"Paint Your Wagon" has not gone down in the annals of screen history as anything great. It's not a great musical, not a great comedy, not a great Western. But it's got a slew of songs that are fun and memorable, it's got gorgeous scenery, and its cast appears to be having a good time. "Paint Your Wagon" is corny but endearing, and for a lot of us that's good enough.
The movie couldn't come from a better pedigree. The screenplay and lyrics are by Alan Jay Lerner and the music by Frederick Loewe ("My Fair Lady," "Camelot," "Gigi"); the adaptation is by Paddy Chayefsky ("Marty," "The Americanization of Emily," "Network"); additional music is by Andre Previn ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Irma la Douce," "Porgy and Bess"); the musical director is Nelson Riddle ("Pal Joey," "Li'l Abner," "The Great Gatsby"); and the director is Joshua Logan ("Camelot," "South Pacific," "Sayonara"). Then there are the stars: Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Ray Walston, and Harve Presnell. Yep, impressive credentials.
Lee Marvin, who was still hot after his Oscar-winning performance as a rowdy, drunken cowpoke in "Cat Ballou" (1965), here plays a rowdy, drunken cowpoke. Or something close. Actually, he's an early California gold miner in the high Sierras, Ben Rumson, and together with his Pardner (that's his name throughout the movie, although at the very end we learn it's Sylvester Newel, "with one l") played by Eastwood they establish the mining camp of No Name City. Rumson admits he's a drunkard, a crooked gambler, and a womanizer, but as he says, "I ain't never gulled a partner." A personal code.
Pardner is a young farmer come West from Michigan, who stumbles into an association with Rumson when they inadvertently discover gold digging a grave for Pardner's brother. Jean Seberg joins the story as Elizabeth, the love interest for both men when she's sold to Rumson for $800 by a passing Mormon who needs money and has a wife to spare. As the only woman in the mountains, she soon becomes something of a tourist attraction. Before long, though, she and Pardner fall in love and, well, being as there's no real law in the old West, as Elizabeth says, "I was married to a man who had two wives. Why can't a woman have two husbands?" And so they set up house together, the three of them, in a cabin in the woods.
Other characters of note: Mad Jack Duncan (Walston), a miner of indeterminate origin (his accent alternates between Scottish and Irish, with a touch of Walston's later Pappy from "Popeye" thrown in); Rotten Luck Willie (Presnell), the owner of the local gambling hall of house of ill repute; and Horton Fenty (Tom Ligon), an innocent and naive young farmer Rumson takes under his wing.
The movie contains a wealth of agreeable tunes, beginning and ending with the title song. In between we're afforded "I Still See Elisa," "The First Thing You Know," "Hand Me Down That Can of Beans," "They Call the Wind Maria," "A Million Miles Away Behind the Door," "I Talk to the Trees," "There's a Coach Comin' In," "Shivaree," "The Gospel of No Name City," "Best Things," "Wand'rin' Star," and "Gold Fever." You may not recognize all the titles, but I'd be willing to bet you'd recognize almost all the songs if you heard them. By the way, Rita Gordon is listed as the singing voice of Ms. Seberg, but no names are provided for Marvin or Eastwood. Presumably, they did their own singing. Certainly, Harve Presnell, who sings "They Call the Wind Maria," is an old hand at musicals and pretty much stands out as the best vocalist of the lot.
The film is mostly entertaining, but it has a hard time keeping up the tempo of the action and the quality of the songs after its first forty minutes or so. In fact, at over two-and-a-half hours, a product of the Broadway stage, it's probably too long for a good many of today's moviegoers, who aren't used to folks in a movie spontaneously bursting out into song every few minutes, anyway. The plot affords no strong, compelling central conflict, excepting the love triangle, and is little more than a flimsy excuse for hanging the songs onto. But the film's good-naturedness is easy to take. One of the movie's typical exchanges, for example, is between a churchgoing farmer's wife and Rumson: "You should read the Bible, Mr. Rumson." "I have read the Bible, Mrs. Fenty." "Didn't that discourage you about drinking?" "No, but it sure killed my appetite for reading."
Paramount do their usual topflight job transferring the picture to the home screen. The image comes across in a wide 2.13:1 ratio, with ravishingly natural, realistic colors, and clear, sharp detail. The Sierra-Nevada Mountains alone are worth seeing in widescreen.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally impressive, very wide ranging in frequency and dynamics, with some stupendously deep bass, and good surround ambiance in the musical numbers. It is perhaps a tad bright and edgy in the mid treble, but the ear soon adjusts.
Unfortunately, Paramount offer little in the way of extras. There are English and French spoken languages, English subtitles for the hearing impaired, a scant eighteen scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. Not even the songs are indexed, an oversight for which someone at Paramount should be held accountable.
"Paint Your Wagon" is a big, old-fashioned musical that came along in 1969, toward the tail end of Hollywood's golden age of big, old-fashioned musicals. With its surplus of good, hummable tunes, its breezy dialogue and characterizations, its beautiful location shots, and its excellent DVD transfer, the movie provides enjoyable, if sometimes mildly risqué, family entertainment.