Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969)
When I first heard that there was a musical Western starring Clint Eastwood, I honestly didn’t believe it, and yet, Paint Your Wagon exists. “Can’t be that good,” I thought, “since I’ve never heard any musical fans or Western fans talk about it.” And then I saw “164 MIN.” on the back of the box and was pretty sure I’d made a horrible mistake.
Thankfully, I was entirely wrong.
I’m in a tough spot here. You see, Paint Your Wagon is the sort of story with a great set-up, solid themes, and plenty of unpredictable twists and turns that you can only really convince somebody to check out by ruining all of them. Going into this film just knowing “cowboys might sing,” every moment I didn’t see coming was a fantastic and often hilarious surprise.
Ah! I’ve already shown you too much!
So, I won’t run down the events of the story like other reviewers might (stay far away from Leonard Maltin!), but I will praise its two biggest strengths. The first is that this is a great character piece. Prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and a farmer he refers to simply as Pardner (Clint Eastwood) become unlikely allies in the middle of the California Gold Rush, and they could not be bigger opposites. Ben is a cynical, smartass alcoholic that will pull any scheme he can to get rich, and Pardner is a sweet, innocent man that wouldn’t dream of drinking or gambling and just wants his own little patch of land. And before you think this is nothing more than a buddy cop movie where they fight over which song to play on the, uh, banjo, there’s plenty of subtle nuances to their personalities and their arcs that elevate them above the easy stereotypes of drunk and prude.
Okay, I’d watch a buddy cop movie called Drunk and Prude.
And then they meet a woman! BOI-OI-OING! But once again, it doesn’t go down the way you’d think. When Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) enters their lives in a way that I will not tell you, she’s complex; not just a MacGuffin to fight over, and not a stubborn spitfire either. The dynamic between the three of them is engaging and fresh and may very well have confused uptight ’60s moviegoers that preferred “girl belongs to hero” stories.
Then again, it was the Sixties.
The film’s other major accomplishment is that, for being so fun and entertaining, it manages to weave plenty of social commentary in with the shenanigans. As is typical of Westerns, it explores the idea of law and order coming to the Wild West, but it also looks at greed, vice, religion, relationships, mob mentality, and why men can be real shitheads sometimes.
This may be the most important shot in the entire movie.
I’m not sure how much of this brilliance is carried over from the stage version, but it’s worth noting that the screenplay was adapted by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame, and you can tell from the very first scene.
Good Lord, everybody in this flick is amazing. First of all, casting Clint Eastwood as a nice, quiet little farmer was a stroke of genius. Anybody familiar with his Sergio Leone films will scramble to check this out expecting another stoic badass, and instead they’ll see a guy who stays away from lowly pleasures and mostly keeps to himself. He’s not a wimp or a softie, mind you, and Clint never plays Pardner with an air of self-righteousness or outright disgust. He simply enjoys his simple life, simple as that.
And Lee Marvin is a goddamn riot as Ben Rumson. He’s a cranky wreck of a bastard with perfect comedic delivery, but he doesn’t exist just to stumble into every scene and crack jokes (though he’s great at that). There’s still heart to him, and Marvin’s portrayal balances out his good and bad qualities. There’s spirit underneath the spirits.
Though I hear he never really “acted” drunk…
Jean Seberg also doesn’t lower her performance to the stock role she could have been. Elizabeth is confident, witty, and knows what she wants, but she’s also been through a hellish few weeks when we first meet her, and Seberg works that disorientation into her character well.
Doing the best with what she’s got. (A town full of shitheads.)
The rest of the cast have smaller roles as various townspeople or visitors, but highlights include Harve Presnell as the slick and ironically named Rotten Luck Willie, Alan Dexter as a furious parson appalled by the sins of No Name City, and, my personal favorite, Ray Walston as the gold-obsessed Irishman Mad Jack Duncan, who almost steals the show from Lee Marvin.
Watch it, buddy.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
When discussing the music of Paint Your Wagon, it has to be noted right off the bat: the two highest-billed actors are not good singers. If there’s one reason I never hear this film mentioned in the canon of great musicals, it’s probably because Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin make valiant efforts to land those notes, but they ultimately sound wobbly and flat. I wish I could say it added some realism to the piece, and at least nobody’s doing any Idina-style throat-blasting American Idol bullshit, but no, it’s just some solid attempts at singing that come up empty. Have a participation trophy.
But hey, the melodies are decent and Clint and Lee aren’t the only ones that sing, so shall we?
