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Paint Your Wagon

review by Anthony D.

Rated PG-13

Studio: Paramount

Running Time: 166 minutes

Starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston

Written by Paddy Chayevsky

Music by Frederick Loewe, Andre Previn

Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Directed by Joshua Logan

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital English 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Mono, English Closed Captions, English Subtitles, Chapter Search

Released: July 24th, 2001

"Paint Your Wagon" is a musical film set during the California Gold Rush, not a Western set in Dodge City or the O. K. Corral, with memorable music and lyrics by the formidable duo of "Brigadoon," My Fair Lady," and "Gigi" fame: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, with additional music by Andre Previn. At least two of the musical's songs have gone on to become standards, the dynamic They Call the Wind Maria and the plaintive lovers' plea, I Talk to the Trees, and Lee Marvin actually had a hit record with his rendition of Wand'rin' Star (more words on that later).

It all begins when a hapless wagon overturns, and Marvin's Ben Rumson rushes to the rescue. Surviving the accident is Clint Eastwood, a very young appearing Clint Eastwood without the age that has turned his face into a creation more lined than a New York City subway map. As the gold-rushers try to bury the dead, a sparkle appears in the grave and in Ben's eye, without a blink, Ben stakes his claim on the gold, the corpse flies, and Marvin and Eastwood begin an unlikely partnership.

Well, it was bound to happen, a mining town springs up in the lush lands of Oregon (doubling, no doubt for California), and Ben sings about the perils which will undoubtedly follow,w hile Eastwood (now called only "Pardner") croons about a lost love named "Eliza." The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band puts in an appearance leading to a rain-drenched revelry of mud dancing out in the wilderness where the rain Tess, the fire is Jo and they call the wind: Maria. When men share only the company of other men, they begin to personify the elements around them; but when a Mormon with two women of his own passes through, all hell nearly breaks loose. To save his wives from the clutches of these men, the Mormon readily agrees to auction off the younger of his two wives, Elizabeth; the might durned beautiful Jean Seberg - - a far cry from Godard's "Breathless" and even further from Preminger's "St. Joan."

The besotted Ben bids mighty high for Elizabeth, and wins her hand, but when trying to win her heart, she proves to be as stubborn as he is. She'll give him the marital rites as long as he provides her with a home that is a million miles away behind the door. The Rumson Cabin becomes the hot spot for the townsmen, as they rise early to sneak a peak at the only woman within what might as well be a million miles; except for those imported French tarts on their way to another town who Ben decides to kidnap with the blessing of a town meeting. (Town meeting? Civilization approaches).

With Ben off chasing down a coach full of perfumed beauties, Pardner shows Elizabeth the great outdoors, reminding her that he talks to the trees about his infatuation with her. That infatuation turns to fire as they fall in love. The angry Ben returns for a knock-down fight with Pardner, but the blow ceases when Elizabeth asks why she cannot share the two of them, as her first husband had had two wives. This being California, where they make up the laws as the go along, Pardner and Ben agree to be a happily married trio.

The film's tone and focus changes rapidly for its second act, as the town has now become "No Name City," as businesses thrive and gold flows from hand to hand. Everyone has gold fever, it would seem, and as the gold exchanges hands, dust falls between the floor cracks, giving Ben and his cronies the wild idea of the wealth buried beneath the town's buildings. A chain of tunnels beneath the city would rake in the gold, but as a roving Preacher Man warns the residents, "The Lord don't like it here, He's gonna swallow it whole (the town), and goodbye to you."

Respectability hits Elizabeth when a wagon-full of farmers is laid-up with injuries which force them to share the Rumson residence. So while she shows the farmers Pardner as her husband, Ben corrupts their teenage son, who takes to booze, cigars and women as readily as a fish takes to water. This being the last straw for Elizabeth, she kicks Ben out into the street, which because of his nature as a wanderer, he doesn't really mind.

The tunneling has created problems of its own as a bear and bull fight prove. Yes, indeed, as the Preacher Man continues to predict, the earth opens up and swallows No Name City, taking the Preacher Man into the bowels of the tunnels for a chase sequence which continually delights. A bittersweet finale sends Ben off to parts unknown, leaving Elizabeth her cabin and the attentions of Pardner, who reveals his true name and nature as the wagons roll off to better claims.

"Paint Your Wagon" has never looked as good as Paramount's presentation herein. A positively gorgeous enhanced picture carefully preserves the panoramic vistas of Ken Fraker's lush Panavision cinematography. With his wide-angle lenses, Fraker captures all the inherent beauty of the Oregon locations, be they muddy streets or verdant forests. Soft-focus camera work creates a misty feel for the abundant amounts of drizzling rains which almost become a character in and of themselves. Whatever grain is there - - and I admit to noticing none - - is within the film itself and therefore non-problematic. There are no traces of edge enhancement, thankfully. Accurate fleshtones are stable throughout, even when filtered lenses are in use. With minor speckling in only two noticeable places, Paramount should be commended for its careful preservation of this title.

