Paint Your Wagon

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PAINT YOUR WAGON never felt the love from critics. So what? Glaring flaws and all, lots of normal people enjoyed it, and still do. Though it didn’t dig up enough gold to recoup a runaway production tab, it nonetheless earned sufficient gild to claim 7th place among 1969’s releases. Judging by many reviews, if you like it, you must be an idiot of some kind, a yokel, a right-wing mouth-breather. I’m not making claims to being a stable genius, but I do know a lot of smart people, nearly all urban lefties, and—hold the mules—quite a few of them enjoy this bawdy musical-comedy-western, yet another case where the snooty killjoys can take a hike. By themselves.

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California Gold Rush. Boozy-but-fair prospector ‘Ben Rumson’ (Lee Marvin) partners up with…’Pardner’ (Clint Eastwood) as a mining camp springs up around Ben’s accidental find while digging a grave. When a Mormon–!!– shows up in the wild, male-populated settlement—with two wives—Ben “bids” for ‘Elizabeth’ (Jean Seberg), the beautiful, more rebellious mate. She’s happy to be free of her husband and his other wife, but is taken aback by Ben’s initial caveman approach. Chastened, Ben thereafter treats Elizabeth with tenderness, and so does Pardner…

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Directed by Joshua Logan, it was adapted from the 1951 Lerner & Loewe Broadway play.  Paddy Chayevsky’s script was rewritten by Alan Jay Lerner. Andre Previn composed new songs for the screen version, and Nelson Riddle arranged the scoring, earning the film’s only Oscar nomination. Marvin and Eastwood did their own singing—or versions of singing—while Seberg was dubbed by Anita Gordon. The chaotic, trouble-plagued filming was mostly done at a remote site outside the small town of Baker, in the mountains of eastern Oregon, with further work accomplished around Big Bear in southern California.

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What’s not to like? Granting naysayers, a fair amount. Like most overblown musicals of the era (flops going down right and left) it’s too long; the 154 minutes would play much better shorn by a good half-hour. The shearing would include the awful numbers given Eastwood, who’s frankly terrible. His painful warble goes along with his wan performance (this was before he started to loosen up enough to be more than just handsome), especially next to the rambunctious Marvin. Other sequences just run on too long, like “There’s A Coach Coming In”, and the set-wrecking finale.

Excess is evident, a factor that also brought down wrath from critics and industry observers. Poor planning, lousy weather and bad behavior—from cast, crew and a voracious horde of set-invading hippies—ballooned the original budget. Already large, it doubled to total nearly $20,000,000. Ultimately the $40,000,000 gross couldn’t cover the attendant post-production outlay.  Director Logan, who’d already been raked over the coals for his handling of Camelot, nearly went nuts from frustration, and called career quits after it wrapped. He did leave behind a great quote on Marvin, who was 3-sheets-to-the-wind most of the time: “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin.”

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MRS.FENTY: “You should read the Bible, Mr. Rumson.”  BEN: “I have read the Bible, Mrs. Fenty.”  MRS FENTY: “Didn’t that discourage you about drinking?”  BEN: “No, but it sure killed my appetite for readin‘!”

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On the positive end, the scale weighs better towards lusty fun. Marvin’s full-throttle (full-bottle?) horse-playing of Ben includes a neat job poking along a gravelly, but oddly endearing lament “Wandering Star” (it became a fair-sized hit). Lush, beguiling Seberg is lovely, and does well enough by a thinly written role. The title tune is a rouser, and one fella who really could belt it out—Harve Presnell—is on hand to unlimber with the classic “They Call The Wind Maria”.  Ray Walston offers his usual vitality in a supporting role. Rich cinematography of the fresh woodsy locales was the work of William A.Fraker, with some 2nd-unit business done by Loyal Griggs. Just fast-forward through Clint’s grimace-inducing tunes—his murder of “I Talk To The Trees” is enough to make you want to chop one down.

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Other denizens of No-Name City: Tom Ligon (happily discovering the “three best things in life“), Alan Dexter, William O’Connell, Alan Baxter, Benny Baker (guilty of shouting), John Mitchum, Robert Easton, H.B. Haggerty, Paula Trueman, Eddie Little Sky, H.W.Gim, Roy Jenson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Lauter, Roger Herren.

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