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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Finian’s Rainbow’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you can walk away from your mistakes without anyone thinking the worst of you…

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)
Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

There were Hollywood insiders in 1968 who reached a consensus on how things should be done.

These folks said the big budget musical was passé in 1968 and that after The Sound of Music no more should be made. They said trying to make a big budget version of a Broadway show was a loser. And they also said that long-hair hippie types had no business being on the set.

And they were right…

We open as the credits roll on Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark). With Clark’s performance of “Look to the Rainbow” overdubbing on the soundtrack, we watch the McLonergans make their way through or past the top 20 major attractions overseen by the National Parks Service, from Liberty Island to the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and everywhere in between.

As the song ends, we fade out, then get a quick cut to Rainbow Valley, a southern collection of sharecroppers where everyone regardless of color is treated equally, as all folks there are equally impoverished. The sheriff (Dolff Sweet) is bringing along Buzz Collins (Ronald Colby) to foreclose on the community for failure to pay back taxes. The community is panicked until Susan the Silent (Barbara Hancock), so named because she is unable to talk and must use interpretive dance to speak, lets everyone know that her brother Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), the head of the Rainbow Valley Tobacco Cooperative, is on his way with the back taxes, having been on the road and rails to raise the funds.

While the community fights eviction by chasing Buzz and the sheriff, Finian and Sharon show up in the empty town. As they sit up in a tree, the people of Rainbow Valley and the targets of their wrath law gather as Woody comes in with the money for the tax bill. He’s short, however, thanks to accrued interest, but before the town’s evicted out of existence, Finian floats him a loan (the money literally falls from the tree).

In return for saving everyone, all Finian asks for is a few small acres as close as possible to the local federal facility, Fort Knox. It’s Finian’s belief that the reason America is so rich is because all they gold the country got from California was buried in the ground here, where it multiplied like potatoes left behind after the harvest. He believes his seed investment, the gold he stole from a leprechaun, will likewise increase in value.

Yes, it’s a horrible idea, especially since the original owner of the pot wants it back…

Following Finian here is Og (Tommy Steele), who wants the source of all leprechaun magic back before he and the other ‘wee folk’ turn into mortals. He pleads (badly) with Finian to return the gold, noting in passing that anyone standing atop the pot can make a wish that’ll come true, but after the third time the gold turns to dross, but Finian convinces him to be patient and wait for his scheme to bear fruit.

The only ones who end up richer that night in the woods are Sharon and Woody, who fall in love with each other in the moonlight over a duet on “Old Devil Moon.” And we discover the only thing of value Woody has is Sharon, when Woody’s best friend Howard (Al Freeman Jr.) asks him for more funds to continue research on the cooperative’s “killer app,” a tobacco crossed with mint for pre-mentholated smokes-

Boy, that that not age well…

We see Buzz again along with his employer, Senator Billboard Rawkins (Keenan Wynn), one of the most corrupt and racist politicians south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We’re there as Buzz tries to tell the Senator that he couldn’t acquire Rainbow Valley for him, just as a set of geologists come by and let the Senator know that their instruments detected gold on the property. Finian’s stolen treasure somehow got detected at a distance by unexplained means, all for the sake of getting the story to commit to some action.

Speaking of committing to action, Woody doesn’t seem sure that he’s really in Love with Sharon. Finean the smooth talker gets Woody to realize what he’s in now, with the help of the town as the cast sings “If This Isn’t Love”:

Very soon, the Senator shows up and tries to bully the folks off the land. He even goes so far as to evoking a law he’d just drafted that morning (one without going through the legislative process) that makes it illegal for white folks and black folks to live together. So enraged is Sharon by this that she wishes the Senator was black himself.

And that’s one wish of three that the gold can grant out of the way…

Jack Warner was also probably disappointed at how his wishes turned out. The studio head ignored the consensus of Hollywood and still made a good return on Camelot the year before, and thought he could do it again. He was optimistic, but cautious; he made this musical with only a quarter of the budget that Camelot had, even reusing the forest set from the Arthurian musical in this film.

