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Paint Your Wagon

Paint Your Wagon(1969)

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teaser Paint Your Wagon (1969)

"Howdy, Parson. Welcome to HELL!"
Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon

Lee Marvin signed on for a five-month tour of hell when he accepted hisfirst $1 million contract to star in the 1969 musical blockbuster, Paint Your Wagon. Butthough the adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1951 stagehit was mired in chaos and couldn't hope to make back its huge (for that time) $20 million budget, it brought Marvin a hit record and a lifelongfriendship with director Joshua Logan.

Paint Your Wagon was one of several big-budget musicals put intoproduction in the wake of the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music (1965).But where The Sound of Music had been produced by seasonedveterans, Paint Your Wagon was put in the charge oflyricist/screenwriter Lerner, who had never produced a film before. Sincethe stage version had succeeded largely on the strength of its Agnes deMille choreography and in spite of its weak script, Lerner urged writerPaddy Chayefsky, best known for realistic dramas about the struggles oflittle men, to develop a new story. In place of the original script aboutthe daring romance of a miner's daughter and a Mexican laborer, Chayefskyexpanded a subplot about a miner (Marvin) who buys a Mormon settler's lessfavored wife (Jean Seberg). To keep the film in touch with the swinging'60s, he gave the miner a partner, appropriately named Pardner (ClintEastwood), with whom he shares the woman. And as a moral lesson, he hadthe prospectors' boom town destroyed when miners tunnel under the buildingsto harvest gold dust that had fallen between the floor boards. This wasthe part of the script director Joshua Logan liked best, though he wouldlater realize it had been lifted from Blake Edwards' 1966 comedy WhatDid You Do in the War, Daddy?.

The new script didn't quite fit the show's songs, so Lerner jettisoned morethan half of the original score and hired Andre Previn, with whom he wasworking on the Broadway musical Coco, to write new ones. Then, hecast three non-singers -- Marvin, Eastwood and Seberg -- in the film'sleading roles. Of the three, Eastwood came off best, drawing on hislifelong interest in jazz to personalize famous numbers like "I Talk to theTrees." Seberg studied for months to perfect her one song, then was sonervous in the recording studio that she could barely squeak out the notes.Instead, they had her vocals dubbed. Marvin growled his way through hisnumbers, turning "Wandering Star" into a surprise hit, though many criticsthought it sold records purely for its camp value. By contrast, Lernercast a real singer, Broadway star Harve Presnell, to deliver the film'sbiggest number, "They Call the Wind Maria," which only showed up the vocalshortcomings of his stars.

Costs on the film skyrocketed when production designer John Truscottconvinced Lerner to do all of the filming on location in the Oregonmountains. There they built two separate versions of the mining townNo-Name City -- one before gold is struck and a more ornate version forwhen it becomes a boom town. Since the closest lodgings were a perilous50-mile drive away, cast and crew were flown to the set by helicopters at acost of $80,000 a day. Fortunately, the location was also near a hippiecamp, which gave the production a cheap source of longhairedextras.

Such a large investment in location shooting would have required allinvolved to function at peak efficiency, but that was not to be. Lernerhad his doctor on set through most of the shoot so he could be wellsupplied with amphetamines. His constant interference demoralized Logan,who was suffering from manic-depression, though it wouldn't be diagnosedfor years. On the first day of shooting, he was nowhere to be seen. Theyfinally found him asleep on a table in the saloon setting.

Nobody seemedto be in control of the money. A team of horses required for one scenethat should have required only a week's work were kept on call for months. Truscott hired specialists to weave lace handkerchiefs for extraswho would barely be seen. After four months, with winter approaching, theyhad to rebuild the sets in Hollywood for another month of what wasoriginally planned as a two month shoot. Then Lerner took the film awayfrom Logan and re-cut it himself.

Paint Your Wagon opened to decidedly negative reviews, with manycritics seeming to take personal offense at the amount of money spent onthe film. But the stars drew in enough ticket-buyers to make it the sixthhighest-grossing film in the history of Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately,the expenses were so great, that its strong $14.5 million take couldn'tpush it out of the red. Once the film had finished its first run,Paramount reissued it with several numbers cut, hoping to make more moneyby allowing exhibitors to squeeze in an extra show each day. But theresult was a musical curiosity: the leads had been reduced to one songeach. Fortunately, the cuts were restored when the film was sold totelevision.

On the positive side for Marvin, he and Logan became fast friends, and hedeveloped a genuine fondness for the director's two teenaged children.Logan was amazed at the contrasts in Marvin's character. Raised as aSouthern gentleman, he always tipped his hat for ladies and referred toolder men as "sir." But he also started drinking beer the moment hearrived on the set. If his drinking ruined a shot one day, he more thanmade up for it the next with a letter perfect performance. A few weeksafter the film came out, a New York gossip columnist printed a story aboutdirector and star having an on-set fight which climaxed with Marvin usingLogan's boots "like a dog uses a fire hydrant." When Logan's childrenpointed out the article, he set the story straight with a letter stating,"Lee Marvin is a very close friend of mine and we will stay friends formany years to come. It is true that we have had a few mild discussions,never any violent ones. Lee Marvin is a great Southern gentleman....Therefore, when he is sober it is absolutely impossible for him to havedone such a thing, and when he is drunk, which he is once in a while I mustadmit, he is really drunk. He staggers and careens in such a waythat he wouldn't have the aim." (Josh Logan, Movie Stars, Real People,and Me).

Producer: Alan Jay Lerner
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky, Alan Jay Lerner
Based on the Musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Production Designer: John Truscott
Art Direction: Carl Braunger
Music: Frederick Loewe, Andre Previn, Nelson Riddle
Principal Cast: Lee Marvin (Ben Rumson), Clint Eastwood (Pardner), JeanSeberg (Elizabeth), Harve Presnell (Rotten Luck Willie), Ray Walston (MadJack Duncan), Tom Ligon (Horton Fenty).
C-159m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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