Finian's Rainbow (1968) is one strange movie musical. At times genuinely magical, at other times inexplicably awkward, it adapts the then-progressive 1948 E.Y. "Yip" Harburg-Burton Lane-Fred Saidy Broadway musical just as traditional movie musicals were bombing left and right, threatening the solvency of the studios that financed them. In downtown movie palaces, in theater-killing, months-long roadshow engagements, with few exceptions they played to empty houses owing to the "white flight" of the middle-class to the suburbs following urban riots throughout the second-half of the 1960s. Further, the new wave of European-influenced filmmakers, on pictures like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In Cold Blood, Point Blank, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rosemary's Baby (all released in the months prior to Finian's Rainbow), made this gentle fantasy-musical, partly about racial intolerance, appear hopelessly quaint, if not outright ridiculous.
Attempts to update the 20-year-old show probably only made things worse. Bearded, often shirtless director Francis Ford Coppola was at 28 young enough to be the son or grandson of the disgruntled old-timers that made up most of his crew. Harburg changed one of the leads from a Woody Guthrie-type union organizer of sharecroppers to a kind of folk singer leader of what resembles a hippie commune, no matter that the racially-diverse community is trying to get rich perfecting mentholated tobacco - or that the actor playing Woody, Don Francks, seems to have been cast partly because he resembles a rougher, tougher Gene Kelly.
And yet Finian's Rainbow has so many wonderful qualities - an excellent cast headlined by Fred Astaire, charming in his last musical; great songs, most staged with imagination, all beautifully sung; superb second unit work by Coppola's UCLA classmate Carroll Ballard - that its charms outweigh the problems of adapting material probably impossible to adequately adapt no matter how one approached it.
Warner Archive's new Blu-ray gives Finian's Rainbow the best presentation possible, marginally better even than the 70mm blow-up this reviewer saw nearly 40 years ago. Good extras accompany the feature.
Roguish Irishman Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) has stolen a pot of gold from a manic leprechaun named Og (Tommy Steele), absconding to the mythical State of Missitucky, where Finian plans to bury the crock near Fort Knox, in the belief that his stolen fortune will multiply.
Accompanying him is his long-suffering daughter, Sharon (Petula Clark), and the two settle in Rainbow Valley, where Woody Mahoney (Francks) is spearheading the efforts of African-American botanist Howard (Al Freeman, Jr.) to develop mentholated tobacco so that everyone in the village can get rich.
Meanwhile, racist Sen. Rawkins (Keenan Wynn), having learned about the buried gold, abuses his authority in attempt to steal away the land. Elsewhere, Woody and Sharon's blossoming love is further complicated when Og falls for Sharon, too.
The 1947 Broadway musical had been a big hit, running 725 performances and winning several of were the very first batch of Tony Awards. MGM had wanted to film it, apparently with Mickey Rooney pegged for the role of Og, but Harburg, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book, wanted too much money and creative control. John Hubley began an animated feature adaptation, supplementing the talents of the Broadway show's stars with heavyweights including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Louis Armstrong, but the pro-union, pro-civil rights themes of the story and Hubley's blacklisting put a sudden end to financing, though recordings of the soundtrack survive.
The project kicked around with various production companies until Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights, intending the modestly-budgeted ($4 million) Finian's Rainbow to follow their big-budgeted Camelot ($13 million).
The resulting film is a peculiar blend of traditional and new Hollywood, with established actors like Astaire and longtime choreographer Hermes Pan at odds with Coppola. Astaire reportedly balked at being asked to dance in real grassy fields "with cow dung and rabbit holes" while Coppola found Pan's choreography old-fashioned and eventually fired him. (Most of the dancing in the film looks like Pan's work, however.)
Further, the odd, compromised look of the film alternates between utterly unreal soundstage "exteriors" and backlot sets, including some backlot interiors lit comparatively naturally. The mix of all-out fantasy (such as all the magical business with Og) and broad social commentary (with Freeman's botanist coached on how to talk and move like a stereotypical black servant) never coalesces. Would Finian's Rainbow play better had the filmmakers committed to one extreme or the other, embracing the fantasy aspects completely or opting for a much harder-hitting, realistic approach? My guess is that neither of those would have worked, either.
Finian's Rainbow might have been a colossal artistic failure if not for all the disparate wonderfulness in its favor. For starters, the Harburg-Lane songs are great, and cinematically staged by Coppola. "Look to the Rainbow," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" "Old Devil Moon," and "If This Isn't Love" are all standards, but even lesser numbers like "The Begat" and "This Time of the Year" are lively and memorable.
At the time of its release, reviewers were unduly harsh on Fred Astaire, who was 68 at the time and hadn't made a musical since Silk Stockings a decade earlier. Truth is he's marvelous, charming and droll as the wily Irishman, but also full of energy in every scene he's in, even when surrounded by dozens of extras and nearly lost in the crowd. His dancing, cow dung notwithstanding, is as effortlessly graceful as it always was. In other words, contemporary critics were nuts.
Clark, Steele, and Francks were all new to the world of Hollywood musicals, but Clark and Steele had long been making smaller scale movies in Britain, and all three are fine singers, a welcome change from the ‘60s trend to cast big stars who couldn't and hire anonymous others to dub them. Some find Steele's toothy, maniacal leprechaun hard to take (Mickey Rooney, just as energetic, would have been insufferable), but on a second viewing one begins to appreciate his finely tuned clowning. Astaire seems to have greatly admired all three, and it's a shame the genre tanked when it did or they might have enjoyed big careers as Astaire's generation had.
Also outstanding is the second unit work, particularly the magical opening titles sequence, shot all over the U.S. mostly using doubles of Clark of Astaire, directed primarily by Ballard, though incorporating footage of the principals shot by Coppola. (Including, briefly, their stroll near the schoolhouse from Hitchcock's The Birds, in Northern California.)
Video & Audio
Filmed in 35mm Panavision, often with shallow-focus compositions, Finian's Rainbow was blown-up to 70mm for roadshow engagements, some reviewers inaccurately critical that the blow-ups cut off Astaire's feet at the ankles (when, in fact, the optical conversion cut of the sides, not the top and bottom of the frame). The Blu-ray, running 2 hours and 25 minutes in all, includes the original (and quite short) overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music, using video culled from the DVD release. The image looks great with strong color throughout, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix from the original 6-track magnetic stereo original is generally excellent, through I found myself adjusting the volume throughout. The disc is region-free and optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements include Coppola's on-camera introduction and audio commentary from the earlier DVD release, a trailer, and a 30-minute New York premiere special, featuring interviews with most of the cast.
Awkward, naïve, quaint, and disjointed but also tuneful with great singing, dancing, and many wonderful moments, Finian's Rainbow is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.