Paint Your Wagon
Directed by Joshua Logan
Produced by Alan Jay Lerner
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
In the late 1960’s Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood were at the top of the heap based on the tough action movies and westerns they both enjoyed immense success with. It seemed to be a no-brainer to put them in the same movie. So for their only film together what did they make?
A gritty, bloody western full of gunsmoke and dead bodies all over the place? No.
A suspenseful modern day urban crime thriller? No.
A stirringly glorious war epic with them heroically slaughtering Nazis by the hundreds? No.
They made a musical comedy set in the days of The California Gold Rush called PAINT YOUR WAGON.
I’ll be honest here: for years I avoided PAINT YOUR WAGON because I want to see Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood killing folks, kicking ass and busting heads, not trying their best to sing. But every year Turner Classic Movies runs their annual “31 Days Of Oscar” where they show nothing but Oscar winning and nominated movies all month long. So it’s a great opportunity for me to catch movies I’ve never seen so I said what the hell and sat down to watch PAINT YOUR WAGON. And surprise, surprise, surprise: after about a half hour I found I liked the movie a lot and by the end I was satisfied that I had been thoroughly entertained.
Mountain man and gold prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) crosses paths with a wagon train on its way west. There’s an accident where one wagon goes over a cliff and Ben rescues a young man who suffers a broken leg. The young man’s brother is killed. It’s while Ben and some of the men are saying a few words over the dead man that Ben spies gold in the grave. He promptly throws out the body and stakes the claim in the name of the young man he saved. The young man (Clint Eastwood) who Ben calls ‘Pardner’ all through the movie (he does have a real name but we don’t find out what it is until the very end of the film) throws in with Ben and they prospect for gold together while a rough mining camp springs up around them.
Into the camp comes a Mormon with two wives in tow and he’s persuaded to put up one of his wives, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) for auction. Through a bizarre set of circumstances Ben ends up with the wife and the relationship turns out to be nothing like what either one of them expected. Ben finds that he actually begins to care for the well being of Elizabeth and he builds her a fine log cabin some distance away from the mining camp. Which really isn’t a camp anymore but has grown into No-Name City, a bustling pit of vice, sin, drunkenness, lawlessness and who knows what all else that actually looks like a lot of fun.
The situation gets complicated when Pardner and Elizabeth fall in love while Ben is away hijacking a stagecoach full of French prostitutes on their way to another town and brings them to No-Name City instead. Now Ben and Pardner each are willing to go away and let the other man have the woman but Elizabeth comes up with a novel solution: if a man can have two wives then why can’t a woman have two husbands?
The arraignment is satisfactory to all parties concerned until farming families come to No-Name City and Elizabeth develops a hankering for a more respectable way of life. In the meantime, Ben has found a new way of prospecting along with Pardner and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston). It involves digging an extensive and complex series of tunnels under No-Name City itself and collecting the gold dust that falls between the floorboards of the various buildings. Miners are so careless with their gold dust that soon Ben, Pardner and Mad Jack are collecting more gold than they ever did prospecting. The mining scheme takes up a good deal of the last 45 minutes of the movie and comes to an ending that made me laugh out loud at its total lunacy. And yes, the unique marriage arraignment between Ben, Elizabeth and Pardner comes to a resolution as well before the final song.
Let’s get the first thing out of the way; PAINT YOUR WAGON is nowhere near as bad as I’ve been told all these years. Matter of fact, it’s a lot of goofy fun and that is thanks to Lee Marvin, who walks off with this movie from beginning to end. It always amazed me that for an actor known mainly for his tough guy roles, the only Oscar Lee Marvin won was for a comedy; “Cat Ballou”. But after watching PAINT YOUR WAGON I’m no longer surprised. The man actually was very gifted at comedy and 90% of the laughs in PAINT YOUR WAGON come from him. Lee Marvin had me hooked right at the beginning where he’s delivering the eulogy for Pardner’s dead brother. And there’s a bit he does at the end where he’s walking away from the devastation of No-Name City that he caused. There’s something about the way he’s trying to pretend he’s got nothing to do with what’s happening that cracked me up.
How about his singing you ask? Well, Lee Marvin doesn’t actually sing. He does that Rex Harrison/Richard Harris style of singing where he’s more or less talking along with the music. But he pulls it off. And there’s a song near the end called “Wand’rin’ Star” that he actually does really well. It’s worth sitting through the movie waiting for that number.
Clint Eastwood is very laid back and likeable in this movie. His crooning isn’t that bad, either. It’s certainly not anything memorable and his “Gold Fever” number is hideous but the other songs he does are okay. Jean Seberg is the acting disappointment in this movie. She comes off as a bland and uninteresting actress and the relationship between Ben and Pardner are much more interesting than the relationship Elizabeth has with them. And her singing is atrocious. Actually the singing of whoever dubbed her is atrocious. If you decide to watch this movie, when they get to her big (and only) number “A Million Miles Away Behind The Door” feel free to head to the kitchen for snacks or take a bathroom break. You won’t be missing anything.
Probably the only song you’ll recognize right away is “They Call the Wind Maria” sung by Harve Presnell. I also liked “The Gospel of No-Name City” and “Hand Me Down That Can of Beans” Try your best to keep a straight face when Clint sings “I Talk to the Trees” and don’t listen too closely to the lyrics.
So should you see PAINT YOUR WAGON? I don’t see why not. It’s nowhere near in the league of classic movie musicals, that’s for sure and it’s the only musical I can think of where none of the leads can sing. But it does have that wonderfully loony Lee Marvin performance and I liked the way the story bounced from one goofy scene to the next without stopping to catch it’s breath. Clint Eastwood and Ray Walston both look as if they’re having a good time and if you can stay awake through the scenes where Jean Seberg is on screen I think you’ll have a good time as well.