Paint Your Wagon (1969)


In California in the 1800s, two gold prospectors (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven, and Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou) vie for the affections of a feisty pioneer woman (Jean Seberg, Breathless), who, to everyone’s surprise, decides to marry both men.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Why can’t a woman have two husbands?”

This is one of Hollywood’s strangest musicals: a sing-along extravaganza about polygamy! Love triangles remain the bread and butter of the American film industry, but this super-production takes the old romantic formula and flips it on its ear — Paint Your Wagon is a mainstream western/musical with a very non-mainstream storyline.

Directed by Joshua Logan (Picnic and Camelot) from a script by Paddy Chayefsky (Marty), Paint Your Wagon is gutsy, bizarre and sloppy in equal doses. The film is based on the 1951 Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) of the same name. Chayefsky apparently rewrote the play and made plural marriage, which was a small subplot in the original play, the centerpiece of the film.

Why did Chayefsky do this? I have no idea, but I have to say that Chayefsky’s script is the main problem here. I’m no prude, but I did find the idea of a threesome — the woman and the two men literally sleep in the same bed — as the basis for a musical, odd and very un-romantic to say the least. In addition, I thought that the film’s excessive running time — it’s nearly three hours long — works against the movie.

Like director Logan’s good but deeply flawed 1967 musical Camelot, Paint Your Wagon is a mixed bag. Logan didn’t learn anything from the Camelot debacle — he repeats some of the same mistakes. Logan spent all his energy on sets and costumes (the art-direction and costumes are indeed fantastic) and paid little attention to the script (the movie runs out of juice — nothing really happens during the last hour).

Logan also made the mistake of hiring people who had no business making a musical. Perennial tough guys Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood? Counterculture darling Jean Seberg? You’ve got to be kidding me! It’s a gamble that doesn’t pay off.

I do have to admit that I enjoyed Marvin’s performance as the boozy miner. He’s charming in his own gruffly way. Character actors Ray Walston (The Apartment) as “Mad Jack” Duncan and Harve Presnell (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) as “Rotten Luck” Willie come off best, though. Presnell’s fabulous rendition of the film’s best song, “They Call the Wind Maria,” is a real beauty.

Eastwood is the worst offender. He plays a thankless role anyway. Eastwood’s character is strangely subordinate to Marvin’s. He can’t sing either. At least Marvin had the decency to talk-sing the songs (Seberg’s singing was dubbed). Eastwood’s rendition of “I Talk To the Trees” is like something out of a Mel Brooks movie! The film also screams for one big dance number. As I said before, Paint Your Wagon is a real mixed bad.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

There are a few things in the movie that I liked, and there are many things in the movie that I disliked. Hmm… I still can’t make up my mind whether I like Paint Your Wagon or not. All the flaws and I still can’t bring myself to hate the movie. Marvin’s performance, Presnell’s singing and the production design are big pluses. The rest is open to debate. A real curiosity. Color, 164 minutes, Rated PG-13.

8 responses to “Paint Your Wagon (1969)

  1. The only thing I’d disagree with is your opinion that Clint Eastwood can’t sing. Maybe it’s just that everyone else is so bad that I learned to tolerate Clint’s singing. I don’t know. But other than that, I agree wholeheartedly. Yet I love every second of the movie. This is my favorite guilty pleasure movie. My favorite moment is the worst musical performance, “Wanderin’ Star” where Lee Marvin can’t decide whether he should be singing or mimicking the sounds of a broken chainsaw.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eastwood’s voice isn’t bad-bad. The problem was that he tried to hit notes that a non-singer couldn’t possibly hit. He should have talked-sing the song, like Rex Harrison in My Fair lady, or co-star Marvin. Eastwood does know a few things about music, so I’m surprised he didn’t realize that he needed to re-arrange the music to fit his limited range.

      Liked by 1 person

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