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Finian’s Rainbow

by Glenn Erickson Mar 04, 2017

DVD SAVANT

As a musical it’s excellent — fine tunes and lyrics, great singing and dancing by the ever-youthful Fred Astaire, the glorious songbird Petula Clark, and the impishly weird Tommy Steele cast appropriately as a grimacing Leprechaun. The update of what was a politically acute Broadway hit in 1947 is awkward but the show is a melodious pleasure — great color, fine voices and peppy direction by Francis Ford Coppola on his first big studio feature.

Finian’s Rainbow
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 145 141 min. / Street Date March 7, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele, Don Francks, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Hancock, Al Freeman Jr., Ronald Colby, Dolph Sweet, Wright King, Louis Silas.
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Film Editor: Melvin Shapiro
Original Music: Ray Heindorf
Written by E.Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy
Produced by Joseph Landon
Directed by
Francis Ford Coppola

 

Finian’s Rainbow is a unique musical with a strange history. A postwar Broadway success, it mixes Irish Leprechaun fantasy with an acute awareness of racial prejudice in the South, and manages to find a finish that’s romantic, funny, whimsical and racially harmonious… for the year 1947, before the major advances of the civil rights movement. The show’s strengths are immediately apparent, beginning with a bundle of melodious songs by composer Burton Lane (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and lyricist and book co-writer Yip Harburg. The lyrics are especially good; Harburg wrote all the words for Harold Arlen’s music in The Wizard of Oz. The original Broadway show starred Albert Sharpe and David Wayne, and was choreographed by Michael Kidd.

Several attempts to film the movie failed, one of them an animated version by the great John and Faith Hubley. Their 1954 production for DCA had already recorded tracks with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong when blacklisting forces undermined its financing. Although other productions were planned, it wasn’t until 1966 that Warner Bros. put a show together, planned as a lower-budget follow-up to their expensive Camelot. Rewritten to soften its racial themes, Finian’s became the first big studio directing assignment for the UCLA film student wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola. He arrived with good writing credits and had directed the Richard Lester- influenced You’re a Big Boy Now.

The production has a dream cast. Fred Astaire came out of retirement at age 69 to sing and dance; he hadn’t made a musical since 1957’s Silk Stockings. A smart choice for the leading lady was Petula Clark, known as a youthful pop singer on AM radio but actually a veteran of English musicals since she was a child. Brit rock vocalist Tommy Steele was perfect casting for the film’s Leprechaun, which well suits the entertainer’s outsized personality. Major roles given to less-publicized actors include Don Francks, a fine Canadian singer whose biggest exposure previously was the role of Mr. Anybody on the MisterRogers TV show. A key dancing role went to 17 year-old ballerina Barbara Hancock, billed as ‘Susan the Silent.’

The result is an extremely refreshing show, filmed by Coppola neither in the old MGM mold (he fired choreographer Hermes Pan) nor in the stately operetta style of the Rogers & Hammerstein adaptations. The Hollywood musical was in decline in the 1960s because of bloated productions that often cast movie stars that didn’t specialize in dancing and singing. Finian’s Rainbow has terrific songs that are both funny and highly sentimental, but the main reason for its appeal is that nobody is faking it. There are no ‘Tab Hunter’ situations, where a star does a couple of steps and then cedes the screen to a troupe of dancers. And there is no Saul Chaplin behind the scenes mixing and matching tracks in the dubbing room to plaster Marni Nixon’s voice over actresses that can’t sing.

Co-writers Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy are credited with the adapted screenplay, which adds characters and scenes that only make put the itchy racial content of Finian’s Rainbow in higher relief, like a rash. Fresh from Ireland, father and daughter Finian and Sharon McLonergan (Fred Astaire & Petula Clark) search America before setting in the Rainbow Valley of ‘Missitucky,’ where a mixed community of black and white sharecroppers is resisting the eviction efforts of the racist Senator Billboard Rawkins (Keenan Wynn). Finian has stolen a crock of magic gold from the Leprechauns back home and plants it in the ground. As it is near Fort Knox, he figures it will grow, just like everything in America. Sharon catches the eye of local salesman Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), whose sister Susan the Silent (Barbara Hancock) communicates solely through dance. When Rawkins finds that engineers have ‘detected’ gold somewhere in Rainbow Valley, he orders his Sheriff (Dolph Sweet of You’re a Big Boy Now to redouble the eviction process.

