I love the old musicals, especially those by the gifted composers and lyricists Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Camelot). When their musical Paint Your Wagon appeared in my television lineup the other night, I grabbed the popcorn, clicked on the channel, and looked forward to some great entertainment.
Paint Your Wagon is a 1969 film set in the 1853 California gold fields. While including some of the songs from the original 1951 Broadway play and adding a few new ones, the movie’s plot differs in numerous ways from the original. But both stories are about miners seeking gold, the hardships of the frontier, and some odd marriage arrangements.
It had been many years since I’d seen the musical, and I’d forgotten what a hodgepodge of a story it was. Not that it wasn’t entertaining. Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg played their parts adequately, as did the many secondary actors, including Ray Walston of My Favorite Martian and Damn Yankees and Harve Presnell of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Eastwood and Marvin even sang their own songs to varying degrees of skill. Presnell’s rendition of “They Call the Wind Mariah” always gives me chills. Click on the title to hear this great singer at his best. Sadly, he came along as movie musicals were fading from popularity, so we didn’t get to hear him in great musical roles often enough.
Regarding the characters, as an author of historical romances, I know from my research that the folks settling the American West weren’t always clean cut, highly moral people. So, in the musical, the miners who went to California in search of gold were a mix of types, none of which seemed to possess any semblance of a moral code. No need to go into detail about some of their actions. I get what they were doing. This isn’t a Christian story. Still, the filmmakers didn’t need to make the sole “religious” character a preacher who is such a doofus that he’s ridiculed by the goldminers and generally made to look a fool. Oh, wait. This is Hollywood. They’ve been portraying Christians as all sorts of evil or clueless people for a long time.
My purpose here isn’t to rag on this movie, although I wouldn’t be the first. Esteemed professional reviewers such as Roger Ebert said: “The fact is, Paint Your Wagon doesn’t inspire a review. It doesn’t even inspire a put-down. It just lies there in my mind — a big, heavy lump (https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/paint-your-wagon-1969). Ebert goes on to do his job and provide reasons for his disappointment in the film.
For my part, as I hinted above, I don’t expect all that much from Hollywood. Because I am a lover of the big musicals of the past, the ones listed in the first paragraph by Lerner and Loewe, plus many others such as Carousel, The Music Man, and Oklahoma!, I can watch those films over and over and come away with a happy heart. The next day, I don’t mind the “earworm” that has me singing their songs. As I’m sure you know, “an earworm…is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm).
So, what earworm has been stuck in my brain since watching Paint Your Wagon? It’s the haunting strains of “They Call the Wind Mariah.” Sung by the incomparable Harve Presnell, it should have me at the very least feeling a bit of nostalgia for those long ago days when musicals ruled and I often danced out of the theater with a song in my heart. How is that I’ve never before noticed how completely dismal this song is?
While filled with poetic imagery, the song simply breaks my heart for its utter lack of hope. The character sings that he’s so completely lost that “not even God can’t find me.” Being a Christian who knows no one is beyond the reach of God’s love, I’m sad for anyone whose anthem is based on that philosophy. If I’d written the story, that preacher would have been a wise man who lovingly explained to that saloonkeeper how much Jesus loved him and how he could have peace now and forever. But then I’d be accused of preaching. But wouldn’t the love of God be a better message for the preacher to deliver than his muddled hellfire and brimstone (and biblically inaccurate) rantings? I guess such a message wouldn’t fit the agenda of the moviemakers.
Another line in the song actually annoys me. First of all, this character abandoned his “gal” and left her far behind him, and now he wants the wind, Mariah, to blow his love to him. I mean, really! If he were any kind of man, he’d admit his mistake, go home to that woman, and beg her to take him back. Why should she go chasing after a guy who left their happy home life because he was bitten by gold fever? He obviously loved his dreams of wealth more than he loved her.
Today, I’m writing this blog to try to get that bothersome earworm out of my mind because it still makes me sad. Maybe I need to pull out my DVD of Brigadoon so I can wake up tomorrow with its theme song, “Brigadoon,” equally as haunting and filled with beautiful poetic imagery but a much more hopeful theme, stuck in my brain. At the least, every time the “Mariah” earworm starts to bug me, I can burst forth in another of Brigadoon’s songs, such as “The Heather on the Hill” or “Almost Like Being in Love.” It’s worth a try.
As for the movie, well, I never wish ill to those who produce a such a large work of art. I’m just saying it’s not for me. And apparently not for Roger Ebert either.