The movie opens with a stylized credits sequence featuring watercolor sketches of characters and locations, but instead of the typical instrumental overture that accompanies such things, it’s a full-fledged catchy-as-hell song called “On My Way,” about everybody’s desire to go get that California gold. It even features characters from around the world that we never get to see, leading me to believe that maybe they went over budget and had to draw it instead.
It’s good, bad, and ugly, all at once.
Pardner sidles up next to a river with his guitar to sing “I Still See Elisa,” and… I mean… guys, he’s trying. Clint’s voice is not great. But dammit, it’s romantic. He’s just finished a looong trip and he’s busted up and his heart needs to sing about Elisa. Who is Elisa? I can’t tell you!
His wife? His horse? His wife-horse?
Later, Ben gets plastered and staggers his way through “The First Thing You Know,” a lovely rant about how God was doing a great job with the universe until he invented people. It’s pretty funny despite (or because of) Lee’s shaky voice, and it sets up that tried-and-true Western theme of how a bigger population means dumb old civilization.
“I wanna shoot people and fuck stuff!”
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with “Hand Me Down That Can ‘o Beans!” Thank you, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
ZZ Top took their Hill Valley gig.
At some point this movie needed a song featuring someone that can actually sing (aww, apologies to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), so we get Harve Presnell’s almost operatic rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria.” Nope, it’s not pronounced like that other song about Maria, it’s “muh-rye-uh.” It’s about being lonely and the wind blowing all the time and maybe the wind will blow some love our way? It’s kinda outta nowhere, but it’s positively beautiful and it does fit the theme of isolation. And horniness.
“While you’re down there…”
Oh, yeah, and I guess the townsfolk sing some dirty parodies of old songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Oh! Susanna,” which is fun and apparently called “Whoop-Ti-Ay!” when you string them all together.
For shunning the law, they love them some public domain music.
Elizabeth gets a sweet “I Want” song called “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door,” in which she sings about the comforts of settling down in a sturdy home where she feels safe and warm. Try not to cry, 36.6% of Americans that can’t afford their own homes!
No running water, though.
Clint Eastwood’s unfortunate voice comes back in “I Talk to the Trees,” in which his pious character admits that he has impure thoughts (spoilers, he’s human?), so he can only share them with inanimate objects that can never respond.
“Your singing sucks!” – If they could respond.
“There’s a Coach Comin’ In” is a winky and terrifyingly cheerful group song that would be right at home in another movie, but I love it for this amazing wide shot that pans over at the exact moment the side of a saloon is being raised. It’s epic and symbolic and fuck yeah.
I know this is the song section, but damn, that’s good cinematography!
Oh man, and then Parson Alan Dexter comes to town to be all, “Boo, sex and booze and gambling! God hates you!” in the infectious “Gospel of No Name City,” where he cheerily condemns the whole place as the new Sodom and/or Gomorrah while not-so-secretly yearning to rub a wooden tit.
I bet they dedicated this one to the censors.
And with a rowdy chorus of “the best things in life are dirty,” we get the immensely fun “Best Things,” which our prospectin’ pals sing as they round up gold dust that they may or may not have a claim to?
Just watch the movie. It’s great.
We get a thematic two-fer as Ben and Pardner perform songs about their very nature. Ben’s is “Wand’rin’ Star,” which you could argue is helped by being sung so flatly since it’s sad, sad, sad. Ben proclaims that he’s an adventurous type that needs to travel, but the dismal way he conveys this message is heartbreaking.
And in the rain, no less.
And Pardner’s song is “Gold Fever,” in which he reflects on how gold changes people, including himself. God, he cannot sing. But it’s a nice tune.
Have you considered doing a Shatner thing, Clint?
And then a couple of short reprises and then no more singing from Eastwood and Marvin!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I’ve got nothing more complex than “this line didn’t work for me,” but in “I Still See Elisa,” this line didn’t work for me…
“Her heart was made of holidays…”
Paint Your Wagon is an engaging and unpredictable story with complex and well-acted characters that leads up to a hilarious finale and mixes plenty of satire in with the hijinks. But two of the leads can’t nail a high C, so by all means, let’s bury it in a hole and never speak of it again.
Honestly, it’s incredible. Flawed, but incredible. Yeah, I see why it’s not revered as a musical, but it’s a damn solid piece of smart, entertaining cinema that deserves to be enjoyed by more people.
Kiss Me Kate (1953)