The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Paint Your Wagon

October 15, 1969   Paramount   158 minutes
      Got a dream, boy? Got a song?
     Paint your wagon and come along!

Now there's a classic invitation to begin a musical comedy. Riding on the virile strains of Frederick Loewe's melodic line, in full R&H flavor and tradition, Paint Your Wagon begins as wide open and promising as the Gold Rush itself--with anything (and any story) possible. But a musical needs more than a concept and exploitable milieu, it needs a solid book. Paint Your Wagon was an original story, and according to the author, all the worst for it. In the published libretto, Alan Jay Lerner makes a barely disguised apology in an introduction titled Advice to Young Musical Writers:

"With the risks being what they are... your chances not only of reaching production but achieving success will be inestimably enchanced if you begin with a book, a short story, a motion picture, or a play that has already been  approved by the public and critics alike... So start right in and select a  story that is all prepared for you. The  translation of that story to musical form is quite complex enough. Within that frame you will find more than adequate challenge to your originality and enough on which to experiment."

He certainly took his own advice and started right in tackling Bernard Shaw. And so, ironically it was My Fair Lady that gave Lerner the clout to revive interest in Wagon some 16 years later. Aside from R&H, who else could've sold this rusty, shapeless flop to Hlwd? Jack Warner had produced MFL and Camelot, but he was smart enuf to let Wagon go to Paramount--where to Lerner's delight, the studio (a perennial also-ran in the musical sweepstakes) gave him full control as producer. Hadn't everyone noticed by now; the more Lerner takes charge, the more trouble develops. One of the smartest things about Sondheim is he knows his place. Unlike Lerner or Lloyd-Webber, he knows better than to get his fingerprints all over a project; yet his contribution remains front & center. Lerner, not incidentally a speed-freak, had an ego far beyond his talents, which were considerable enuf--Sondheim's dismissal notwithstanding. (His article on Lerner in Finishing the Hat, is titled, "No There There"--ouch!) Yes, its obvious Lerner's genteel touch was as inappropriate for the rowdy Americana of Paint Your Wagon as R&H were for Pygmalion. But rather than let sleeping dogs lie, Lerner (sans Loewe) determined to redeem this (justifiably) neglected, if familiarly branded title, by taking control. He took half his own advice, and passed on another attempt to find a story, handing that assignment to none other than the poet of urban working-class folk, Paddy Chayefsky--just the man for a gritty period western. Seriously? Once Paddy plotted a story, Alan tackled the screenplay himself. It was inarguably an improvement on the original script, but then what wouldn't be? The first act on Bway sent the lovers in opposite directions, married the old-coot lead to a woman he buys; and ended on a note of foreshadowing doom: the claims running dry. On top of a real shortage of humor, it's hard to imagine what Brooks Atkinson considered "a lot of fun." It must've been the dances.

The revolutionary first act (1943-52) of the Bway musical's Golden Age was winding up as Paint Your Wagon rode onto Bway in November '51--in full R&H mode: a colorful setting, a book-heavy story, an "interracial" love angle, and lots of dancing by Agnes de Mille. She was an inestimable part of Brigadoon's success; so naturally returned to work her magic on Wagon. But who thinks of the show in terms of dance anymore? Certainly the movie didn't. Lerner's Bway libretto centered on Ben Rumson and his 17 year old daughter, Jennifer, who functions as both Laurey and Ado Annie, and is saddled with three of the show's worst songs. Lerner's "comic" lyrics recall his equally derivitive but forgettable songs for Brigadoon's Meg Brockie. Jennifer's cluelessness about men, meant to be hilarious, makes her seem idiotic. Her cautious romance with a Mexican, meant to be poignant, makes her seem spineless. Chayefsky dropped her entirely; in favor of the Mormon wife cut loose to be auctioned off. Here it becomes a menage a trois with Rumson's partner, "Pardner"--one of a number of updatings, reflecting the mores of the late '60s. Paramount saw a broad potential audience for this one. It was a Western and a musical, with popular stars; adult themes; an action sequence climax, and some Nitty Gritty Dirt Band--yes, some real hippies here to contemporize the feel of the Old West--doing their jug band version of "Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans."  I confess this is the first I've ever listened closely to the lyrics, and the reason they're asking for those beans, is to throw them away! That's Lerner's Fifth Avenue idea of moutain men's argot: an artificial and unconvincing colloquialism for "I've got money in my pocket, and ants in my pants."

