Thursday, August 6, 2009

Finian's Rainbow (1968)


I believe that Jack Warner was setting Francis Ford Coppola up to be the next Orson Welles when he hired the 29-year old film school scholar to direct Finian's Rainbow. Like Welles, Coppola didn't have much of an impressive resume at the time, but already he had been given the keys to the kingdom; and while it is true that Welles had a bit more freedom with Citizen Kane- he was allowed to choose both the project and the cast members- Coppola, whose only credit before then was the low-budget comedy You're A Big Boy Now, was still lucky to have the chance to direct a major Hollywood production.

1968 was the same year in which the rest of the still-undiscovered "Movie Brats" were busy slaving off on complicated independent features in order to gain entrance into Hollywood: Scorsese had wasted the entire year filming Who's That Knocking at My Door, which was so unmarketable that it had to be shifted off to sexploitation audiences just to yield any sort of profit; De Palma was working on Greetings, in hopes that the counterculture would point him to a promising headstart; Spielberg was vomiting every morning before trudging off to the humid set of Amblin; and George Lucas, hot off finishing his student picture THX 1138: 4EB, was suddenly out of work, and turned to Coppola for help. So, with a veteran cast and crew, a story that had dazzled Broadway two decades before, and a new friend in Lucas, Coppola was hitting the stride. Only after Finian's Rainbow went through a series of troubling production problems and, then, flopped at the box office (it was up against Wyler's Funny Girl), did Coppola find himself at the bottom again.

Coppola has had a habit of thinking negatively about much of his earlier films. Despite admiration from his fans, he complains that there should never have been sequels to The Godfather, that Apocalypse Now never quite turned out the way he hoped it would be and that, although there were gems in both the 80's and 90's, he felt bound by a studio system that was literally trying to break him down into a banal director-for-hire. How surprising is it, then, to look at the 2005 DVD edition of Finian's Rainbow, which is introduced by a merry Coppola singing the first verses of "Look to the Rainbow", with all the cheer and hamminess of a bellowing Burl Ives. You never would have guessed that Coppola went through hardships during the making of this film. Indeed, as we find ourself humming along to the classic Lane and Harburg songs- the unforgettable "How Are Things in Glocca Morra", the romantic "If This Isn't Love", the somewhat annoying "That Old Devil Moon", the catchy "When I'm Not Near the Girl That I Love" and others- we are left with the feeling that Finian's Rainbow is a film close to Coppola's heart.

Finian's Rainbow stars the great Fred Astaire, in his final Hollywood musical role, as Finian McLonergan, an enchanting old Irishman who leaves behind the "doom and gloom" of his homeland to find sanctuary in the States. During the opening titles, we see images of Finian and his daughter Sharon (a lovely Petula Clark) traveling throughout the New World as they pass by a couple of the Seven Wonders (the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon), and this introduction gives us a sense of the film's majestic scope. The truth is that these opening scenes were filmed not by Coppola, but by a young Carroll Ballard with doubles for Astaire and Clark; Warner Bros had denied Coppola the request to film the project in Kentucky, so the rest of the shoot was fixated primarily on the Warner Bros backlot (one of the leftover set pieces of Camelot was even reserved). However, this is never apparent when viewing the film, and Coppola successfully creates the illusion that everything we are watching is real.

After a long journey, Finian and Sharon arrive in lush Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, which is, not coincidentally, located about two miles near Fort Knox. Finian has a theory: if he can just bury a crock of gold in the forest soil, it will result in the sprouting of dozens more crocks of gold and, henceforth, the American Dream. The task isn't as difficult as it sounds because Finian already has a crock of gold in his possession, and he intends to bury it as soon as possible. The only problem is that it is a stolen crock of gold, and before Finian realizes it, he is being followed by the crock's rightful owner: the leprechaun Og (Tommy Steele), who disguises himself as a suspicious-looking shrub before finally revealing himself to a skeptical Finian.

"You can't be a leprechaun- you're too tall!", Finian muses. "I know!", Og whines, "and I'm getting taller!" Luckily, Finian has already buried the crock, and the McLonergan theory of economics is working just as he planned: he and Sharon have impressed the local vagabond Woody (Don Francks) by literally making money grow on the trees, thus saving Woody's land from foreclosure just in the nick of time. Soon, Finian has become the business partner of Woody, who begins falling for Sharon, and all seems well for the town. The only thing getting in the way, really, is the town's bigoted Judge Rawkins (Keenan Wynn), who doesn't like the fact that Finian and Woody are hiring African American employees; and that damned leprechaun Og, who does a Rumplestiltsken act by trying himself to make a move on Sharon.

If Finian's Rainbow tends to break out of its old-fashioned shell and feel rather modern in its filmmaking technique at times, this may be due to the choreography of the musical sequences. Warner Bros had, at Fred Astaire's insistence, hired experienced choreographer Hermes Pan to stage the dancing numbers. Midway through production, however, Coppola, disappointed with the results, fired Pan and, then, took upon himself the incredible responsibility of choreographing the dance sequences himself. For the most part, the dancing present in the finished film is lively and seems professional, but sometimes Coppola's radical directing can get out of hand; during key moments of songs, he employs birds-eye helicopter shots and the frantic positioning of characters on trains, horses and treetops, as if to distract the viewer from what is actually taking place. To be sure, the dancing in Finian's Rainbow is entertaining throughout, but Coppola, who once admitted that he "knew nothing about dancing", is clearly a novice with this frenzied sort of musical theatre.

