Tag Archives: Western Musicals

Go West, Young Lady

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2015

Go West, Young Lady—Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford, Ann Miller, Charles Ruggles, Onslow Stevens, Jed Prouty, Allen Jenkins (1941; Dir: Frank R. Strayer)

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For current fans of westerns, the obvious star of this western musical comedy would be the young Canadian actor Glenn Ford.  But at the time this was made in 1941, he was not the biggest star; first billing went to Penny Singleton, then known for having appeared as Blondie in a series of slight films based on the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips.  (She and Arthur Lake would make 28 of them between 1938 and 1950, including one with Glenn Ford in 1940; many were directed by Frank Strayer.)  Here, she is Belinda “Bill” Pendergast, the young lady of the title.

The once-tomboyish Bill is headed west to join her uncle Joe Pendergast (Charles Ruggles) in the lawless town of Headstone, now terrorized by the outlaw gang of Killer Pete.  In the stage with her is Tex Miller (Glenn Ford), a federal marshal being sent as temporary sheriff to clean things up in Headstone.  When the stage is attacked by Indians, Tex is surprised to find Bill outshooting him in the stage’s defense (like Mae West in the previous year’s My Little Chickadee).  Uncle Joe owns the Crystal Palace saloon, where the principal entertainment (and most of the movie’s musical numbers, along with some anachronistic but well-executed tap dancing) are provided by Lola (Ann Miller).  He is shocked to find that Bill Pendergast is a young woman.  Unfortunately, Lola and Bill do not get along well.

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Young Belinda “Bill” Pendergast (Penny Singleton) is surprisingly adept with a gun.

Uncle Joe owes more and more of his saloon to his financial backer, Hannegan (Onslow Stevens), but both of them seem to be losing money to Killer Pete.  [Spoilers follow.]  Unknown to almost everyone, however, Hannegan is in fact Killer Pete.  Tex does his best to bring a little law and order.  As Tex keeps fighting with bad guys who are bigger than he, in a running gag Bill tries to help him but always ends up bashing Tex.  He warns her off (to no effect) in one fight.  “Don’t hit him!  It’ll be me!”  It always is.

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Bill (Penny Singleton) and Lola (Ann Miller) don’t get along.  Eventually physical hostilities erupt.

Elements of this are reminiscent of Destry Rides Again, from two years earlier, with the corrupt town, the diffident-seeming (but actually forceful in his way) young lawman, and the exuberant fight between two women (Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry, Singleton and Miller here).  Other than those references, the writing here is desultory and the comedy predictable, with pies in faces, law and order prevailing against Killer Pete, and the young lovers getting together after multiple misunderstandings.  Like Belle of the Yukon, this is edging more into musical comedy than western.  Along with all the other musical numbers (several written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin), one is provided by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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After numerous altercations, misdirected punches and the occasional pie in the face, finally the young lovers (Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford) get together.

Shot in black and white at the Iverson ranch in Chatsworth, California, at only 70 minutes.  Not available on DVD in the U.S.  Not to be confused with Go West, Young Girl, a 1975 made-for-television movie with Karen Valentine.  Or with the better-known Go West, Young Man, 1936, with Mae West, Warren William and Randolph Scott.

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Musical Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2015

Big Budget Musical Westerns

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Or are they western musicals?  The two movie genres of musicals and westerns make for an uneasy mix (see, for example, the ballet sequence in Oklahoma!), but it has been done several times.  It appears to have been most successful in the early 1950s, when Howard Keel was the king of the mixture, partnering with Betty Hutton (Annie Get Your Gun), Doris Day (Calamity Jane) and Jane Powell (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).  Some of the biggest names in the American musical theater, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Leowe, tried their hand at these.  Finally, as big musicals were fading from cinematic favor in the late 1960s, one of the last of them was Paint Your Wagon.  For hard-core fans of westerns, these are not usually the sort of thing they like, even if they do star Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

Some westerns have a significant musical number, usually provided by a dance hall performer, like “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939) or “Some Sunday Morning” sung by Alexis Smith in San Antonio (1945).  But they don’t have enough of them to qualify as musicals.  Howard Hawks liked to throw in an occasional musical number as an indication of male bonding, as he did with the duet featuring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo.  But musicals weren’t really his genre, although he had an unusually wide range as a director.

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Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy in Destry Rides Again: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”

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Alexis Smith as Jeanne Star in San Antonio: “Some Sunday Morning.”

Go West, Young Lady (1941).  This comedy/musical follows the new sheriff (Glenn Ford) in Headstone, as he romances the niece (Penny Singleton) of the owner of the Crystal Palace saloon.  Ann Miller sings and dances as the principal entertainer at the saloon.  And Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys show up as well.  Some of the songs are by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin.

Belle of the Yukon (1944).  Set in the gold-rush Yukon in northwestern Canada at the turn of the last century, most of the music is provided by a young and dark-haired Dinah Shore as a dance hall entertainer.  The main action is provided by stars Randolph Scott and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The Harvey Girls (1946).  Not much of a western, but it is set in the southwest as the railroads extended into that part of the country.  And what list of musicals would be complete without Judy Garland somewhere on it?

Two Guys from Texas (1948).  Two vaudevillians (Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson) on the run from crooks try to pass themselves off as cowboys.  With Dorothy Malone.

Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Judy Garland was originally slated to star in this, but her star was just beginning to fade at MGM and the role of Annie Oakley went to Betty Hutton in the film.  She and Howard Keel as Frank Butler cavort their way through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

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Calamity Jane:  Which is the real one?

Calamity Jane (1953).  In appearance, it would be hard to get farther from the actual Martha Jane Canary of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, than Doris Day.  And Howard Keel doesn’t look or act much like Wild Bill Hickok, either, but in 1953 you couldn’t make a musical movie based in the west without him.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).  Set in Oregon in 1850, this is one of the biggest hits of Howard Keel’s career, as he plays Adam, the oldest of the seven brothers, who marries Jane Powell and inspires his six brothers to abduct their own intended brides.

Oklahoma! (1955).  One of the first of the string of successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway, this took its time making it to film with Gordon McCrae and Shirley Jones.

Paint Your Wagon (1969).  Set in gold rush northern California of 1850, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood demonstrate that while they rank among the best actors in westerns, they’re not entirely comfortable in a musical, especially when they have to sing.

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Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

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Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

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Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

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The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

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Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

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