Paint Your Wagon

1969
Paramount Pictures

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 thousands? 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.

164 minutes
Rated PG-13

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

1967

MGM/United Artists

Directed, Produced and Written For The Screen by David Swift

Based On The Novel by Shepherd Mead

Adapted From The Broadway Play by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

Original Music by Frank Loesser

I once received an email from a reader who wanted to know why I had reviewed “a corny old movie nobody is interested in” like the 1966 BATMAN instead of reviewing the Tim Burton version.  The reader went on to suggest that if I wanted people to read my reviews, I should spend more time reviewing “movies people want to see” instead of “all that old crap”.

I sent the reader a pleasant enough response, informing him that the reason I was doing this was to review movies I liked and the movies I like cover an enormous expanse of territory and I don’t like to limit myself to whatever happens to be the hottest movie in the Cineplex this weekend.

I went on to further explain that one of the many reasons I love movies is that in their own way, they’re time capsules that can tell you a lot about the fashions, slang, attitudes and customs of the time period that movie was made in.  My feeling is sometimes you can get more out of understanding the ‘60’s from a movie like HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING than you can from a History Channel documentary of the same period.  HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING was made back when musicals didn’t have to have a reason for why the actors were singing, unlike modern musicals such as “Pennies From Heaven” or “Chicago” where a considerable amount of screen time is used to explain why everybody’s bursting out into song.  It never fails to amaze me how people can go see a movie where a guy in red underwear climbs up walls and swing from webs or an eccentric billionaire clones living dinosaurs from cells that have been sealed in amber for millions of years and they accept it with no problem.  But let ‘em go see a movie where someone suddenly starts singing and they start asking; “where’s the music coming from?”

J. Pierpont Finch is a window washer filled with ambition and bursting to make his mark in the business world.  One day he picks up a book entitled “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and armed with the advice the book provides, starts a meteoric rise from mail room clerk to Chairman Of The Board Of World Wide Wickets, a company so huge that nobody is sure of exactly just what a wicket is.  Finch is helped along his climb up the corporate ladder by Rosemary Pilkington, a secretary who is convinced Finch needs her help and tries her best to get him to see how much she loves him but Finch is too interested in brown-nosing the top executives or pulling underhanded tricks to get promotions.  Finch’s main rival is Bud Frump, the nephew of J.B. Biggley, President of World Wide Wickets and much of the movie has Finch and Bud trying to double-cross and backstab each other while they jockey for promotions that quite frankly neither one of them deserve.

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Now, when I lay out the story like that, you would think that it sounds like a pretty grim story of corporate greed and bitter rivalry.  But remember, this is a ‘60’s musical we’re talking about.  Everything is in glorious Technicolor and the songs are big, beautiful numbers with lots of lavish dancing (the original choreography was done by Bob Fosse) There’s a ton of laughs as Finch charms and bullshits his way around the company, making friends through song and dance and seeming to extricate himself from one crisis after another with a cheerful, gap-toothed grin.

I like the cast in this musical a lot.  Robert Morse plays J. Pierpont Finch with loads of energy and vitality.  He’s  one of the few actors to have won a Tony for both a musical role as well as a dramatic one playing Truman Capote on Broadway.  If you only know Robert Morse from “Mad Men” you really ought to see this one when he was in his incandescent prime.  Watching him in this movie, he reminded me a lot of a ‘60’s version of Michael J. Fox.  He may be playing a sneaky, manipulative double-crossing weasel with two faces and a forked tongue in both of them but dammit, he makes us like J. Pierpont Finch and we find ourselves rooting for him.  Michelle Lee is endearing as Rosemary Pilkington and she gets to sing the big romantic number ‘I Believe In You’.  Rudy Vallee is J.B. Biggley and there are a lot of funny bits with him and Morse as Morse worms his way deeper and deeper into his confidence.

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A lot of the humor in the movie comes from Anthony Teague as Bud Frump, who looks like he could be James Coburn’s sneaky kid brother and Maureen Arthur as Hedy LaRue, the cigarette girl who blackmails J.B. Biggley into giving her a job at World Wide Wickets.  Maureen Arthur is hilarious playing a drop-dead gorgeous bimbo who is hopeless at anything else except for Finch using her as a lure to trap other company executives into situations where they’re caught with her by J.B. and summarily shipped off to Venezuela.

And as for the songs, I like ‘em all and much as I like musicals, I find that there’s one or two clunkers except for this one and “Guys And Dolls” where I look forward to each and every number.  Especially the show-stopping ‘Brotherhood of Man’ number near the end.  It’s probably no coincidence that both musicals had songs written by the same man, Frank Loesser.

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By the time it’s all over, Finch has achieved his goal of rising to the top (and if I’ve counted right, it only took him six days…allegory anyone?) married Rosemary and even made friends with Bud Frump and the last scene of the movie shows that Finch has set his sights even higher.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING probably looks clunky, old-fashioned and plodding to modern day audiences who insist on more razzle-dazzle and music video style editing in their movies nowadays.  But this was a musical that was made when they knew how to film one so that you could see that it was the actual person you paid to see singing and dancing actually doing it.  It’s a movie musical that has nothing but charm, good songs, good performances and a lot of laughs.  It demands no more from you that you sit back and let yourself be entertained.

121 minutes