Nay all you want you naysayer-types, but I love movie musicals. Splashy, fun, and infused with pure liquid pizzazz, they’re like a big stick of cotton candy at the fair. Even when I watch a terrible musical, such as Can’t Stop the Music or Disney’s Newsies, I can almost always find a few tunes to keep my toe tapping. But can a musical starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin possibly be deserving of anything but sheer mockery? This is the question I set out to answer as I popped in the first of two Paint Your Wagon videotapes.
Every musical needs a good plot hook, and on the surface Wagon’s doesn’t seem too bad. It takes place during the California Gold Rush, when hundreds of Americans were chomping at the bit to become filthy rich. Eastwood plays a farmer nicknamed “Pardner” who winds up crossing paths with drunken stumblebum Ben (Marvin) after crashing his wagon into a mountainside.
Again, not a bad setup, but I couldn’t help but question the film’s tone; Pardner’s brother is killed in the accident, and as Ben is burying the corpse he eyes some gold dust amidst the grave he just dug. This causes him and about half a dozen other men to quite literally hurl the brother’s body aside as they lunge zanily for the dust. Even odder is how Pardner seems completely unaffected by his brother’s death. He hasn’t even blinked twice before he’s ready to move on and live with Ben in No Name City, a wild town where a bunch of horny, alcoholic miners live in an eternal state of debauchery.
The story further unfolds when a Methodist man and his two wives show up at No Name City. Frothing at the mouth over the idea of some sweet loving, the miners demand the Methodist sell one of his wives at auction. Ultimately Elizabeth, played by Jean Seberg, is bought on accident by a bourbon-blind Ben, and later down the road she falls for Pardner. So what happens? Well, in traditional wacky fashion, the three decide to become one happy family, of course.
I would have been perfectly content if the movie had simply centered on this arc, but Paint Your Wagon’s biggest fault is its stupidly episodic nature. You would think Pardner and Elizabeth would fall in love over the course of the entire movie, but I was horrified when their courtship took place during a montage. An extremely lazy montage at that, where the shots are nothing more than the two talking or walking or doing any number of other boring tasks. Afterwards they’re smitten and the audience has no clue as to why they like each other in the first place. There’s no context whatsoever, so the amount of care I could invest was less than minimal.
My guess would be that Wagon was going for a somewhat epic feel by having its tale unfold over a long period of time, but this decision directly guts its chances of having any lasting effect on its viewers. Subplot after subplot is presented, solved within ten minutes, then dumped for something else, almost as if someone cut together eight episodes of a TV series and put it into theaters. There’s a scheme to build tunnels under the town, a fight between a bear and a bull, a preacher who pops up out of nowhere, a nice Christian family who is shocked by No Name’s sinful nature, and even a plot to kidnap French dancers and turn them into prostitutes. If your eyes glaze over while watching this movie you wouldn’t be alone, trust me.
While I can’t say the score for this movie is entirely memorable, I should defend it simply because the cast and filmmakers didn’t do it justice. In more capable hands the Elvis-style “Gold Fever” could have been really exciting, but the stone-faced Eastwood just lets the tune lie at his feet. The man doesn’t raise his eyebrows or even smile for two and a half hours! Lee Marvin is no better, his croaky baritone turning every song he approaches into a sure-fire sedative. Even worse is how the movie abandons its sole female lead in Elizabeth, who only gets one number before stepping to the back of the room for the rest of the movie.
However, even though I thought the score was dead in the water during the film, it shined during a fantastic remix that played after the credits rolled. Suddenly all of the songs were spirited, the orchestrations were bright and powerful, and the singers were captivating. Mind you, this remix played over a black screen, thus proving how the movie itself was to blame for me not liking these songs in the first place. They’re not classics, but they were certainly done a disservice by appearing in this stinker.
Paint Your Wagon is, at its heart, a miscalculated disaster. I don’t think anyone knew how to make this movie work, and maybe it never could. But when No Name City began to collapse in on itself during the film’s idiotic finale I realized the production was probably caving in as well. As each and every building came crashing down, the only thing I could think was, “Man, what a waste.” A waste of actors, film, and most importantly, my precious time.