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New Movies: Fool’s Gold

8 minute read

A wagon is a square with four wheels. In Paint Your Wagon the wheels are Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Harve Presnell. The square is Film Maker Joshua Logan, a successful stage director whose ponderous film adaptations (South Pacific, Fanny, Camelot) follow him like a string of mules.

Paint Your Wagon has the same composer (Frederick Loewe) and lyricist (Alan Jay Lerner) as Camelot. It also exhibits the same lack of knack. Again there are broad performances more appropriate to marionettes than men. Again there is the literal representation of lyrics, as when the camera shows pines waving to illustrate the haunting song. They Call the Wind Maria. And again there is a backward alchemy, turning folklore into exaggeration.

A settlement called No Name City sprouts at the peak of the Gold Rush. Population: male. In No Name dwell a miner, forty-niner (Lee Marvin), and his partner (Clint Eastwood). In time —great gaping wastes of it—along comes a blonde named Elizabeth (Jean Seberg). There isn’t enough of Elizabeth to go around, so she shacks up with both partners. They make a beautiful triple until No Name is visited by some outsiders carrying a plague of respectability. Elizabeth succumbs, and only an hour and a half after the audience anticipates it, she settles down with one of her husbands. The other follows his “wand’rin’ star” to the next gold strike.

The raucous caucus of miners results in some explosions of laughter. The score—notably I Still See Elisa, I Talk to the Trees and Wand’rin’ Star —is strong enough to levitate several musicals. But only Presnell has a legitimate singing voice, and he is given a single solo and a walk-on role as a bordello manager. Seberg’s dubbed voice is as thin as the plot, and Eastwood’s real one is scarcely a millimeter thicker. Marvin gamely rasps his lines, but crooning is not his bag. Comedy is. Fitted with outrageous muttonchop whiskers and a mop of a mustache, he postures and pratfalls with a grace that was previously achieved only by Buster Keaton and total alcoholics.

When it opened on Broadway 18 years ago, Paint Your Wagon was slowed by a static book and a production as badly in need of girls as its miners. On paper, Lerner’s improved libretto—and a score with some new music by Andre Previn—seemed to hit the mother lode. But that was before the director made it a fool’s Gold Rush. Lee Marvin has done what he could to give the wagon a push onscreen. But the only motion that can give this Loganized vehicle velocity is promotion.

Big budget or small, no Hollywood film is complete these days without the “promo bit”—cross-country tours by the stars to plug the movie in the press and on TV. Lee Marvin has gone that route enough times to have pained memories: “Blah, blah, blah. Get stiff. Grab a shower. Take a plane. Blah, blah, blah. Get stiff . . .”

For Paint Your Wagon, Paramount’s praise agents laid on a schedule for Marvin that could drive a man to drink —and did. TIME Associate Editor Ray Kennedy and Reporter Mary Cronin rode along. Their report:

Marvin began his tour in Houston looking trim and hickory-hard, striding through the airport like a drill sergeant in Dacron. Trailing behind were his large pressagent, his little manager, Meyer Mishkin, and local studio men handing out photographs and toting bags. “Hey!” shouted a cab driver, clapping an arm around Marvin’s shoulder. “Where’s your horse?”

“You see that,” said Mishkin. ”Everybody loves the guy. Not because he’s a star, but because he’s one of them.”

Marvin is also something else, an ex-Marine who has given up hunting to help “conserve some of the species,” an actor for whom Paint Your Wagon was not just a film but “a dream of a time when I should have lived.” As he moved along the chitchat-and-canape circuit last week in his polka-dot shirt, Levi’s and sneakers, he seemed more a displaced mountain man than movie star, a character created not by Logan but by Zane Grey. When he launched into one of his stories, punctuated with bammos! and whistles, arm waving and mimicry, he might well have been regaling a bunch of the boys around a campfire.

At the Hotel America, Marvin paused to receive a scroll declaring him an honorary Houstonian, then ducked into the Rib Room for a press dinner. Asked about John Wayne, he stared at two reporters with mock malevolence across his tossed salad, slowly raised a pointed finger from an imaginary holster and cried: “Zap! Whammo! Jesus, the guy’s still got it.” But, said one reporter, “Wayne’s 62 now and his fight scenes are beginning to look a little—well . . .” “Fight scenes!” roared Marvin. “Hell, I thought those were his love scenes. Hey, don’t print that. Oh, go ahead. I can always say, ‘Hey, look, Duke, I was drinking, see?’ ”

But he wasn’t. As Mishkin kept telling the theater owner at the other end of the table: “When we play, we play. When we work, we work.” But the man persisted: “Lee, how about us all doin’ a little quail huntin’? We’ll take some baby dolls along, drink a little whisky, do a little gamblin’.” “No drinking,” Mishkin said.

Later, sprawled on the couch in his hotel suite, Marvin allowed that his fee for Paint Your Wagon was $1,000,000, plus a percentage. He likes the movie for other reasons too: “I was getting tired of being the heavy, always killing guys and slapping broads around.”

On the plane to New York the next day, Marvin said: “There’s an old adage in the business: Never shack up with anyone with lower billing than you. Now here I am, running out of shackups. But you know, when you reach 45 and are making enough money to retire, you still have to keep making the flicks. Yeah, you keep working at the masculinity thing, reconfirming it, always asking yourself, ‘Hey, Jesus, am I losing it?’

“Look at all that beautiful open land down there,” Marvin said, staring out the window. “That’s where I belong. You know, after this goddam tour is over I been thinking maybe I’ll get one of those two-seater biplanes with the open cockpit. You know, put on the helmet, the goggles, the whole bit. Then when you look over the side in the wind —whap! you’re there. I used to race motorcycles for the same reason. Because you’re there. Or maybe I’ll do a little fishing, a little drinking. Hell, no. A lot of drinking.”

That evening Marvin went to see Oh! Calcutta! He could hardly restrain himself, he said, from standing up and shouting: “I saw all of this 15 years ago for two bucks in New Orleans! And it was done better.” When he was leaving the theater, a woman stopped him and said: “Wasn’t that beautiful theater?” The remark so angered him, he says, that he decided to break his no-drinking pledge.

From the Lip. Next day, arriving at a rehearsal for the Ed Sullivan Show, Marvin was beginning to show the rigors of the tour. Nettled by a last-minute change in format, he strode onstage before the Yale Glee Club, gave them a middle-finger salute, and shouted: “Why aren’t you out demonstrating?” The glee club applauded. Later Marvin apologized: “I’m sorry I was so rotten this afternoon. I was a little juiced.”

Sneaking off to Central Park in a rare free moment, he sat on a boulder and watched the Columbus Day parade. Then back to the grind. Faced with eleven—repeat eleven—interviews in two days, a weary Marvin began to shoot from the lip. Why did he go into show biz? “Because I wanted to shack up with this redhead at the Woodstock Theater.” What do you do to relax? “Nothing. You don’t do things to relax.” What do you do when you’re not working? “I get in a lot of trouble. Like I can’t find my car at the end of the day.”

Midway through the tour, Marvin was trying to find himself. Slumped in a limousine en route to another interview, he moaned: “Oh, God, I wish I were back at my pad in Malibu, sitting on the deck, drink in one hand, my chick in the other, and listening to the surf fall.” Ahead, however, were more cocktail parties, more table hopping, and more questions—all capped by a flight to Nashville, Tenn., for one final grilling by disk jockeys at the Country Music Association convention.

The prospect prompted another act. “Hello, room service,” Marvin growled into an imaginary telephone. “Send me a bottle. No, no mix. Just a bottle. And hurry.”

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