Featuring a brand-spanking-new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, I have to say that for the first time in the home video history of "Paint Your Wagon," every single line of dialogue is crisp and understandable. Previous home video incarnations have presented a rather muddy dialogue track, which has been rectified by this stunning 5.1 remastering. Any doubts of this may be assuaged by opting for the 2.0 surround mix which just isn't as robust as the 5.1 channel is. And talk about an active bass! Wow! I was stunned by the amount of LFE activity: from the opening prelude to the closing exit music, the .1 channel is rarely not being used. The entire destruction of No Name City is presented with a preponderance of low bass normally associated with sci-fi spectacles or Bruce Willis action dramas. Let me say that I was dutifully impressed with the soundtrack! Though not listed in the Chapter Index (see below), Paramount has seen fit to include the film's "Intermission" and "Exit" music, allowing Nelson Riddle's zippy arrangements to be heard in their entirety.

Of course with a musical film, the music is the final judge, and Paramount, despite my quibbles with them, has delivered a solid soundtrack loaded with musical sequences. The songs never interfere with the action, but move the action along through time ("They Call the Wind Maria," "A Million Miles Away") or serve as emotional outlets when words cannot be expressed ("I Talk to the Trees" "Wand'rin Star"). Lee Marvin may not be giving Pavorotti a run for the money, but his whiskey soaked growl (with the aid of an offscreen male chorus) sure does make "Wand'rin Star" a memorable cinematic moment.

Paramount's French Mono track is interesting to listen to as a reference for how much work actually went into the English mix. The songs are presented in English while the dialogue is delivered by appropriate French voices. But the mono sound is tinny and wobbly, nothing like either of the alternate English tracks.

Special features? No. Just one widescreen trailer, which at the very least, acknowledges that the film is a musical.

When making a musical film, there are certain unwritten rules to follow:

1. When the emotional level is too high for words, burst into song.

2. Include in your cast actors who can carry a tune, the better the vocalist, the better the musical.

3. Never, never let theatrical director Joshua Logan adapt a brilliant stage play into a musical film.

These are three of those basic rules, there are more, but they don't pertain to the task at hand. "Paint Your Wagon" arrives on dvd, courtesy of Paramount, flaunting two or those three rules. Hey, at least it gets the first one right. BUT, the fact that Paramount is not regarding the film of Lerner & Loewe's 1950's Broadway hit as a musical (you'll see that they are promoting it as a "western"), is almost beyond reproach. If it weren't for the fact that Paramount's DVD of "Paint Your Wagon" was one of the most exciting, glorious and stunningly produced transfers, there would be no need for the following RANT WARNING:

What's up with suits and ties at Paramount? Only a few weeks ago, they were running an online survey as to which MUSICAL FILM titles fans would like to see released on DVD, and now they release a musical film with an eye and ear opening experience, only to vehemently negate the film's musical qualities with a series of chapters making access to the film's individual songs nearly impossible. The DVD release blows the previous laserdisc release clean out of the water, but with the laserdisc's eighteen chapters, EACH CHAPTER was named for its SONG; now on dvd, still bearing eighteen chapters, not a single one of them is music-related! Okay, so you want to hear Harve Presnell's stunning vocalization of the standard They Call the Wind Maria, you can't just hit "Chapter Index" to go directly to the song, you have to go to the 25:45 minute mark (make it 23:59 for an awesome thunderclap) in Chapter Three (which also contains the musical number Hand Me Down that Can of Beans)! Anyone wanting a complete list of the songs and their time codes may feel free to email me ; I'll be more than happy to provide what Paramount could not. This rant has been sponsored by musical mavens everywhere, who would like to have access to a musical film's musical numbers in a convenient and easy manner. Going on...

Following two abysmal screen adaptations of successful Broadway musicals, "Camelot" - which he seemed to embalm for posterity and "South Pacific"- with its experimental colored filtering, one would think that letting Josh Logan direct another musical would be out of the question. "Paint Your Wagon" certainly proves that Logan could turn out a magnificent motion picture from a semi-successful stage musical, with the right combination of talent working with him. "Paint Your Wagon's" screenplay wisely dumped the book of the musical (which tells the tale of Ben Rumson and his daughter (!) facing the issue of racial equality against the Gold Rush) and created a sly, sophisticated and ADULT musical. Paddy Chayevsky contributes a generous share of one-liners and situations harkening back to his glory days of television in the 1950's, and the wit is shared with his masterpiece "Network," wherein he never condescends to his characters. And as for casting singers who can really sing, well, one out of the three principals has a pleasant tenor voice, another rumbles his way through his songs while the third, Elizabeth is dubbed. There is only one legitimate voice in the film, and that voice is given the score's best known song, "The Call the Wind Maria," a highlight of the film as sung by "The Unsinkable Molly Brown's" Harve Presnell. Somehow this array of non-singers create better characters through the use of their own vocal stylings, and since Elizabeth's solo is a dream song, the use of a professional voice-dubber doesn't feel out of place.

So, see "Paint Your Wagon" for the stars, the songs, the script and the scenery. The film has proven to be more popular as the years pass, as the multiple showings on cable television vouch, with Paramount's presentation it's bound to win more fans. A musical film that breaks all the rules and still succeeds, is worth it.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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