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"Paint Your Wagon" Was One of the Biggest Movie Musical Flops of the 1960s

The movie musical "Paint Your Wagon," a modest success on Broadway, proved a major box office flop
The movie musical "Paint Your Wagon," a modest success on Broadway, proved a major box office flop
Paramount Pictures

The heavily hyped movie musical Nine was one of the most notorious failures of 2009, receiving middling reviews despite a cast featuring no less than six Oscar winners, including star Daniel Day-Lewis, At one point, Nine graced Wikipedia's list of the biggest box office failures ever.

The Wikipedia list is not adjusted for inflation, otherwise, such notorious flops as the musicals Half a Sixpence, the original Dr. Doolittle, Star!, Hello Dolly!, Camelot and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever would be on it. All of these big-budgeted musicals, the Hollywood studios' answer to the Svengali-like hold TV seemed to have on potential movie-goers, tanked at the box office and nearly bankrupted the Hollywood studio system.

The Hollywood musical was the favorite child born from the technological revolution known as "The Talkies." (The great musical Singing in the Rain is set in the period of the transition from silence to sound.) Audiences that were wary of the first "all-talking" pictures due to a static camera, poor sound reproduction and the shocking revelation that many of their favorites lacked decent voices flocked to the movie musicals, a form not only birthed by, but proved a perfect fit for, sound cinema.

Metro-Goldwyn Mayer's The Broadway Melody (1929) was a huge box office hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Musicals remained popular and reached their apotheosis in the period of 1965-66, when Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady and Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music won back to back Oscar as Best Picture. 

The Sound of Music surpassed Gone With the Wind as the biggest grossing film in history and propelled star Julie Andrews to the summit of the list of Top Ten Box Office stars.  Like a generation earlier, Hollywood saw the musical as its financial salvation.

In the wake of the success of these two musicals, Paramount Pictures put into production a movie version of Lerner & Loewe's 1951 Broadway show Paint Your Wagon, a modest hit that ran for 289 performances. Paramount gave the movie version of Paint Your Wagon the green-light despite the failure of the 1967 movie version of Lerner & Loew's Broadway hit Camelot, which had a two-year run of 873 performances but had proved a major flop for Warner Bros.

Incredibly, Paramount hired director Joshua Logan to helm the project, despite the fact that he had also directed Camelot, which had proven a mis-fire at the box office.  Logan had been criticized for casting two non-singers, Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, in the lead roles of Camelot, and Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner had actually blamed the flop on Harris and Redgrave.

Despite the example of Camelot, Paramount permitted Logan to cast all three leads with non-singers. And whereas Redgrave and Harris actually could warble a tune (Harris scored the #2 hit on the pop charts with his single "MacArthur Park" in the summer of 1968), that was not the case with Paint Your Wagon. In addition to the non-musical Jean Seberg as the female lead, Paint Your Wagon featured  the bizarre casting of he-men Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as the two male leads! In a musical! Both of whom would do their own singing.

Marvin and Eastwood were two macho superstars who had made their reputations in action pics and Westerns, known for their scowling bluster and -- in Eastwood's case, his tactiturnity -- rather than for the mellifluous quality of their tonsils. Critic Pauline Kael gave the movie  a thumbs down. Way, way down.

Kael was flabbergasted by Marvin and Eastwood's presence in the film, pointing out that one doesn't cast a musical on the basis of the stars' position on the list of the top ten box office stars. Ironically, Lee Marvin -- whose singing could be charitably described as atrocious (Jean Seberg, whose singing was dubbed, his singing voice "like rain gurgling down a rusty pipe") scored a novelty hit with "(I Was Born Under a) Wand'rin' Star."  Clint Eastwood, who had had a deep passion for music, actually managed to sing passably in his big number, "I Talk to the Trees."

The movie cost $20 million to make (approximately $125 million in 2010 dollars), a huge amount of money at the time, and its advertising campaign ate up millions more of Paramount cash. The musical grossed about $32 million, returning $14.5 million in rentals to Paramount. In the days before DVDs (and an era when a distributor can demand as much as 80% of the initial weeks' gross from an exhibitor), a movie had to gross about three times its negative cost just to break even. Paint Your Wagon, the movie musical, was a certified failure.

Neither star was hurt by the flop of the picture. Lee Marvin's ride on the list of Top Ten Box Office Stars continued into the early '70s, and Clint Eastwood was only surpassed by John Wayne as a top moneymaking star in his career. Years later, at a Golden Globes ceremony, Eastwood publicly claimed that he had learned how to drink beer from Marvin, a notorious boozer, while on location filming Paint Your Wagon.

Coming on the heels of the failure of Camelot, Paint Your Wagon ended director Joshua Logan's career. The red ink generated by Paint Your Wagon helped push Paramount to the brink of bankruptcy, a financial calamity that eventually was ameliorated by the huge box office returns of Love Story, the biggest hit of 1970.


  • Emylou Lewis 5 years ago

    Didn't know!


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