My Year of Flops Case File #50 Paint Your Wagon
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An entire generation knows Josh Logan's Paint Your Wagon primarily as the movie the Simpsons rent expecting a typical Clint Eastwood bloodbath, only to discover, much to their shock and horror, a toe-tapping musical about the fun of painting wagons. Bart cheers up upon Lee Marvin's arrival, proclaiming "Here comes Lee Marvin: He's always drunk and violent!," only to watch in disgust as Marvin begins singing about painting wagons as well.
In a weird way, The Simpsons's gonzo spoof of Paint Your Wagon has usurped Logan's original the same way the semi-beloved Looney Tunes fixture Foghorn Leghorn has outlasted and eclipsed the once-popular but now relatively obscure radio character (Senator Claghorn) he spoofed. Alas, the real Paint Your Wagon is far stranger than the Simpsons parody suggests.
Paint Your Wagon represents an odd marriage of convenience between the manliest (the Western) and girliest (the musical) cinematic genres. It's a ragingly homoerotic film about a three-way marriage and two cowpokes who just can't quit each other even after a fetching little lassie gets in the way of their partnership.
In a rambunctious lead performance, Lee Marvin plays, of all things, a drunken, lovable scoundrel who teams up with Clint Eastwood after he discovers gold while burying Eastwood's brother. Marvin makes it clear from the get-go that his conception of partnership is as much emotional as financial. So he expects Eastwood to "solace" him when he's feeling melancholy, pick him up when he's lying in the mud dead-drunk, and lovingly caress his muttonchops while wearing a purty dress when the black dog of depression is hot on his trail. Okay, that last part is a bit of an exaggeration, but you don't have to run a Brokeback Mountain fansite to detect a tender homoerotic subtext to Marvin and Eastwood's friendship. In this relationship, Marvin is clearly the dominant one: Eastwood's nickname ("Pardner") conveys his fragile state of dependency: it's as if he'd shrivel up and disappear if he didn't have a strong-willed chum to rely on.
In No Name City, 400 lonely, horny men pine desperately for the civilizing touch of a woman's hand. So when a Mormon shows up with his two wives in tow, the entire town gathers to leer rapturously at them. A muscle-bound, shirtless brute offers to pay $50 worth of gold dust just to hold the traveler's baby, although it's unclear initially whether he wants to drink in its unspoiled innocence or devour it whole as an afternoon snack. Another lusty fellow gazes at Jean Seberg with a look that says "Ain't you the filly what betrayed Jean-Paul Belmondo in A Bout De Souffle? We don't see your likes much 'round here."
400 men. One woman. That's a gender imbalance of downright Smurfian proportions. The fellas don't think it's right for one fella to have two wives while they have none, so a surprisingly game Seberg agrees to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Marvin isn't too drunk to recognize the deal of a lifetime, so he purchases the rights to both Seberg's lady-virtue and her "mineral resources" for $800.
Marvin then sets about transforming his podunk mining town into a dazzling Mecca of sin and moral dissolution by kidnapping some French harlots for a two-story brothel complete with moonshine and cards and vice of every imaginable stripe. The seeds of No Name City's spiritual ruin are sewn when Marvin successfully completes his mission, only to learn that Eastwood and Seberg have fallen hopelessly in love following a brisk getting-acquainted montage and a tender ballad crooned through clenched teeth by Eastwood. Ah, the getting-acquainted montage, that deathless crutch of the lazy filmmaker. Why bother writing dialogue conveying characters' growing attraction when you can use a few soft-focus shots of leads gazing moonily into each other's eyes as glib shorthand for the complicated dance of courtship and consummation?
Marvin is angry at first until it's decided that Marvin and Eastwood can both be Seberg's husband, social conventions be damned. Why should Mormons have all the fun? Paint Your Wagon dramatizes how the West was civilized, then hopelessly corrupted. No Name City becomes a sort of boomtown Sodom & Gomorrah where bears fight bulls for the depraved enjoyment of the town folk and whoring and gold-dust thievery represent promising growth industries.
While No Name City is devolving into a cesspool of depravity, Eastwood and Seberg discovers the joys of conventional morality when they play host to strangers hung up on the whole "one man, one woman" concept of matrimony. (Spoiler alert) Like Sodom & Gomorrah, No Name City ends up facing a profound reckoning when underground tunnels dug in part by Marvin and Eastwood cause the entire city to collapse in on itself while Marvin stumbles obliviously, drunkenly through the wreckage like a muttonchops-sporting Buster Keaton.
Paint Your Wagon arrived at a time when musicals were rapidly losing favor with increasingly divided audiences. While the youth explosion that would soon transform Hollywood generally dug unconventional anti-heroes like Marvin and Eastwood, they weren't exactly dying to see them in bloated musicals.
The Paint Your Wagon DVD thankfully includes an intermission, as if to say "Sorry this movie is so fucking long. Here's five minutes for a quick smoke break." Beyond its hopelessly bloated running time, the film suffers from forgettable songs and a deathly vacuum at the center of its love triangle. Seberg is betrothed to Marvin because he paid $800 for her. Eastwood and Seberg's bond, meanwhile, is cemented during the aforementioned "getting acquainted" montage. Neither provides a solid foundation for either a love affair or a $20 million, 164-minute-long epic.
The fuzzy passivity of Eastwood's character proves equally problematic. Marvin gets to deliver a big, brawling, funny, and cantankerous star turn, but Eastwood is stuck playing a wimpy role Ricky Nelson probably could have played just as well. Audiences watch Clint Eastwood movies to see him kick ass or take brain-damaged female boxers off life support, not play house with Seberg or defer to his more charismatic life-partner. Watching Eastwood croon ballads here is like stumbling onto an alternate universe where Eastwood never amounted to anything more than a second-rate teen idol, the kind of guy producers called on when Troy Donahue or Tab Hunter weren't available.
Where Eastwood's singing has a light, airy quality that recalls Chet Baker, Marvin opts for a less challenging speak-singing style indebted to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Marvin's performance hits its apex during a wonderfully mumbled rendition of "Wand'rin Star" that attains a sort of sad majesty, a high lonesome quality the rest of the film could use a lot more of.
Like a lot of the films here, Paint Your Wagon divided audiences and critics. With its central three-way marriage, debauchery, polygamy, Paddy Chayevsky script, and unconventional stars, it was too damn weird and adult for family audiences and too corny, old-fashioned, and bloated for the druggies and stoners.
Nevertheless, I can imagine at least a few acid freaks stumbled out of the theater wondering if they'd merely hallucinated seeing a three-hour long movie where Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sang and danced and were married to the same woman yet seemed kind of into each other. I can also envision them freaking out hardcore when No Name City began falling apart under the weight of its sins. I imagine it'd be enough to put them off the brown acid permanently. Next up in good idea week here at My Year Of Flops: 1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandFailure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco