Saturday, April 12, 2014

Finian's Rainbow (Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Finian’s Rainbow, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts’ lumbering epic musical from 1968 based on a surprisingly radical Broadway stage musical concocted by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, Harold Arlen’s long-time lyricist, with two collaborators — Don Saidy co-wrote the book and Burton Lane composed the songs — which premiered in 1947. The story is a bizarre ragbag of clichés and attempts to advance the conventions of the form, and it centers around the adventures of an old Irishman, Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire in his last musical, unless you count the first two That’s Entertainment! compilations), who steals a crock of gold from Og the leprechaun (Tommy Steele) intending to take it from Ireland to Rainbow Valley, Kentucky (the official synopsis locates it in a fictional state called “Missitucky” but the dialogue establishes it as the closest inhabited area near Fort Knox) and bury it in the ground, on the idea that if the United States government could become the richest in the world by digging up gold and burying it again, the same principle would work for him. He arrives in Rainbow Valley in the middle of a clash between the local tobacco sharecroppers, who’ve established a cooperative and are working to buy up the land they farm, and the local white establishment led by Senator Billboard Rawkins (Keenan Wynn, in a marvelous comic-villain performance), who’s trying to seize the whole valley for some purpose that isn’t specified in the script by Harburg and Saidy (the two original writers got to do the screenplay as well) but is quite clearly corrupt. Rawkins and his cronies, the local sheriff (Dolph Sweet) and his chief of staff Buzz Collins (Ronald Colby), are fending off the attempts of the federal government to take over Rainbow Valley for a large TVA-style dam project to provide electricity to the area — and in the scene in which Rawkins and Collins shed crocodile tears over all the starlings and other birds who’ll be killed by the dam project we’re wrenched back to a time when it was the Left that supported big energy projects and didn’t give a damn about their effects on the environment.

Anyway, Finian McLonergan (ya remember Finian McLonergan?) arrives in Rainbow Valley with his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) in tow, and she immediately falls in love with the town troublemaker, Woody Mahoney (Don Francks) — Harburg and Saidy supposedly based this wanderlust-ridden character on Woody Guthrie but Harburg and Lane supplied him with typical Broadway show ballads that don’t sound at all like Guthrie’s music — while Og the leprechaun shows up to recover his gold. It’s explained that as a leprechaun, he’s immortal and can use the power of the magic gold to grant as many wishes as he pleases, but if a mortal tries to use the gold it’ll only grant three wishes and then the gold will turn to worthless dross. There’s also a subplot in which Woody and a Black scientist named Howard (Al Freeman, Jr.) are trying to invent something called “mintolated tobacco,” a cross-breed of the tobacco and menthol plants that will create menthol cigarettes without having to blend the two — only their first efforts won’t catch fire (in fact, they put fires out, which suggests they already have a marketable product and should produce that), and their next try burns but doesn’t generate smoke (and in an obvious concession to the youth audiences of 1968 the efforts of Francks and Freeman to smoke it are shot to look like they’re smoking marijuana). In the middle of all this Sharon McLonergan gets so upset with Senator Rawkins’ racism that she uses the power of the gold to turn him Black — and he joins up with the remaining three members of a Black gospel quartette for a song called “The Begat,” which is filmed with the singers approaching Rainbow Valley in a convertible for a gig singing at the wedding of Sharon McLonergan and Woody Mahoney. Eventually the movie ends when the wedding is disrupted by the Senator and his cronies, and the baddies trap Sharon and Woody in the church where it was supposed to take place and set it afire (gee, a Fury-style attempted lynching — that’s a great way to end a musical!), only Og, who’s turned mortal by his separation from the gold and his falling in love first with Sharon and then with Susan the Silent (Barbara Hancock), a truly preposterous character who’s mute but supposedly talks in “dance language.” (When she did her first “dance language” number I joked to Charles, “She’s actually saying she should have been 30 years younger so she could have been in Fred Astaire’s great movies instead of Ginger Rogers!”)

