Matthew Kennedy is the author of Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist living in Oakland, and his other books include Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland, 1999). His articles have appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. He is film and book critic for the respected Bright Lights Film Journal and has hosted retrospectives based on his books at the Pacific Film Archive, UCLA Film Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art. You can find him on Facebook at: MatthewKennedyBooks
Kennedy kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of Paint Your Wagon.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Paint Your Wagon should be remembered on its golden anniversary?
Matthew Kennedy: I’m not sure how it should be remembered, but I believe it will be remembered as a standalone oddity in the careers of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. It’s a western set in the California gold fields of the 1850s… and it’s a musical. Need I add it was the only musical in either of their careers?
Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Paint Your Wagon?
Kennedy: It played the Showcase Theater in my hometown, Redding, California. The Showcase featured the plum movies of the day, or at least the most highly anticipated. I remember music filling the mid-sized theater in fairly high volume. As a kid, I liked the rousing numbers, the gorgeous wilderness locations, and so much lusty, robust goings-on. An entire built city collapses on cue. In an age far before CGI, that was a memorable justification for on-screen mayhem.
Coate: In what way is Paint Your Wagon a significant motion picture?
Kennedy: Paint Your Wagon has a place in history for many of the wrong reasons. It was the last film directed by Joshua Logan, who was suffering from bipolar disorder during the production. It was the only film produced by Alan Jay Lerner, the brilliant lyricist of My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, and, you guessed it, Paint Your Wagon. It had an arduous, protracted filming in the wilds of Oregon that generated bad press before it opened. It lost a lot of money for Paramount, and led to the extinction of the roadshow format.
Coate: Which are the standout songs?
Kennedy: Paint Your Wagon has some beauties — the rousing I’m on My Way and There’s a Coach Comin’ In, and three affecting odes to loneliness: They Call the Wind Maria, I Talk to the Trees, and Wand’rin’ Star.
Coate: Much has been made of the casting of the lead roles. Can you discuss said aspect of the film?
Kennedy: Casting of Paint Your Wagon fell into standard practice of late 1960s musicals, with the priority being movie stars over musical aptitude. Lee Marvin as a grizzled prospector sounds perfect on paper, but of his assigned songs, he only nails Wand’rin’ Star. The song was actually a minor hit. Eastwood was another fine choice — if he didn’t have to sing. He pulls off I Talk to the Trees, but just barely. Beautiful but troubled Jean Seberg captured the spirit necessary to fend off so many men in the Wild West, but her performance is rather dour and her songs were dubbed.
Coate: How do you think the film compares to the original stage production?
Kennedy: Though many of the songs remained, the film otherwise has very little resemblance to the 1951 original Broadway production. On stage Marvin’s character has a daughter who falls in love with a Mexican prospector. In the film’s patchwork quilt of a screenplay by Lerner and Paddy Chayefsky, Marvin, Eastwood, and Seberg form a polyandrous marriage. Even after the Summer of Love and Woodstock, that was unacceptable for a resolution. The film ends with the heterosexual and age appropriate Seberg and Eastwood matched, with Marvin trudging off to follow his wand’rin’ star.
Coate: In what way was Joshua Logan an ideal choice to direct?
Kennedy: He triumphed directing the musicals Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific on Broadway. In Hollywood he made successes of the dramas Picnic, Bus Stop, Sayonara, and Fanny, adapted from a stage musical he directed. His screen version of South Pacific was poorly received by critics but made a lot of money for Fox. His screen version of Camelot was poorly received by critics but lost a lot of money for Warner Bros.
Coate: Where do you think Paint Your Wagon ranks among 1960s musicals?
Kennedy: It hardly belongs in the company of The Music Man, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, or Oliver!, but neither does it suffer from The Happiest Millionaire’s false gaiety, Doctor Dolittle’s appalling production designs, or Sweet Charity’s insufferably cloying performance from Shirley MacLaine.
Coate: Where do you think Paint Your Wagon ranks among the works of Lerner and Loewe?
Kennedy: I’m not familiar with the score of The Little Prince, their last film, and a box office failure. I prefer the scores for My Fair Lady and Gigi over Brigadoon, Camelot, and Paint Your Wagon, though each has plenty of merit.
Coate: What is the legacy of Paint Your Wagon?
Kennedy: It inspired a very funny episode of The Simpsons.
Coate: Thank you, Matthew, for sharing your thoughts about Paint Your Wagon on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Herbert Born collection, Alan Jay Lerner Productions, Malpaso, Robert Morrow collection, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Entertainment.
Herbert Born, Raymond Caple, Matthew Kennedy, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Stan Malone, Robert Morrow, Jim Perry, Joel Weide, Vince Young, and an extra special thank-you to all of the librarians who helped with this project.
- Michael Coate