No doubt that when audiences attended a Fred Astaire release back in the day, they cared about one thing: dancing, and lots of it. At sixty-eight, Astaire looks great for his age in Finian's Rainbow, and his dance moves remain unparalleled; in his big number, "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich", we see him skipping down roads, climbing up ladders and piling up warehouse boxes, and we know right away that he hasn't lost his stuff. There's only one problem with Astaire's numbers in the film, and the fault is not that of Coppola, but of the studio: upon the film's release, Warner Bros made the mistake of blowing up the original 35mm print to 70mm, in an attempt to go from normal screen ratio to the widescreen ratio and, thus, in a few of Astaire's dancing numbers, the camera cuts off his feet. In the director's commentary on the DVD, we can hear Coppola wincing as Astaire's tap shoes come dangerously close to moving down and out of frame with each passing sequence. What fun is there in a Fred Astaire that we can only see from the knees up?

Aside from these flaws (and, perhaps, the film's overlength, at 144 minutes- perhaps about ten or twenty minutes too long), Finian's Rainbow is a great film; one of Coppola's "flawed great films", to be exact. Not only is it interesting for granting us the chance to watch Coppola slowly evolving into a Hollywood master, but it is also, quite simply, a damn fun story. When the original musical aired in 1947, it was considered ahead of its time for its support of black rights; twenty years later, it was now considered behind the times. LBJ had just plugged affirmative action into the U.S. Constitution, the Black Panthers had risen to power and the black people was a runnin' wild- in short, the protection of Martin Luther King Jr. was no longer needed. Surely Finian's Rainbow, as a tired old Broadway play, must have looked pathetic at the time. As a film, on the other hand, the story could be given new twists relevant to the times. Thus, the film's African American hero, Howard (Al Freeman, Jr.), an educated botanist, is wisely modeled by Coppola after Stokely Carmichael, and Howard is seen as a fearless patriot who can rally others to "sit" in protest when all else crumbles. When Howard grows a mentholated tobacco but fails to get it to burn when smoked, he takes up a job as Judge Rawkins's butler and, in the film's biggest laugh, decides to try out for himself the stereotypical "shuffling" movement, weaving slowly from left to right while a hysterically impatient Rawkins cries out for a glass of julep.

Rawkins himself gets a taste of his own medicine. When he threatens to foreclose the McLonergan property due to its employment of blacks, an outraged Sharon declares, "I wish you were black!" Her wish, thanks to the faraway crock of gold buried in soil, suddenly comes true, and Rawkins comes running out of his limousine and into the forest with a blackface even more ghastly than that of Al Jolson. In a sense, Keenan Wynn has the most fun in the entire film as Rawkins, as he goes from racist monster to life-loving spirit. Some of the most pleasurable moments of Finian's Rainbow occur when Rawkins teams up with a Bible-quoting African American barbershop quartet (missing its fourth member due to a recent "temptation"), and they heartwarmingly accept Rawkins as one of their own. Elsewhere in the film, Og, who has soon reached the point of being 90% mortal and still without his crock of gold, gives up on Sharon and instead lusts after the mute Susan the Silent (Barbara Hancock), whose presence occurs just in the right place at the right time- as Sharon is locked up in a burning barn with Woody on suspicions by the townspeople of witchcraft. When Og finally does find his long-lost crock, he discovers, to his dismay, that only one wish remains. Should he wish himself back to Fairyland, or should he remain mortal and instead make a wish to clear Sharon's name? There's a moment when he ponders the dilemna, looks over at a rather sexy Susan the Silent, ponders again and then, watch, as that horny, goofy grin appears on his face: "Fairyland was never like this!"

It's a joy to think about how far Coppola has come- the magic he has left behind in American cinema for over forty years now, his gargantuan successes and flops, his kindness, his bad tempers- and one can't help but morbidly gape at the fact that he has survived it all. In recent years, with Youth Without Youth and Tetro, he has finally found the chance to start making the personal, independent films that he was not able to make for three decades. That doesn't mean that one should regret the more big-budgeted, less personal films that he has given us, for many of them are and always will be spectacular. In the final scene of Finian's Rainbow, as a down-on-his-luck Finian bids a heart-tugging farewell to Sharon and the rest of the townspeople and heads off to the fields, listen on the DVD commentary as a bemused Coppola reacts to the sudden appearance of a Volkswagen on the distant road. Apparently, it was caught in the frame by mistake. The question you might be asking is, how could the guys on the cutting room floor miss a car as a big as that? I wouldn't know. Personally, I like to think of Finian's departure as the departure of the studio system as we all knew it, as the 1960's began reaching its close and left the executives searching in vain for the next generation of bright young filmmakers. Then, out of the blue, they found Coppola. In Finian's Rainbow, Coppola is the Volkswagen.

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