FINIAN’S RAINBOW is a strange puppy. Never drawn to seek it out, even though I appreciate Fred Astaire, enjoy some musicals and love my crush Petula Clark, it took this kid fifty years to get around to give this relic a chance, and that’s because I got the DVD as a freebie for helping someone move (the favor also nabbed me Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, so balance has been restored). “Scratch one flat-top”, as a Navy pilot once remarked after sinking an enemy carrier in WW2.
Vagabond Irish transplant ‘Finian McLonergan’ (Astaire) swiped a pot of gold from a leprechaun and takes his plucky daughter ‘Sharon’ (Clark) traipsing around the US to the State of ‘Missitucky’, and its ‘Rainbow Valley’. An impish leprechaun—so impish you want to strike him with another metal, maybe lead—named ‘Og’ (Tommy Steele) shows up to reclaim the loot, but meanwhile the gold, Finian and Sharon find friends, purpose and love among the dance-inclined citizens of the valley, whose most popular pals want to grow mentholated tobacco (good old home-grown drug-dealing). Trouble is, the local politician (Keenan Wynn) and his cohorts are bigoted against the African-American folks who live there, and lust after their land. A musical fantasy with a leprechaun, about Civil Rights, in 1968. What a mad, mad, mad, mad year…*
The property had been bandied about for two decades, after its success as a play, written by E.Y. Harburg (The Wizard Of Oz) and Fred Saidy. Originally, its message had been oriented around labor unions, and the economic plight of sharecroppers, but the McCarthy period put the kibosh on highlighting that infernal, ‘suspect’, socialized angle.
Perhaps spurred by his hit My Fair Lady, and also taken with Petula Clark after seeing her wow the Coconut Grove, Jack L.Warner eventually gave the go-ahead. With a new twist suited to the race-conscious times, the wily studio boss turned director reins over to one of the talented, precocious new kids on the block. That was Francis Ford Coppola, 28, who’d scored a critical success in ’66 with You’re A Big Boy Now, pulling an Oscar nomination for Geraldine Page. Coppola: “The only reason I got the job was because I was young. Warner’s had this creaky old property lying around, and they wanted a young director to modernize it.”
Astaire, 68, hadn’t made a feature musical since the failure of Silk Stockings in 1957. Clark, 35, had been very popular for four years since her classic “Downtown” slew the charts, but the British Invasion charmer had never acted in the States. She’d done so in England from the time she was 11, logging 23 features since 1944. Others cast included Canadian actor-musician Don Francks (an interesting bio) and Al Freeman, Jr. (ditto).
Since Camelot‘s bulging budget was straining the studio, cutbacks on this $3,500,000 project resulted in a jarring look that hopped between outdoor locations around then undeveloped Thousand Oaks, California and obvious old-style phony sets back at the studio, including re-using some from the Arthurian romp. The “hippie” Coppola had the cheek to fire the legendary choreographer Hermes Pan, replacing him with Claude Thompson, supposedly more “with it”. Pan had logged a zillion big credits since 1933 and done all nine of the classic Astaire-Rogers musicals. The resultant running around and assorted “zany” calisthenics that make up the dancing elements of the enterprise don’t budge the applause meter, especially the for-the-love-of-God-stop! ballerina preciousness of Barbara Hancock as ‘Susan the Silent’, a deliriously HAPPY (!) mute who expresses herself through dance. Have spoon, will gag.
It’s the sort of musical where, over much of its 141 minutes, people shout at each other a lot. Astaire and Steele yell back & forth, Wynn bellows at everyone, and none of it is funny. A furious revenge wish too near the pot of gold turns Wynn black. Yes, well-intended or not—it’s supposed to teach him tolerance—gambling on blackface smack dab in the middle of riot-torn 1968 is nearly as tone-deaf as…as…well (example below) **
Steele’s constant shrill mugging tests patience on a Zero Mostel level. Saints preserve us, Fred and Tommy don’t just rub and kiss the wee Blarney Stone, they kidnap it and torture it. Freeman is likable, playing a kind of goof, but—as the chasm will yawn—I couldn’t help contrasting his role here with his playing of Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
Clark easily comes off best, and her Irish accent is a lot more convincing than Astaire’s. Plus, of the musical numbers, she gets the two best songs, “How Are Things In Glocca Mora?” and “Old Devil Moon” (a duet with Francks). Longtime Hollywood veteran Ray Heindorf was Oscar-nominated for adapting the score. The sound also received a nomination. Clark later let slip that “there was a lot of Flower Power going on”, as quite a bit of cannabis wafted around the set, and tokers of the evil weed included Fred himself. She offered “Yes, all that stuff. Oh, please. And Fred Astaire, too.” Gotta love my Pet Clark. “I Know A Place”…
Reviews were mixed, some cat-scratching about Astaire’s age and appearance (a sin to have the nerve to get old), tasking the tale for length and taste, most praising the solid job from Clark. For a much more detailed and positive review than mine (I struggled manfully through this movie) we confidently direct you to thr wise Glenn Erickson’s summation over at CineSavant.
It did make back its bundle, so Jack Warner didn’t keel over. Box-office came to $15,700,000, in 22nd place cozying in the same berth as the distinctly different items Bandolero! and Barbarella. With Dolph Sweet, Roy Glenn and Jester Hairston.
* Ah, the acid test of ’68. Squaring off against 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boston Strangler and Candy were Funny Girl, Oliver!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Star! (and, lest we forget—on account of all those bong hits—Yellow Submarine).
** …a vicious, moronic billionaire’s model-trophy wife visiting traumatized kids, wearing a jacket saying she doesn’t give a shit? Gee, maybe NOW would be time for a reworked revival of Finian’s Rainbow, especially since Civil Rights–all Rights–are once again in jeopardy from vile racists and irredeemable scoundrels posing as moralists and patriots. You pigs swiped the gold: at least leave us the pot.