Eastwood: Paint Your Wagon

“I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me…”

Clint Eastwood singing – who would have thought that, even in 1969? The first time you hear him singing ‘I Talk to the Trees’ or see the film it is always a shock to see the macho action hero of the sixties and seventies singing, but it is distinctly Eastwood singing. He also sings the less memorable ‘I Still See Eliza’ in the film. This wasn’t the last time he would sing – those who have seen his recent grizzled performance in Gran Torino will notice that’s Eastwood singing the end title number; in Honkytonk Man (1984) in which Eastwood plays a hard drinking country singer modelled off Hank Williams. Other macho pin-ups and tough guys had done this before him – most notably Robert Mitchum (singing Calypso none the less) and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. As a western this film was also familiar territory for Eastwood. He would turn to this familiar western sub-genre theme of gold prospecting and frontiersmen in the much darker and distinctly more serious Pale Rider in 1985. However, even Eastwood is overshadowed in this film by the older macho star in the shape of Lee Marvin who delivers one of his most charismatic performances as the bewhiskered and always drunk Ben Rumsen (Marvin was actually drunk throughout the production of the film). Marvin usually played tough guys and the bully boy to gangsters earlier in his career before probably two of his best roles and to date most memorable roles coming in 1967 in The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank; in such films as John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef (1963) playing opposite John Wayne he was also soon as a boozing bare knuckle boxing macho guy with a soft heart and this was the role he took to in Paint Your Wagon.

The story is set, as previously mentioned during the gold rush in the Californian Rockies. Ben Rumsen and other gold prospectors find gold and as a result a boom town is quickly set up. Rumsen soon forms a partnership and friendship with the young, handsome Pardner (again Eastwood is playing a man with no name) and when a family of Mormons passes through and after they are humiliated, one of the Mormon’s feisty and good looking wives is auctioned off and is won by a very drunk Ben. When he wakes up with a huge hangover he discovers that he has been wed off. Not long after, his wife, Elizabeth begins a tryst with Pardner leading to conflict between both men. The community then becomes jealous and resentful of them sharing the one woman and try to resolve the matter. It is then decided that Ben should hijack a stagecoach and bring back six prostitutes (“six French tarts”) to the newly named No Name City. With much boozing and womanising the boom town soon becomes a Bacchanalian town with all sorts of vice going on.

My first experience of this film was as a 13-year-old and as a fun western musical it made quite an impression on me. But this isn’t the kind of musical western of the likes of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Calamity Jane (1953) or Oklahoma (1955), but instead a rough and tumble western with some very funny tunes. After seeing the film I had to buy the soundtrack album. The songs will always raise a smile especially Clint singing ‘I Talk to the Trees’, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band doing ‘Hand Me Down That Can of Beans’ and Marvin’s ‘The First Thing You Know’:

“When I see a Parson,

I gotta get my arse on a wagon

That follows the tail of a crow,

The first thing you.”

And who can forget Lee’s gravel voice working its way through ‘Wanderin’ Star’ (Seberg commented that Marvin’s voice was like “rain gurgling down a rusty pipe” is apt), a song that was so successful that it made number one in the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Another musical highlight is Harve Presnall singing the beautiful and dramatic ‘(They Call the Wind) Mariah’.

Eastwood’s character of Pardner was written into the film while Eastwood was riding high on the popularity of his westerns, either the Hollywood ones, TV’s ‘Rawhide’ or the spaghetti Italian westerns. Jean Seberg’s character of Elizabeth was also a bigger part than in the original play. Marvin himself was set to star in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that year, certainly a film that would have well suited his career, but chose Paint Your Wagon as it was offering him $1 million plus a percentage of the takings. Of course the three stars were not singers (Seberg singing voice was sung by Anita Gordon) and the only professional singer was Presnall (whose vocal on Mariah is outstanding). The film had a troubled budget with much of it shot near Baker City, Oregon and director Josh Logan delaying the shooting schedule. Eastwood was apparently so frustrated by the delays and lack of control that this strengthened his resolve to become a director himself. He already owned Malpaso Films which he began with his first Hollywood film, Hang ‘em High made the year before after making the Dollar trilogy. Logan was eventually sacked from the production towards the end and the director’s seat was given to the assistant director Tom Shaw (who received no credit for his part).

This film also came about at a troubled time for Hollywood. Both genres: musicals and westerns were on the wane, or at least the kinds of western that was more traditional and Eastwood was on the cutting edge of the new breed of more violent western. But Paint Your Wagon was in a mould of its own. Hollywood and the Hollywood system was going bust and over spending on budgets was a big part of that. The previous year 20th Century Fox had overspent on the grossly over budgeted Hello Dolly! and it looked as though Paramount was about to do the same with its over $20 million budget by completion, double what it was originally budgeted at. Ever since West Side Story (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965) Hollywood had been making bigger and more expensive movies and Paint Your Wagon definitely falls into that bracket. The production was long and running vastly over budget. This was the only film that was produced by Alan Jay Lerner who also wrote the original stage 1951 musical along with his collaborator (of which this adaptation is vastly different), Frederick Lowe. MGM executive Louis B. Mayer had been trying to get this film since 1957, but was pipped to the post by Paramount. Critics were sharply divided by this film on its release and remain so and while it is best remembered as being a film starring Lee Marvin, this would be the last film with Clint Eastwood in it where Eastwood would be playing second fiddle to anyone. Still he is still remembered for singing ‘I Talk to the Trees’.

Chris Hick

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