On Bway the second act was one long "Anatevka" scene; nothing but talking and singing about leaving, then leaving. Ben grows so indifferent to his wife, he allows her to run off with someone else. And the show's lovers are separated until the final curtain, by which point the town population is 6. The movie takes a different route to the same result: the decimation of a thriving community, not by exodus but via physical destruction. It seems more a writer's construct than any sense of reality to justify a scheme tunneling thru the entire town to collect some gold dust fallen thru floorboards. The elaborate network of catacombs they construct is wide enuf to accommodate a stampeding bull--which of course, isn't something they anticipate; the writers do. It's all a setup for a thoroughly absurd, special effects final sequence collapsing the whole town. Which makes manifest the prophecy of a doomsday preacher, who rants thru the second half like a madman--only to be proven right. What are we to take away from that? Lerner clearly loves his rogues too much to be condemning them. So he does it by proxy?

The original Bway musical announced its seriousness with the casting of James Barton, the original Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, as Ben Rumson--later to be replaced by Glass Menagerie's original Tom Wingfield, Eddie Dowling. Thus, the precedent was set for a non-singer actor in the leading role (five years before My Fair Lady validated it as a practice.) But where Rumson was a wilderness philosopher on stage, he morphed into a "rascal" on screen: an unrepentant drunk, with no moral code; less Will Rogers, more Cat Ballou, and so: Lee Marvin. Watching it this time I was surprised how repulsed I was by him. We're meant to be on his side, the crusty old bear; and again, aside from the writer saying its so, I don't buy it that Rumson should hold partnership sacred, not when there's no other code--or Commandment--he respects. Why does he take on "Pardner" in the first place? He stakes his claim at the sight of gold flecks in the grave they dig for Pardner's brother--but suddenly he's magnanimous? Well, anyway this brings our two strangers together; the younger, cleaner, and far easier on the eyes, Clint Eastwood. In fact there's a good deal of potential material in the early scenes of the film. It's a fascinating, unexplored subject: how men adapt and relate to each other, in lawless, socially isolated, frontier environments. But the exaggerated attention drawn by the entire camp at the sight of two Morman women, shifts the story in a more obvious direction. A drinker himself, Lee ate mud (the location term for chewing scenery?) and then some, as a shitfaced Rumson, milking the same antics that won him an Oscar. We're meant to find his inebriation hilarious, where it's mostly disgusting, but makes for a real yarn: the great How I Met Your Mother tale: bought her in auction, while blotto beyond recall.

Of course Eastwood and Seberg are the film's true lovers, straining to keep apart out of loyalty to Marvin. After that the story devolves into a Sierra-set would-be Jules & Jim. Seberg's one song is dubbed, Marvin painfully croaks his own vocals, but Eastwood has an easygoing jazzclub voice; and an inherent musical sense (he later composed music for his own films). Granted he's no Harve Presnell, who shows up to put vocal muscle into "They Call the Wind Maria." Odd they should set the whole song in a torrential rain. As if wind thru the trees was. . . what, too obvious? Never mind that it's sexier, or more photogenic than a downpour. Clint doesn't quite "Talk to the Trees" as he strolls thru the woods; the camera favoring his closeup over the grandeur of nature. "There's a Coach Comin' In" is at least filmed literally--galloping across grassy plains, over rocky passes--tho why it careens into camp down the middle of the river isn't clear. Andre Previn's five new numbers, with Lerner's equally lacking lyrics, start with Marvin's talk-sung manifesto, "The First Thing You Know," in a voice so unappealing, on a tune so inconsequential--made even worse as its picked up by Nelson Riddle's Mantovani-esque orchestrations--which undermine any attempt at authenticity or contemporary hipness. Yet, not all of Riddle's arrangements are bad. "I'm on My Way"--as close to a title song as possible--is well served by the studio's symphonic orchestra. It's a rousing call to arms, and possibly the best number in the show. Half of it plays thru the credit sequence (over watercolor prints of western landscapes); half in live-action cameos: men on the move. The all-male chorus, however, sounds a bit too. . . clean? The Young Republicans. Somehow chorus and orchestra come together on "Wanderin' Star"--the show's most honest Western tune--and even Marvin's mumbled vocal sounds right. It was released as a single at the time--a sort of old-timer's bridge to the Easy Rider generation. But the film was much derided for its trio of non-singing stars.

