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' sentimental finish.
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 and many 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,
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.