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Paint Your Wagon Movie Review

alan lerner ben musical

1969 – Joshua Logan –

“Where am I going? I don't know! … But who gives a damn! We're on our way!” Few can resist those infectious opening lines of this infectiously energetic musical set during the 1849 gold rush in California. The sentiments are our own; most Americans still have a shred of the pioneering spirit about them somewhere—thus our love affair with sport utility vehicles. The opening number is also matched by the beauty of the opening shot, a still life of a wagon train in sepia that turns colored and then into panoramic live action. The rest of the action is just as quick and comic. Extra-crusty Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin), who is the epitome of the mountain man, teams up with the obvious tenderfoot Pardner, played with remarkable success by the (more clean-cut) Clint Eastwood. This Eastwood character is a long way from “make my day” Dirty Harry; he even sings numbers with titles like “I Talk to the Trees.”

The plot is funny, though preposterous. Two mining partners in gold-rush California agree to share the Mormon wife (Jean Seberg, with Anita Gordon's singing voice) that one of them has bought. She is agreeable, because she loves them each in his own way. In No Name City, whose very existence began with the importation of prostitutes from San Francisco, such arrangements are socially and morally quite all right. That is, until a farming party with conventional values arrives in camp. The viewer's sympathy in the movie, regardless of what he feels in real life, is clearly with the trio. After all, as Ben so engagingly sings, who wants to join forces with those who “civilize left and civilize right/Till nothing is left, till nothing is right?” And young farmer Horton (Tom Ligon), with a natural bent for dissipation, is a delightful protégé for Ben after the general disappointment of Pardner's basic decency.

The movie is not without its rough spots, mostly caused by the conversion of stage play into film. Written by Alan Jay Lerner, the script is based on a adaptation by Paddy Chayevsky of Lerner's book for the 1951 Broadway musical. Lerner tossed out half the songs he had written with composer Frederick Loewe for the play, adding five new ones with music by Andre Previn. The natural landscape (filmed in Oregon) dwarfs the less rousing musical numbers, the action drags between crises, and the final comic scene of No Name City's collapse goes on far too long. Location shooting and musicals may be combinable; add slapstick to the mix and it just does not work. But the melodies, hilarious ones like “Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans” and haunting ones like “They Call the Wind Maria” make the overall experience worthwhile and memorable.

Songs: “I Talk to the Trees,” “I Still See Elisa,” “I'm On My Way,” “Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans,” “Whoop-Ti-Ay,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” “There's a Coach Comin' In,” “Wandrin' Star,” “Best Things,” “The First Thing You Know,” “Gold Fever,” “The Gospel of No Name City,” and “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door.”

Cast: Lee Marvin (Ben Rumson), Clint Eastwood (Pardner Sylvester Newel), Jean Seberg (Elizabeth), Harve Presnell (Rotten Luck Willy), Ray Walston (Mad Jack Duncan), Tom Ligon (Horton Fenty), Alan Dexter (Parson), Alan Baxter (Mr. Fenty), Paula Trueman (Mrs. Fenty), Robert Easton (Atwell), Terry Jenkins (Joe Mooney), William O'Connell (Horace Tabor), Sue Casey (Sarah Woodling), John Mitchum (Jacob Woodling), Karl Bruck (Schermerhorn) Screenwriter: Paddy Chayefsky, Alan Lerner, Frederick Loewe Cinematographer: William A. Fraker Composer: Frederick Loewe, Andre Previn, Nelson Riddle Producer: Alan Jay Lerner and Tom Shaw for Paramount Running Time: 164 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards 1969: Nominations: Scoring of a Musical.

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