Pursuing Finian from Ireland is Og (Tommy Steele), a magic Leprechaun who wants the gold back. Without it he is losing his powers and becoming a mortal. When Senator Rawkins comes to boot out the sharecropping rabble, Sharon wishes that he’d turn black so that he could understand his own hatred. As she’s standing near the buried crock of gold, Rawkins’ skin is indeed transformed – she’s used up a wish. The sheriff chases Rawkins into the woods. A number of elements are thus set in motion. Finian arranges for Woody to marry Sharon, even though Woody hadn’t thought of doing so himself. Because he is becoming human, Og is also smitten by Sharon, and is confused to find that he’s attracted to Susan the Silent as well. Og discovers the starving Rawkins in the woods and, offended by the man’s racial opinions, magically intervenes so that the senator wakes with a different attitude. Found singing and dancing on the road, he joins some traveling singers, the Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers — who are on the road to perform at Woody and Sharon’s wedding. But the Senator’s associates intervene — for transforming Rawkins, they sentence Sharon to be burned as a witch.

The engaging Finian’s Rainbow overcomes some difficult obstacles, the first being making all the pot ‘o’ gold and Lucky Charms Leprechaun business seem fresh and joyful. But some of the changes made to the Broadway original are perplexing, as they clog up what was a quite pointed gallery of social criticisms. Woody was originally not a salesman-dreamer, but a Union organizer, and the sharecroppers bore collective grievances beyond just holding onto their land. As it is, the scenes where they throw out their belongings in anticipation of consumer goods bought on credit from the as-yet undiscovered gold, no longer seem attached to the story (but provides a perfect illustration of the way the World Bank allegedly operates in Africa).

The notion of Senator Rawkins suddenly struck black is thankfully free of blackface humor, yet by 1968 it seems a misguided throwback, already obsoleted by the serious real life story Black Like Me and soon to be addressed with real anger in Watermelon Man. Yet the subplot works as soon as Keenan Wynn’s Senator joins the traveling Gospeleers for a terrific song (“Begat”). The witch-burning business at the finale seems to come out of left field. — it must have been hot stuff for liberals in 1947, but without a contemporary social justice or blacklisting context, audiences must have thought it very awkward, even unfair. They burn witches in the North, not the South, yankee.

The movie invents a black best friend for Woody, a botanist named Howard. He’s played by the talented Al Freeman Jr. (Castle Keep). Howard is on the brink of inventing a new kind of mentholated tobacco that could make the sharecroppers rich and independent from Senator Rawkins. Throwing in an invention subplot was a dumb, irrelevant ‘improvement’ made to the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie a few years back, with a ‘speed-up’ pill. Here, the idea that Rainbow Valley can create a marketable product exchanges the sharecroppers’ quest for civil rights to a simple ‘let’s work in the system and get rich.’

Even more weird is a comic addition that, in the year the MLK assassination, urban riots and the rise of Black Power, seems lame beyond belief. Taking a job at the Rawkins manor, Howard is coached in how to be a stereotyped aw-shucks shuffling houseboy, to toady to the obnoxious Senator. The intention was surely to show the rottenness of this relationship for what it is. What we see is the same old black image of Hollywood movies trotted out yet once again, this time ‘in good fun.’ Ha ha.

Scenes like this make the movie sag in the middle, and by the 3/4 mark it begins to wear out its welcome despite its surplus of charming performances and great music. Critics complained that splitting the filming between stage sets and exteriors harms the film, but I don’t think that’s a key problem. Going ‘all fantastic’ might have resulted in the wholly artificial look of Li’l Abner, which seems a bad idea. Fred Astaire is magical whether dancing on a dirt road or under studio lights, and Coppola’s use of montage in many scenes works very well with the music while pushing the old Hollywood rules aside. Some songs are conceived with non-linear jump cuts to different new locations, and work well. The key ballads and comedy songs are blocked beautifully. Streamlining the show might have helped — I read that they already dropped one song completely — but what we have is pretty satisfying.

I haven’t stressed the charm factor enough. Some of the Rogers & Hammerstein adaptations can be long slogs waiting for key songs. The previous Warners musical Camelot was a stylistic mess that only pointed up some of the show’s weak lyrics, especially when King Arthur’s musical chops include the drippy song MacArthur Park. By contrast, Finian’s Rainbow grabs us immediately with Petula Clark’s authoritative voice, which tells us, ‘this is real singing, real entertainment.’ Many musicals have only one memorable tune, but Lane and Harburg knock us down with “How are Things in Glocca Morra”, Look to the Rainbow”, “If This Isn’t Love” and “Old Devil Moon”, plus the lighter winners “When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love” and “When the Idle Poor Became the Idle Rich.” The visually jarring Tommy Steele was too much of a toothy thing in his musical Half a Sixpence, but the goofy Leprechaun character Og fits him like a glove. Petula Clark doesn’t take that active of a character role, but she’s more than pretty enough to motivate the romantic triangle. Don Francks and Barbara Hancock are fresh faces and solid talents. The demotion of Woody’s role in the story reduces him to boyfriend status, but his singing is excellent. Ms. Hancock delivers the dancing highlights, without the film having to resort to a substitute ‘dancing’ Susan.

