We look back at the 1969 musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.
Editor's Note: Throughout the month of October, C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.
Back in the day, audiences were largely indifferent and critics were downright hostile when director Joshua Logan’s lavish film adaptation of the 1951 Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe opened as a roadshow theatrical release. Indeed, many reviewers seemed more intent on attacking the film for its notorious excess — originally budgeted at $10 million, it wound up costing a then-astronomical $20 million — than begrudgingly admitting its entertainment value. Keep in mind: Paint Your Wagon arrived near the tail end of a series of expensive musical flops — Doctor Dolittle, Darling Lili, Camelot (also directed by Logan), Half a Sixpence, etc. — that left some Hollywood studios awash in red ink.
Over subsequent decades, however, Paint Your Wagon has been rediscovered and reappraised by viewers, and guess what? Many people — including quite a few C&I readers — have greatly enjoyed this rousing and rambunctious musical dramedy about a unique romantic triangle that forms in a booming mining town during the California Gold Rush.
Ample star power is provided by the lead players: Lee Marvin, scruffy and loquacious, as Ben Rumson, a hearty and hard-drinking prospector given to wanderlust and bouts of melancholy; Clint Eastwood, boyishly charming and impossibly callow, as Rumson’s straight-laced and unwaveringly loyal Pardner; and Jean Seberg, vibrant and radiant, as Elizabeth, the Mormon wife Rumson impulsively purchases when she’s auctioned off by her husband — women are at a premium in the otherwise female-free mining town — and winds up sharing with, yes, his Pardner. Not surprisingly, this three-way marriage (which is depicted discreetly yet comically) isn’t a long-term arrangement. But it’s fun while it lasts.
Marvin and Eastwood do their own singing here, and their game renditions of, respectively, “Wand’rin’ Star” and “I Talk to the Trees” are at once seriously jolting and ineffably charming. (Just a few years ago, Marvin’s rendition of “Wandrin’ Star” — which actually was a 1970 Top 40 in the UK — was effectively recycled as an Amazon Prime commercial featuring a cute dog with a bum leg.) But western fans may be even more impressed by the movie’s meticulous production design: The “No Name City” where the story is set really does look how you’d expect a mid-19th-century California mining town to look as it slowly evolves into something more civilized, then abruptly devolves after the gold gives out.