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Paint Your Wagon

Imagine — if you will — a late-'60s movie starring Hollywood tough guy Lee Marvin (who so famously threw a pot of coffee in a woman's face in The Big Heat), Clint Eastwood (at the time famous for his spaghetti westerns), and Jean Seberg (an icon of the French New Wave with her performance in Godard's Breathless) in a three-hour musical comedy about polygamy and gold mining (and please note that none of the above had any singing or dancing experience). Sounds about as improbable as Jerry Lewis directing a movie about an Aushwitz clown making Jewish kids laugh before they get gassed, right? Paint Your Wagon is all these things — and more — as Joshua Logan's 1969 film is a celluloid aberration that's as fascinating as a car wreck. Marvin stars as Ben Runson, a feisty coot who joins up with the milquetoast "Partner" (Eastwood) when gold is discovered while burying Partner's brother. Christened "No Name City," the area quickly becomes a mining community, but the townsfolk realize there's a big problem — there's no women around. When a Mormon passes through with two wives, it is decided that polygamy is against the law, so one wife, Elizabeth (Seberg), is put up for auction and a drunken Rumson buys her. But the townsmen need more than one, so Rumson organizes a scheme to steal some whores from a neighboring town, leaving Partner with his new wife. The two develop feelings for each other (or at least one guesses they do, as Eastwood sings — yes, sings — a song called "I Talk to Trees," which is as bad as it sounds). But when Rumson comes back and Partner explains himself, it is decided that the three will live together as man and man and wife. Essentially, Paint Your Wagon is about the corruption of corruption (the bigger the town gets, the further it gets from the wild frontier — a tweaking of the John Ford ideology), but the movie is too high-concept to be bothered with an overall purpose. Essentially, Eastwood and Marvin were two of the biggest stars at the time, so someone thought to put them together with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe — the creators of My Fair Lady and Gigi — as 1965's The Sound of Music was a huge moneymaker. As such, history must regard Paint Your Wagon as little more than a rambling, pointless mess starring three people who have no right to be in a musical. Desperate for some of the songs to be sung by real performers, singer ringers (as it were) were brought in — including Harve Presnell — but even so, Eastwood gets stuck warbling three songs, while Seberg fares no better and has her numbers dubbed over. The experience would be better, or at least more endurable, if somehow the film was tighter (it runs 164 minutes with a four-minute intermission and exit music), but director Logan (who did good work once with 1955's Picnic) stretches things out, hoping length will hide the problems. Paint Your Wagon became one of the final nails in the coffin of the filmed musical, which has rarely been resurrected since outside of the animated genre. Paramount's DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with audio in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround, and with requisite English subtitles. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—DSH



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