boy into a dissolute whoremonger.
The biggest action scene is the hijacking of another town's bawdy women for the camp's pleasure. Very
long and mostly pointless, the story has a sickly case of the cutes, and winds up in a 'so what'
It's highly unlikely that Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, specialists in cynical and violent pictures,
ever saw themselves as becoming musical stars, and most of the derision aimed at Paint Your Wagon
makes fun of these unlikely-voiced action leads crooning ballads suitable for the likes of Burl Ives
or Robert Goulet. The fact that they sang for themselves was a major anomaly. Hollywood musicals
had a nasty history of redubbing perfectly good singers (Lena Horne, Russ Tamblyn) for the craziest
reasons, but in the 1960s the big crime was stealing stage successes for use as vehicles for movie
stars, ditching the original stage talent in the process. Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Juliet Prowse
others are practically unknown today because the plays they made famous have lived on as movie
versions without them. These were the Marni Nixon years. She was an anonymous singer who voiced
songs for everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Natalie Wood. Otherwise delightful films like My Fair
Lady have a curious hollow at their center, when the singing turns out to be phony.
The singing in Paint Your Wagon isn't phony, but is it singing? Eastwood's voice is thin and
dry, and Marvin growls his way through one off-key tune after another. The
casting may have seemed adventurous at the time, but for the actors, this was probably the Big
Payday, to sock in the cash after decades of low-salaried roles. A case can be made for Marvin extending
his range, after surprising the town with his drunken Kid Sheleen character in Cat Ballou.
It was a big treat, for some reason, to think of Marvin as a brilliant comedian, as if the idea that
an actor playing against type was some kind of miracle.
In Clint's case, it must have been the big money that attracted him to Paint Your Wagon.
Not long back from making his name in Italy in the probably grossly underpaid Leone films, Eastwood
spent 1968-70 raking in big bucks as a top star, and figuring out how to extend his range past a
few facial scowls. He quickly found his footing, but for acting, Paint Your Wagon may be
his dullest role.
The grossly overproduced musical comedy was filmed at an expensive remote mountain location by
a full Hollywood crew. From reports Savant has heard, it was a major sinkhole for Paramount dollars,
with weather causing terrible delays and every crewmember profiting from the chaos in glorious
overtime surcharges. Perhaps the inefficiency and waste had a hand in Clint Eastwood's decision to
start directing some of his own films not soon after. Savant's always suspected that Clint's big
Hollywood success was derived mostly from the fact that he brought his films in so cheaply. Cameraman
Bill Fraker also turned director for a spell after Paint Your Wagon;
with Monte Walsh and Reflection of Fear. Monstrously overbudget, overschedule pictures
like this one often result in key personnel making career changes.
The big attraction of Paint Your Wagon is Jean Seberg, a very interesting choice for the role
of Elizabeth. Associated with leftist causes and experimental filmmakers, Seberg may have been a studio
dealmaker's attempt to tap into somebody's idea of a hip demographic. In reality, the star of Godard's
Breathless and Rosson's obscure Lilith had mostly worked in Europe and was in the middle
of a final attempt at Hollywood stardom. She landed parts in Pendulum and Airport,
but basically was not heard of again until her death in 1979 brought forth juicy tabloid stories about
her involvement with Black Panthers. Sort of a
latter-day Frances Farmer, 1
rumors have circulated about Seberg being murdered by the FBI or the CIA.
Although it comes to naught in a movie that starts as a tease and snoozes into a bible story, Jean
Seberg brings a freshness and vitality to her Elizabeth role. Starting as a Mormon chattel-wife with
a knowing smirk and a wandering eye, she soon shows herself to be stronger than her male bedmates,
making a particularly shrewd bargain with the sex-tamed Rumson. On their wedding night, Rumson rips the
top of her dress off (probably emptying theaters of churchgoers from here to Sioux City, Iowa), and
Seberg's provocative pride in her sexual power makes for about twenty seconds of real movie. Somewhere
between the bawdy sex-toy image of Kim Novak (Kiss Me, Stupid) and the later feminist 'real women'
image, stands this independent but welcoming vision of feminine power.
Unfortunately, none of this goes
beyond the idea stage. Paint Your Wagon prefers to waste its time in witless whorehouse humor that
keeps most of the film at the level of 'F Troop.' What one remembers from the show are some nice Hallmark
Card scenery, and the misused Ray Walston's bad Scots accent. In the unimpressive big finish, the Sodom-like
town collapses into the earth, undermined by greedy tunnel diggers. Going to Hell, get it?
Paramount's DVD of Paint Your Wagon is a very good-looking disc that shows off the beautiful
photographic exteriors and Bill Fraker's smoky interiors to great effect. The classic songs (They Call the
Wind Mariah) are strong in Dolby Digital, and the Intro and exit music is intact. A trailer tries to
sell the film as if it were an action picture, with every punch and pratfall intact. The disc is both
closed-captioned and has English subtitles, that sometimes show ignorance of the lyrics: "...the rain is
Tess, the fire's JOE, and they call the wind Mariah ..."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paint Your Wagon rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: Jan 1, 2002
1. The wonderful actress and star of Come and Get It commemorated
by Jessica Lange in the depressing film Frances. An intellectual and politically active woman,
Farmer was spurned by Hollywood for not playing the game. She later became mentally ill, and was
institutionalized. Frances claims that her conservative family had her lobotomized as punishment
for embarassing them.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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