As one who directed the biggest hits of both Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, it's odd that Joshua Logan elected to go for movie stars over musical talent in nearly all of his movie musicals. While the artistic and commercial failure of Camelot is first and foremost Logan's to own, he makes it abundantly (and unforgivingly) clear in his memoir that Lerner is at fault for everything wrong with Wagon. It was at Lerner's insistence (and bafflingly, Paramount's consent) the picture be filmed in a remote corner of Oregon, which required $80,000-a-day logistical coin. It wasn't a short shoot. Given how many movies filmed in California have passed for foreign locales, I find it bizarre and ironic that Oregon was chosen to stand-in for Sierra Gold Rush country. But just as Tuscany doesn't really look like Simi Valley, northern Oregon doesn't look quite like Calaveras County. Nor is it as spectacularly beautiful as intended--not a patch on the Alps as featured in Sound of Music. I hated mountains as a child. They were cold and bleak and as far from any culture as possible. The sweep of The Great Outdoors inherent in the story isn't especially realized here. When Lerner overstepped his bounds from the first day of shooting, Logan tried to quit, but was legally obligated to continue. He later admitted, "I directed the picture with joyless industry." Hard to see how that was any different from Camelot, but never mind. Also back from that film was production designer, John Truscott; now armed with double Oscars and an ego inflated to the point of hubris. Tho this was just his second film, his profilgacy was now boundless, costing Paramount so much over budget, that he was never hired (as a designer) again. It was Logan's swan song as well. Only his ninth film, he sputtered thru the latter few after a promising beginning in the mid-'50s. Thruout his stage career as well, Logan has a shamefully scant record of using great choreographers. He staged the "dances" himself in both South Pacific and Wish You Were Here--otherwise preferring less showy talent like Helen Tamiris and Danny Daniels. Did he feel too insecure to work with Robbins, or de Mille, Champion or Kidd? There's not even a hint of de Mille left in Paint Your Wagon's movie; where her handiwork was all over the original. Logan's big dance number features a horde of drunk grizzlys cavorting in a muddy hoedown.

Whether Frederick Loewe read the writing on the wall, or just wanted to spend his millions as an aging roue on the Monte Carlo/Palm Springs circuit, he called it quits in 1961, while still relevant; leaving Lerner to seek as many partners as he had wives. After a combustive (if creatively brilliant) period with Burton Lane, Alan lured Andre Previn into the world of musical theater, on his long-aborning Coco Chanel tuner (financed by Paramount as well) and filling out some new songs, in Loewe's stead, for Wagon. It says much for Loewe's melodic touch that Previn's tunes are so obviously cut from a cheaper cloth; they can't compare. All the more remarkable as this is Loewe's least natural genre: a Western. Previn's songs for the movie aren't just mediocre, they're the very definition of mediocrity. They don't lull you into sleep so much as lull you into inattention. HIs Bway score for Coco discouraged further work along this line. To be fair, Coco has a few perky numbers (which even Kate Hepburn's croak can't entirely eviserate), as well as the best theater song Previn ever wrote: "Always, Mademoiselle," with its luscious progression of minor key changes, which (in the extended orchestral passages--among the last charts by Robert Russell Bennett) sounds more like film scoring--Previn's true metier. To be fair, Lerner's lyrics are of even less help or authenticity than they were to Loewe in '51. Seberg's solo, "A Million Miles Behind the Door" is particularly awful:

     Just doing with my life
     What life is for
     A million miles away behind the door

These lyrics just don't jive with what we've seen of this woman's character. From her arrival at camp, she seems to inhabit another universe. Her reactions (or lack of) to her fate; her diconnect from her surroundings, are baffling. I kept thinking Seberg was Faye Dunaway (who is rumored to have been considered for the part); modern to the point of obtrusiveness, and far too cool. Which is something you couldn't say about the hordes of miners who swarm at the sight of women, as if Jesus or Elvis had entered the building. One even gives away all his gold just to hold a baby. Uh-huh. And why are all these lonesome polecats such shaggy old-timers? You'd think the Gold Rush was a branch of the AARP. Hard to believe this is a Joshua Logan production, a brand known for its male pulchritude. Not a single shot of a shirtless miner washing up in the river? Even trucking in bolder, adult themes, Lerner/Logan came off as the Old Guard, a little passe in comparison to concurrent films like Butch Cassidy (the recon-structed Western) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (the modern rom-com on open marriage.)

