PAINT YOUR WAGON – ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES By Peter Filichia
Here’s a challenge for musical theater mavens who can identify a song from a mere line (“J. Edgar Hoover owes him one”), phrase (“the motion of the ocean”) or even a word (“Danube-y”).
What song contains the lyrics “We ain’t braggin’ – we’re gonna coat that wood!”?
Frankly, one doesn’t even have to know the difference between BAT BOY and THE BOY FRIEND to answer that question – as long as the person is a fan of THE SIMPSONS.
(And who isn’t?)
For those lyrics come from the episode that aired twenty-three years ago this week – on Jan. 4, 1998, mind you – called “All Singing, All Dancing.” In it, Homer and Bart rent a VHS tape from a video store (yes, times have changed). They made their decision based on the film’s two uber-macho stars: Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.
“So prepare yourself for the bloody mayhem and unholy carnage of Joshua Logan‘s PAINT YOUR WAGON!” exclaims Bart.
We can infer that Bart gleaned the name of the director from the clamshell case he saw at Blockbuster. Bart isn’t likely to know the name Joshua Logan, although we do from his directing BY JUPITER, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, SOUTH PACIFIC, WISH YOU WERE HERE and FANNY to great success.
So these two male Simpsons can’t wait for videocassette to meet videocassette recorder. Soon, though, Homer is appalled. “They’re singing!” he cries out in horror. “Why aren’t they killing each other?!”
Home and Bart will stay with it, though, for thus far they’ve only seen Eastwood. As Homer says with brio, “Lee Marvin’s always drunk and violent.”
Not this time. Marvin enters and continues the song: “Gonna paint your wagon, gonna paint it fine. Gonna use oil-based paint, ’cause the wood is pine.”
That’s enough to have Homer eject the cassette right into the wastebasket. One might wonder why he doesn’t return it to Blockbuster; perhaps he feels he’s doing a public service by keeping other unsuspecting western aficionados from wasting their time and money. “Singing is the lowest form of communication,” he snarls.
Now none of the above lyrics were written by Alan Jay Lerner, and the melodies to which the new lyrics were set don’t sound a bit like Frederick Loewe (who did damn well in replicating the sound of the American west, especially considering that he was born and spent his formative years in Berlin).
So the melodies and lyrics in this episode were bogus, but the plain truth is that Marvin and Eastwood – two stars with whom you’d never associate a musical – actually did film PAINT YOUR WAGON in 1969. The $20 million production eked out a $14.5 million in worldwide rentals and showed up on more than a few “Worst Films of the Year” lists.
It bore little resemblance to the original musical that played Broadway in 1951. Oh, some of the best songs that had been heard at Shubert were retained: “I Am on My Way” a rousing opening number that happy-go-lucky miners sang on their way to the California Gold Rush, as well as their lusty “Hand Me down That Can O’Beans,” “Whoop-Ti-Ay” and “There’s a Coach Comin’ In.”
(A side note: Ray Culp, pitching for The Boston Red Sox in 1971, was giving up too many hits against the Baltimore Orioles. As a result, pitching coach Harvey Haddix came out of the dugout to calm and advise Culp. As Haddix approached the mound, the Red Sox organist played “There’s a Coach Comin’ In.”)
PAINT YOUR WAGON’s two best-known songs were retained for the film: “They Call the Wind Maria” (pronounced as Ms. Carey says her first name instead of the way that the leading ladies of WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC do) and “I Talk to the Trees,” sung by a wistful Eastwood.
(Another side note: Danny Kaye on his hour-long variety show in the mid-sixties once had a sketch in which a very unnerved-looking man was flat on his back on a psychiatrist’s couch. Although he was fearful that the shrink would judge him mentally unbalanced, he did reluctantly manage to disclose in song, “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me …”)
“I Still See Elisa” made the cut, too, although its context was greatly changed. The film had Eastwood fantasizing about his ideal woman; the stage show had Ben Rumson, a much older man, wistfully singing to his grown daughter Jennifer about his late wife, who was her mother that she barely remembers.
Jennifer isn’t in the film, which made the show lose three terrific songs you can hear thanks to Olga San Juan on the original cast album. Another option: Alexandra Socha does them proud on the more complete recording that was made in 2015 after the show had played Encores!
“What’s Goin’ on Here?” shows a naïve Jennifer not understanding why the miners who used to play with her as a kid are now staying away from her now that she’s sixteen going on seventeen; “How Can I Wait?” is her response after she meets a young man who leaves her to go prospecting while she yearns for his return; “All for Him” is her declaration of love and her announcement that she’ll marry the man today despite her father’s objections.
The reason that Ben doesn’t welcome his son-in-law becomes clear when we see that his name is Julio Valveras. SOUTH PACIFIC, set in 1943, showed us that people were still being “carefully taught” prejudice; imagine how a rough-and-tumble miner felt ninety years earlier.
Audiences at the original production rooted for the couple, though, partly because Julio was played by handsome Tony Bavaar who had a glorious voice. It’s well-shown on “I Talk to the Trees,” “Carino Mio,” and “Another Autumn.” These numbers didn’t make the film either because Julio was also eliminated. (On the revival cast album, Justin Guarini does them splendidly, too.)
That leaves two songs for Ben. The first is “In Between,” which is handled quite differently on the revival cast album. In 1951, record producers were fearful of including a lyric that was even slightly salacious, so James Barton had to finesse the ending in a way that didn’t make clear what Ben meant. If you care to hear the “naughty” lyric, Keith Carradine will sing it for you on the revival cast album.
But long before 2015, PAINT YOUR WAGON had lost its innocence. Although the stage show did have a scene in which Ben bought Elizabeth, a Mormon’s extra wife, the film turned that incident into a story-long genuine ménage à trois: Ben and “Pardner” – the only name we get for Eastwood’s character – take turns with Elizabeth.
Ben’s other song is “Wand’rin’ Star,” which expresses his policy of not staying in one place too long. Say what you will about Lee Marvin’s croaky voice; the fact remains that his rendition of “Wand’rin’ Star” was released as a single and wound up a Number One record for three weeks in England, even beating out The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Although The British and the Irish have always had their disagreements, they had the same musical taste during March of 1970, for that month “Wand’rin’ Star” was Number One in Ireland, too.
Given that Simpson is a British name dating back to 1353, perhaps Homer and Bart might have liked PAINT YOUR WAGON if they could have heard Marvin’s “Wand’rin’ Star.” You, however, are better advised to take in a rendition by either James Barton or Keith Carradine.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’ is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.