And yet, the film would go on to generate such hate from critics. The audiences were likewise unimpressed, though because of the lower budget the movie would still turn a profit, albeit less than half of Camelot’s. Which raises the question: What was it that doomed the flick?

The source material might have been problematic, though not necessarily from an artistic standpoint. The original musical from 1947 had been Tony nominated and ran for 725 performances, with three revivals before the film came out. In fact, the film adaptation had been in development hell for decades. In 1954, the film was envisaged as an animated feature, but after the show’s lyricist E. Y. Harburg and animation director John Hubley refused to name names for the HCUA, the project was indefinitely shelved.

The book to the musical is very clever, with plenty of turns of phrase and quick one-liners. It’s also frank about segregation and the abhorrent attitudes behind it, which was then (and now) a hot button topic that could scare the casual audience, even though the subject desperately needed (and still needs) to be openly discussed. While some of the elements of the show had to be toned down before being filmed, such as removing Woody being a union organizer, there’s still enough left from the source to jolt the nervous.

By 1965, the film rights were owned by producer Harold Hecht, who ultimately placed the film with Warner Brothers. Originally, Hecht wanted Dick Van Dyke for Finian, but scheduling issues took him out of the running. Astaire, who’d concentrated on TV specials since his last screen musical (Silk Stockings from 1957) was then persuaded to come back to the screen.

Audiences who hadn’t seen him in a while may have been shocked to see their icon as a 69-year-old man, but as demonstrated in the number “Idle Poor,” Astaire was still in great form at the time:

Most of the rest of the cast was solid. Clark’s singing and acting carry the film, and Barbara Hancock is almost worth the price of admission alone, and she shines when she dances.

She even manages to keep things moving even when paired with the weakest link in the cast. Tommy Steele is all wrong for the character, annoyingly over the top in a role that required subtlety and unable to reign it in, but Hancock does keep the audience there for the number, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love”:

It’s not Steele who’s the main problem, however, but Coppola. Jack Warner didn’t seem to care to get to know the film’s director before he showed up, and just stayed away as much as he could from him. It’s not known if Warner knew or cared that before taking the helm what Coppola’s CV consisted of. Would he have given a musical to the guy who helmed the zany-60s comedy You’re a Big Boy Now, the sex farce The Bellboy and the Playgirls if he was aware? Should he have given a shot to someone who worked for Roger Corman on the pick-up horror quickie Dementia 13, and a recut Soviet SF that became Battle Beyond the Sun? It’s an unanswerable distraction for a long night at the local over a few rounds…

Director Coppola and Astaire on set

Coppola’s main problem is having too many distractions. His original plan was to shoot everything on location outdoors, with Napa Valley serving as the location for Rainbow Valley, but for shots where the pot of gold was used he had to shoot on the reused Camelot set. This made it difficult to reconcile the feel of the film’s shot on and off set, and prevented viewers from feeling any vibe in the final cut.

The way Coppola did the on location shots are also disorienting and off-putting. His quick edits with sudden POV changes in the outdoors footage feel like the result of having too many new toys to play with. He overused hand-held shots while tracking across the field, and had way too many camera mounting on vehicles (atop cars and alongside trains) as they drove along and even going into the frame like a 3D effect. Not to mention the so, so many shots from a helicopter; it’s horrific to imagine how the film might have turned out had drone mounted cameras been available then.

Added to this was Steele’s over-the-top performance. Coppola would own this in later interviews and note how working with the British rock singer-hyphenate taught him in later films how to prepare better with talent during pre-production.

Amazingly, as bad as this film was, it was not a career ender. Astaire would never dance in a formal musical again (discounting his team-ups with Gene Kelly in That’s Entertainment, Part 2) but he would still get work with his image untarnished. Clark would still be in demand worldwide, Steele would continue his career unhindered in England, and Hancock would perform in theater and teach to great acclaim.

And Coppola, he went on from there to more projects that were better loved. He’s become so established as an auteur that even this musical, and 1982’s One from the Heart, could not diminish his importance as a major filmmaker.

At least, that’s the consensus…


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