I was only 16 thru most of 1969, but this was the year I really felt the seismic shift in popular culture. The Moon Landing and Woodstock dominated public imagination --the Shock of the New a cultural malady. With censorship crumbling, films were trending grittier, rougher, ruder and--to my eye--mostly uglier. The New York depicted in the year's Oscar winner, Midnight Cowboy, was a far cry from the romantic glamour of the Breakfast at Tiffany's version I had been preparing for--but a more accurate view of the city I was later to arrive in. Hlwd was heading for a wholesale takeover by a younger generation, but the last of the Old Guard was still rolling out studio behemoths--like dinosaurs for a final walk around the park. Among these: the latest Roadshow musicals. Scarcely a month after Wagon, MGM unveiled Goodbye Mr. Chips; with Fox trumpeting Hello Dolly! by Xmas. Concurrently, Bway was coasting on a number of long-running hits (Dolly!--still-holding--and Fiddler, La Mancha, Mame, Cabaret); the newer shows alarmingly evaporating into quick irrelevance. Harold Prince couldn't get Zorba to catch public fire; Alex Cohen smothered Jerry Herman's Dear World in an overblown production that brought Angela Lansbury more accolades (and another Tony) but died before summer. A London smash (still a rarity for a Bway transfer), Canterbury Tales, was met with near total disinterest. Meredith Willson tried out a new tuner about Columbus on the LA/SF Civic Light Opera circuit, but 1491 (starring John Cullum and Chita Rivera) died an ignominious death--and with it Willson's Bway career. Jack Warner fared little better, taking a stab at producing on Bway now that his Hlwd days were over. On the surface, the life of NYC mayor Jimmy Walker seemed more promising a musical comedy subject than Fiorello!. but in execution Jimmy (wisely electing no exclamation point) fell far short; in great measure for using untested talent, but also a seriously charisma-challenged leading man: Frank Gorshin. Fiorello!, had a Jimmy Walker campaign song that put the rest of Jimmy to shame. NYTimes critic, Clive Barnes continued his mowing down of anything less than New, wrote, "Give us a break, Mr. Warner. I know it is sometimes said that Hlwd is killng Bway, but I didn't know that people were allowed to send guerrilla parties over to speed up the job." Only the third Bway season I dilligently followed from start to finish, 1969-70 looked threadbare thru fall & winter, until a late season bloom. In the last 3 years, only Promises, Promises and Hair were sellout hits; with one improbable sleeper: 1776. Oh, yes, and something downtown curated by Kenneth Tynan, with sketches by Samuel Beckett, Jules Feiffer, John Lennon, and Sam Shepard, among others--all of which had as little literary merit as the actors had clothes. A stage full of bodies cavorting au naturel turned Oh! Calcutta! into a sensation. Fox was still raking in cash from The Sound of Music, but it was patently clear this was no longer a Rodgers & Hammerstein world. The Deep Throat '70s were on their way.

I'm not sure when Paint Your Wagon came to my vicinity at the Century 23 in San Jose, but I first saw it in February 1970, and not again until '91. And not again until now (2013). If there was any film genre that lulled me into an instant coma, it was the Western. What on earth was the appeal? All that sagebrush and horses and dust. Who likes watching that? Apparently the masses, as TV was saturated with Oaters in those days. Pretending to be a musical (and with those leads there was a lot of pretending) Wagon wasn't fooling me. It was Western enuf. On that level Paramount wasn't wrong in predicting a wide audience. Tho it lasted but 16 weeks in its Roadshow engagement, opening October 15, 1969 at Loew's State 2 in Times Square, the picture eventually earned a substantial $14,500,000 in film rentals in the local houses; but at a cost of $19,000,000 it was another overdrawn check on the Bank of Hlwd. All too quickly a few more were to follow, which put the screen musical on course for extinction. When you watch the pic now, you can see why.

Next Up: Hello, Dolly!

Report Card:   Paint Your Wagon
Overall Film:  C
Bway Fidelity:  D
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs Cut from Bway:  7
New Songs:  5 by Lerner & Previn
Standout Numbers: "I'm On My Way"
               "There's a Coach Comin' In"
Casting:  Commercial miscalculation
Standout Cast: Clint Eastwood (by default)
Cast from Bway:  None
Sorethumb Cast:  Lee Marvin, Ray Walston
Direction: "Joyless industry"
Choreography: Mud-stomping revelry
Ballet: Whoa...what do you think this is?
Scenic Design: Over budget & underwhelming
Costumes: General Store issue
Standout Set: None
Titles: contemporary graphic watercolors
     of Western scenes; robust rendition of
    "I'm On My Way" over
Oscar noms: 1, Scoring

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