Judge Joe Armenio considers this the Citizen Kane of leprechaun sharecropper movies.
If all you want out of a movie is a great, big, wonderful time, just follow the rainbow, whistle the songs, and join in the fun.
Finian's Rainbow, made in 1968, is an adaptation of the 1947 Broadway musical with songs by "Yip" Harburg and Burton Lane. It was the second film directed by 29-year-old Francis Ford Coppola (the first was his 1966 UCLA film school thesis, You're a Big Boy Now). The result is an interesting mess, a unique collision between the aesthetic values of Old Hollywood and New, and between the political values of the Old Left and the facts of the Civil Rights Movement.
Facts of the Case
Finian's Rainbow suffers from an extremely bloated plot, so I'll keep this as brief as possible.
Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) is an Irishman who stole a pot of gold from a leprechaun and has traveled to the American South with his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) to plant it, in the hope that the gold-enriched soil around Fort Knox will cause it to grow (or something). He comes across a happy multiracial community of sharecroppers whose livelihood is threatened by the bigoted Senator Rawkins (Keenan Wynn). There are various subplots, both romantic and political, involving a young roustabout-entrepreneur (Don Francks), his mute sister (Barbara Hancock), and the antic leprechaun who comes to retrieve his pot of gold (Tommy Steele).
Coppola, of course, was in 1968 already part of the movement that would become the American New Wave of the 1970s. He wanted to break away from the studios, which he saw as old-fashioned, impersonal "film factories," and make edgier, personal films on location, away from studio sets, in the style of the great European and Asian auteurs. He requested that Finian's Rainbow be shot on location in Kentucky, a request that was turned down, so the film was made mostly on the Warner back lot, on the sets that had been built for Camelot (which look terribly artificial and cheap). Coppola also revolted against the old-fashioned choreography of the musical numbers, and sought to stage them in a series of what he calls "fractured vignettes"—edited without concern for continuity—which were influenced by Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night). He was more successful in this battle, although the numbers contain a fairly muddled mix of styles.
There's a political as well as aesthetic tension in Finian's Rainbow. The original play was progressive for 1947, with its satiric portrait of the racist senator and its sympathy for the poor and black (it was controversial enough that Hollywood wouldn't touch it for twenty years). By 1968, the Civil Rights Movement had come, achieved some profound successes and failures, and then fractured into violence and alienated radicalism, so the script's fanciful utopianism began to seem ridiculously dated. It didn't help that the main characters were all white, and the blacks a faceless mass; Coppola attempted to fix that by giving a bigger role to the character of Howard (Al Freeman, Jr., Malcolm X), who is portrayed as a scientist. Freeman also is central to the film's most satirically pointed scene, in which he attempts to get a job as a servant to the senator and is told to act stereotypically servile. The gesture, though, is not enough to change the film's overall tone. Indeed, seen in the political context of 1968, the film begins to seem somewhat unintentionally despairing in its suggestion that racial harmony can only exist in a leprechaun-riddled fantasyland.
In his audio commentary, Coppola expands on many of these and other issues, and also says that his main regret about his direction of the film was that he "saw the scenes as sacrosanct" and was unwilling to cut plot elements or dialogue that in retrospect seem unnecessary. He's right about that—the film is crammed full of subplots, and careens wildly from social satire to vaudeville to big empty-headed romantic spectacle. The only parts of the film that remain unproblematically pleasing are the songs, the most famous of which are "Old Devil Moon," "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" and "Look to the Rainbow." These are wonderful tunes, and the latter two are given especially moving performances by Petula Clark (the Clark/Francks duet on "Old Devil Moon" is kind of tepid). Astaire, of course, is charming, and could still cut a rug at the age of 69. The other performance of note is Tommy Steele's broad, hyperactive, theatrical turn as the leprechaun—either you find this kind of thing funny or you find it annoying, and I happen to find it annoying. Your mileage may vary. Coppola mentions in his commentary that he would have preferred a more low-key and shy leprechaun, and again I think he's right.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and in beautifully crisp color (compare it to the grainy full-frame footage found in the extras and you'll see the difference). As I've already mentioned, Coppola provides an introduction to the film, which segues into his commentary. The man is an old hand at doing commentaries by now, and knows what to do; his comments on the film's style are never less than insightful, and he tells some interesting stories about working during the final days of the studio system (Coppola recounts his first meeting with the young George Lucas on the film's set, and also sings a few bars of "Look to the Rainbow"—he won't be going on American Idol anytime soon). He seems to run out of things to say near the end, but it's a long movie and that's certainly understandable.
The only other extra is what looks to be a promotional TV puff-piece from 1968 called The World Premiere of Finian's Rainbow. It consists mostly of interviews with the film's actors, conducted by a vapid hostess. Its funniest moment comes when she assures Middle America that "some people might take [Coppola] for a hippie, but when he's working on the set, he's as efficient as any business executive."
Finian's Rainbow isn't a very good movie, but this DVD is an interesting glimpse into American cinema at a turning point. It's recommended for Astaire and Coppola completists, students of the cultural history of race, fans of the Great American Songbook, and Petula Clark groupies.
Doesn't that include just about all of us?
Tommy Steele is convicted of hamming it up, but is free to go on time served.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction and Commentary by Director Francis Ford Coppola
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