Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin…singing?
A bawdy comedy unlike any western you may have seen, Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining big-budget musical based on the Broadway play by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Funny and surprising, even touching, this is a film that deserves a better reputation than the derisive obscurity it has often acquired. Though Paramount deserves thanks for bringing Paint Your Wagon to disc, the bare-bones DVD presentation is disappointing.
Facts of the Case
Itinerant malcontent Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) saves the life of a stranger injured in a runaway wagon accident. Suitably grateful, the man throws in his lot with Rumson and becomes his Pardner (Clint Eastwood) in gold mining. Meanwhile, the California gold fever has attracted hordes of men to the same area as Rumson and Pardner. Very lonely men. So lonely that they convince a pliable Mormon man to part with one of his discontented wives and place her at auction. Somehow, the lovely lass, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), ends up with Rumson, to their mutual surprise. She swears to be a fine wife for her new husband, letting him stake his claim with only a few additional demands.
No-Name City, California (The Hell-thiest Spot in the West, Population: Drunk) rapidly swells into a lawless pit of vice and debauchery, with endless supplies of gambling halls, whiskey peddlers, and obliging prostitutes. All seems set so fair when discord arises in the Rumson household. It seems that Pardner and Elizabeth have an appreciation for each other, but Elizabeth does not want to give up Ben, either. Love and pragmatism reach a time-sharing compromise, with each man sharing in the bounty of the claim.
The contented way of life in No-Name City and the Rumson household is tested by the gold running out and the arrival of straight-laced family of pioneering farmers. When Elizabeth gets a severe attack of the "respectabilities" and Rumson (in cahoots with Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston)) cooks up a scheme to keep the gold dust pouring into the Rumson/Pardner household, you can bet your last ounce that there's a heavy reckoning coming due for all concerned.
I liked "Cop Rock."
I liked Love's Labour's Lost.
So, depending on your point of view, I am either the perfect person to review a musical, or a revisionist crank whose entertainment tastes run to the bizarre. Then again, were it not for the presence of my cinematic hero Clint Eastwood, I might not have given Paint Your Wagon a glance. On the curiosity factor of seeing "Dirty Harry" play a fairly straight role and sing Broadway tunes, I knew I had to give this film a chance. As Eastwood remarks in the documentary of his recently released Play Misty For Me special edition DVD, this was an experimental time in his career. Not only was he taking artistic chances with such films as Paint Your Wagon or The Beguiled or Play Misty For Me, but in the latter film he added the burden of the director's chair to his work.
Having watched through Paint Your Wagon several times, Clint Eastwood's respectable ability to carry a tune and play his role is not the big surprise of the film. Lee Marvin, whom I knew for his rough, gruff roles in such films as The Dirty Dozen, The Big Red One, and Delta Force, was a gifted comedic actor! His white bewhiskered Ben Rumson is so uncompromising in his own peculiar lifestyle and Marvin's timing and presentation so ideal, that even when the comedy turns slapstick, the humor never becomes too silly. He may be less vocally talented than Clint Eastwood, but perhaps recognizing his own limitations, Lee Marvin never tries to sing more than he is able.
Holding her own with the male leads, Jean Seberg (Airport) is far more beautiful and vivacious than her dopey picture on the cover would suggest. Whoever took that snapshot should be flogged unmercifully. Her Elisabeth has spark and sass, but with a sensible, sensitive core and a poised beauty. How sad that American audiences are largely unfamiliar with her work, brought to a tragic end with her mysterious death in 1979. Shining brightly among the supporting cast, Ray Walston (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Silver Streak, The Sting) stands out, alive with inspired wacky comedy.
The story surprised me as well. The script, adapted by Paddy Chayefsky (Network, Altered States) from the play, offers us a solid Western tale that could just as easily come in a conventional film. After all, a musical should never just focus on the songs and skimp on the glue that holds the film together. The free morality of the lawless West where vice had free reign is a change from a more typical western, but I was pleased by the deft touch shown in turning Paint Your Wagon into an ironic morality tale. Modern storytellers are apt to present their moral lessons in such heavy-handed fashion that head trauma results, making my slow realization of what Paint Your Wagon became that much more satisfying.
The anamorphic transfer is a competent affair, presentable but with some limitations. Though nearly any film of its age could do with some restoration and polish, Paramount apparently chose to issue Paint Your Wagon with a decent print it had lying around. Though well preserved, this source has a steady trickle of small blips and flecks and at least one significant print flaw (at around 3:20). Some digital edge enhancement shows up in a few spots. The colors are steady but not particularly vibrant, even when unmistakably stunning nature abounds. In other respects, the picture is quite presentable to the eyes, but don't confuse this transfer with a quality restoration or a modern film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix brings a welcome breadth to the soundtrack, which would not surprise me if it was originally mono. From the thunderous bass of the men, to the lighter notes of Jean Seberg, all the singing and music is delightful and melodious. The dialogue, even quiet whispers, is clearly understood. Don't expect your surrounds to do much (with only a minor exception), nor your subwoofer, so just let your center and mains handle the load.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes Paramount surprises us by actually including extras on a disc. Unfortunately, Paint Your Wagon is true to the usual Paramount form, and all you get is the original theatrical trailer. Woo hoo. Contain your glee. Another small but glaring annoyance is the small number of chapter stops. This is of particular importance for a musical where it would be nice to know where the songs are with chapter stops, so you can jump to your favorite song if you are so inclined. I don't think this takes much time or money, just some consideration for the viewing public, eh, Paramount?
Whether you like Paint Your Wagon is probably entirely dependent on how you feel about musicals in general. If you are undecided on the merits, give it at least a rental, and you should be pleasantly surprised at the musical and dramatic quality. Regrettably, Paramount's bare-bones disc may dampen the disc's appeal for purchase when combined with its high price point ($30 list).
Manly men singing songs, a beautiful woman, gold, greed, lust, wife sharing, and the wild West? Who could ask for more? Court's adjourned!
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• Theatrical Trailer
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