The power of the magic gold gives Susan the Silent a speaking voice at last (though, judging from Barbara Hancock’s flat singing in the big finale, Og neglected to wish her a singing voice as well) and changes the Senator back into a white man, though presumably with the more enlightened racial attitudes that were wished into him in an earlier scene, and of course Our Lovebirds are rescued and ultimately married in the burned-out husk of the church, while Finian bids a teary farewell to both of them in a poignant scene that’s the best thing in the movie — not because it’s any great shakes in itself, but it makes a beautiful and moving farewell to Astaire’s career in musicals. Finian’s Rainbow had a lot of old-line people behind the camera — the musical director was old Warners hand Ray Heindorf and the choreographer was Astaire’s lifelong friend Hermes Pan (the last name was actually shortened from Pangiatopulos) — but the director was Francis Ford Coppola, making his third film. He’d started with an American-International horror cheapie called Dementia 13 which had won him a contract at Warners, where he made a coming-of-age cheapie called You’re a Big Boy Now that was a smash hit in 1967 (at least partly due to the presence of the band the Lovin’ Spoonful, who not only did the soundtrack music but appeared in the film). As a reward for the success of You’re a Big Boy Now, Coppola was handed the assignment to direct Finian’s Rainbow, which after sitting in development hell for two decades (quite likely, as an “Trivia” poster claimed, because Hollywood executives were skittish about its anti-racist satire) finally got green-lighted as a movie in the wake of the enormous blockbuster success of The Sound of Music in 1966. Just about every production chief at every major studio got the idea that the way to lure audiences into movie theatres was through big, splashy, epic-length filmizations of musicals, mostly ones that had been stage hits — and just about every big musical shot in the wake of The Sound of Music (including the direct follow-up, Star!, which reunited the key creative personnel from The Sound of Music — director Robert Wise, writer William Fairchild and star Julie Andrews) bombed big-time, including this one.

Seen today, Finian’s Rainbow comes off as an agreeable enough entertainment but one that goes so wrong in so many key respects it forfeits its chance to be a truly great film. It doesn’t help that Coppola chose to shoot most of it in genuine outdoors location; a story that already pushes the limits of believability even by fantasy standards (it’s one of those annoying plots where nearly anything can happen — and does) ends up clashing with the naturalistic settings in which it’s being filmed. It needed a director like Vincente Minnelli who would have stylized it (as he did with another Astaire fantasy, Yolanda and the Thief, another box-office flop but a considerably better film than Finian’s Rainbow!); as it is, the one “exterior” scene that was shot inside a soundstage, Susan the Silent’s Oklahoma-ish fantasy ballet, seems both more believable and more entertaining than all the scenes shot in the genuine outdoors. I remember seeing the “Begat” sequence as part of a San Francisco Film Festival tribute to Coppola and wondering, “Why are they singing it in a moving car?” (And the payoff of the scene — the car breaks down and is being towed when the song finishes — adds an anachronism; though all the other cars in the movie are accurate for the late 1940’s, when the story supposedly takes place, the tow truck is a modern one from the 1960’s.) The casting also doesn’t help; Astaire is marvelous except for the silly brogue he’s obliged to affect to denote “Irishicity,” and Petula Clark — who was already under contract to Warner Bros. Records in the U.S. and was put in this film to establish herself as a film attraction in America — also gets saddled with a fake brogue, though aside from that she sings marvelously. The opening “Look to the Rainbow” (better heard on the soundtrack album than in the film itself, where it’s heard faintly at first and then faded in) is magnificently phrased and shows what an eloquent singer Clark could be of standard musical songs. In her native U.K. and continental Europe she was a superstar acknowledged for a wide range of material, which she recorded in three languages: like Caterina Valente before her and ABBA afterwards, the instrumental tracks of her records were made first and then she added her vocals in three different languages (English, French and German) for various markets.[1] In the U.S., though, all she was known for was pop-rock novelty hits like “Downtown” and “I Know a Place.” But for all her eloquence as a singer she’s only a moderately talented actress, and after just one more Hollywood film (a 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, with her in Greer Garson’s role and Peter O’Toole in Robert Donat’s) she high-tailed it back to England and resumed her career where she was appreciated.

The rest of the cast is O.K. but not great; Tommy Steele has probably the finest singing voice in the film (Astaire’s had deteriorated and, as noted above, he was saddled with that horrible brogue; ironically, Steele was the one of the three principals playing Irish who sang in his normal voice — and he was the most convincing as an Irishman) but he so totally plays up the schtick one might as well be watching the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms commercial. Don Francks has an acceptable but not great Broadway-style tenor — and it doesn’t help that in what’s by far the most famous song from this show, “That Old Devil Moon,” he’s got competition from Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan (and Sinatra’s 1950’s version, with one of those ballsy Nelson Riddle arrangements that powered him to some of the most intense and visceral singing of his career, is unlikely to be bettered by anybody), or that in Francks’ duets with Petula Clark sound designers M. A. Merrick and Dan Wallin are deliberately boosting his voice and mixing hers down so she won’t overpower him. Overall, Finian’s Rainbow is entertaining but nowhere near as great a movie its creators were hoping for or thinking they were making; it’s about half an hour to 45 minutes too long for its own good, the production numbers lumber along so unenergetically they actually slow the movie down instead of perking it up (according to an “Trivia” poster, Coppola fired Hermes Pan in mid-shoot thinking he was too old-fashioned and replaced him with Claude Thompson, but on the basis of the evidence that didn’t help much) and one wishes for the energy this movie could have had if it had been filmed right after the stage show’s original run instead of 21 years later, when Hollywood had largely forgotten what it had once known about how to make great musicals.

[1] — ABBA’s mix of languages was Swedish (for their home market), German (for continental Europe) and English (for the U.S. and U.K.).