In the late 1960’s Establishment Hollywood was near panic. All of the old rules about making and marketing movies seemed to be going out the window.
While long-time stars like Gregory Peck and Bob Hope were no longer packing ‘em in, young upstarts like Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde) were turning out blockbusters that their studios frankly thought should be playing the low rent drive-in circuit.
So in 1969, what did Hollywood think was a “can’t-miss” idea? Take a Broadway musical from 1951(!) and cast Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin(!!) as the singing leads!
The result is a spectacular mess of a film, Paint Your Wagon.
The story takes place during the Gold Rush days of 19th Century California. Casting Eastwood and Marvin makes sense for a Western movie, but a musical Western? And, no, they didn’t dub them. That’s really Eastwood and Marvin attempting to carry a tune. Eastwood at least has a passable, if very thin, singing voice. But Marvin? It’s like listening to the croaking a frog with laryngitis!
Now, the original Broadway musical revolved around prospector Ben Rumson and his teen-age daughter Jennifer. Jennifer falls for a young Mexican prospector while Rumson buys a wife off a traveling Mormon. Most of the musical revolves around the then-controversial “inter-racial romance” between the youngsters.
In the movie, there is no daughter. No Mexican prospector either. Instead, they created a whole new character, a partner for Rumson named – wait for it – “Pardner.” Clever, right?
Instead of an inter-racial romance, we get a mange a trios with Rumson’s Mormon wife turning the tables and taking two husbands (Rumson and Pardner).
The musical’s biggest number was “They Call the Wind Mariah.” On Broadway, the song was introduced after some business about the miners being wandering loners who often had only wind, rain and fire as companions (hence their tendency to call the rain “Tess,” the fire “Joe” and the wind – yeah, “Mariah”).
In the movie, the song just comes out of nowhere, being sung by a character that hasn’t even been introduced in the film yet. (He turns out to be the guy who will eventually own the saloon and cathouse in the boomtown the Gold Rush creates.) He’s played by Harve Presnell, who, thankfully, has a professional singing voice. Although this big number is diminished somewhat when you’re busy thinking, “Who the heck is this guy and why is he singing about naming the wind Mariah?”
Actually, most of the songs seem to come out of nowhere and the contrast between Lerner & Lowe’s Broadway pop and the filmmaker’s attempt to create a realistic, gritty Western setting is jarring.
Marvin plays Rumson, Eastwood plays Pardner and Jean Seberg plays the Mormon wife, Elizabeth. Seberg, at least, had the good sense to have her singing voice dubbed by a professional. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also shows up early in the film. Why? I don’t know.
Paint Your Wagon cost $20 million to make (very expensive in 1969 dollars). It grossed $31 million, which - when you factor in marketing costs and splits with the movie theaters - means the film probably lost money for Paramount Pictures. But they really should have known better.
Popular lore also has it that in many of Marvin’s drunk scenes, he wasn’t acting. He really was drunk.
If you want to watch Clint Eastwood star in a musical, be my guest. But a word of additional warning. The film has a running time close to 3 hours, so make sure you take a bathroom break before you start watching this.