On the downside, the three black singing talents playing the Gospeleers aren’t even given screen credit. As they are all pro stage and film veterans, the omission pulls the rug out from under any notion of the film being socially progressive. Avon Long came from the Cotton Club, Jester Hairston is a Julliard- educated multi-talent and Roy Glenn had been a featured (and credited) film actor for thirty years. Undeniable stars carrying one whole sequence on their own, they are in effect made to use the Back Entrance.

Reading the original reviews, I can’t believe the negativity that was directed at Fred Astaire just for acting his age. Only the young Roger Ebert seems to have risen to Astaire’s defense. Astaire is as animated and sprightly as anyone in the cast, and Finian Lonergan never for a moment seems even slightly tired or decrepit. Irish stereotypes are known for wearing out their welcome in record time, but Astaire maintains Finian’s likeability and freshness throughout, and also keeps the film’s sentimentality on the rails. That’s no small achievement in a show with so many clashing aims and artificial, odd elements, like the impoverished sharecropper’s community that is less ‘God’s Little Acre’ than ‘Sesame Street South.’

I found so much to like in Finian’s Rainbow that its drawbacks didn’t matter. Those clever, sometimes naughty lyrics are extremely witty. Petula Clark’s voice is dreamy and Fred Astaire seems forever young. For a musical trapped between impossible goals, it does pretty well for itself.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Finian’s Rainbow makes this road show musical shine. The scan is clear, sharp and colorful, something that one appreciates in the close-up of Finian grinning down at his glowing pot of stolen gold. The original six-track stereo has been given a rich 5.1 mix. The encoding includes overture, entr’acte and exit music, accounting for a four-minute addition to the running time.

Besides a trailer, the show has an intro and commentary from Francis Ford Coppola, who tells nice stories about the production but keeps reminding us that it was early in his career. He has nothing to be ashamed of — we don’t know to what degree he had authority on the set, but we do know that he overrode some of Fred Astaire’s opinions.

Also included is a full half-hour TV show of the film’s New York premiere in old studio fashion, showing the arrival of Astaire, Francks, Freeman Jr. and Hancock. Unlike most surviving featurettes from this time, the show is spotless and the color pristine.

One scene took me by surprise… eleven years before 1941, the entire ‘Christmas Tree’ gag is here, complete with walking trees. The person disguised as a Christmas tree must jump to avoid being ‘chopped down.’ It works well in both movies.

I’ve only seen Finian’s Rainbow recently but have always heard complaints that Coppola ‘ruined’ Astaire’s performance by framing the show in a way that cuts off his feet when he’s dancing. I didn’t see that happening at all. Coppola does frame tightly – toes do extend below the frame line once in a while. The framing of all the musical numbers is tight, unlike the old MGM style that Astaire’s classic sequences conformed to. Coppola does cut the dancing, but not in the mincemeat fashion that obscures the performances in a show like Chicago. Coppola’s measured cutting does not interfere with the dance numbers, which primarily serve the story. They are not standalone showcases for Astaire’s stamina and perfectionism, the ‘he did the whole thing in one take’ miracles that were once his stock in trade.

I also read on IMDB that the framing for the 70mm prints cropped the dancing shots so that Astaire’s feet were not seen. This makes no sense to me at all. Adapting 35mm Panavision (2.35:1) to 70mm (2.20:1) crops the extreme left and right of the screen, not the top and bottom. The only time I’ve seen cropping make a difference between formats is with West Side Story. Going the other way, from 70mm to 35mm, a sliver of the north-south real estate must be sacrificed, unless the printer leaves a bit of black at the left and right extremes.

I’m more willing to believe that some screenings of Finian’s Rainbow for critics were done in theaters with badly adjusted lenses or masking, that chopped off the picture a bit. Either that, or an anti-Coppola bias was involved. Punk kid directors!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Finian’s Rainbow Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, Francis Coppola introduction and commentary, premiere TV show
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2017
(5350rain)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.