Francis Ford Coppola’s “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968)

Full disclosure- I’m not a big fan of musicals.  Something about people spontaneously bursting into song and dance makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and I can’t explain it.  Naturally, I approached my viewing of FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968), director Francis Ford Coppola’s third true feature film, with a large degree of hesitation.  While I don’t plan on watching it again, I have to admit it was much better and watchable than I expected it to be, thanks to young Coppola’s considerable storytelling ability and an evocative Southern setting.  FINIAN’S RAINBOW, distributed by Warner Brothers, is Coppola’s first big studio picture, and the modest success of the film would further propel his career to new heights.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW is about Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark), who’ve recently left their native Ireland to venture to the mythical land of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky.  Unbeknownst to Sharon, Finian is carrying a bag full of gold that he stole from a leprechaun named Og (Tommy Steele), and plans to place the gold in close proximity to Fort Knox so that it may multiply.  While Sharon falls in love with Rainbow Valley’s most eligible bachelor, Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), Og The Leprechaun tracks down Finian to Missitucky and attempts to take back his gold before he becomes mortal.  Toss in a little song and dance, and a lot of Irish stereotypes and you’ve got the idea.  It was by complete coincidence that I watched this very Irish film on St. Patrick’s Day, but my general amusement at that fact helped my enjoyment of the film overall.

Every member of the cast seems fully devoted to Coppola’s vision.  Even the seasoned movie star and dancing legend Fred Astaire gives himself fully over to Coppla’s whims.  Pushing 70 during the film’s production, FINIAN’S RAINBOW became Astaire’s last major movie musical.  It’s a great send-off that allows Astaire to retain his youthful vigor, dazzling grin, and fancy-free footwork despite his elderly, frail state.  Clark garnered a great deal of acclaim for her singing talent as Irish lass Sharon McLonergan.  Francks drew from the folk persona of Woody Guthrie for his portrayal of the rakish Mahoney.  Keenan Wynn is a good sport, allowing himself to be humiliated at every turn as the film’s racist, lily-white antagonist, Senator Rawkins.  The sprightly Barbara Hancock plays Susan the Silent, who is unable to speak but communicates effortlessly via dance.  As the cartoonish leprechaun Og, Tommy Steel received the bulk of ire directed at the film.  His goofy, slapstick-laden performance was decidedly off-tone (despite the inherent whimsical nature of the story).  I can’t say I blame his detractors– I hated that guy’s shit-eating grin, too.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW sees one of the largest casts that Coppola has ever assembled, and he does a great job filling out the population of Rainbow Valley with outsized, memorable personas.    The expansive world-building on display proves to be a great training ground for the kind of epic filmmaking Coppola would take on in THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  Indeed, FINIAN’S RAINBOW marks a considerable uptick in scale and production value for Coppola, who makes great use of all the extra toys afforded him.  The sunny, springtime exterior locales are given scope via extensive crane and dolly movements (and even the occasional helicopter shot), and all the set dressings required to sell his story are in abundant supply.

Curiously enough, Coppola mashes together location/exterior footage and sets made to look exterior with reckless abandon, oftentimes creating jarring transitions and leaps in logic.  While some of these sets were built for valid reasons (lighting a forest at night would be too expensive), others seem to have little explanation.  However it does illuminate Coppola’s internal battle over shooting the film like a traditional Hollywood musical or indulging his experimental, more-realistic tendencies cultivated in film school.  One instance of this indulgence is allowing specks of water to remain on the camera lens during a firefighting sequence, which gives the scene an immediate presence not unlike documentary.  While the film is decidedly old-school in its approach, an undercurrent of film brat rebellion charges the picture with a harder edge than it normally would have.

As lensed by Director of Photography Philip H. Lathrop, the 35mm film image– framed at the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio– is heavily saturated with the gonzo hues of Technicolor and lit within an inch of its life.  Coppola and Lathrop show an aptness for staging complicated group numbers with a breezy energy that draws the audience into being active participants in the song and dance.  The sleepy southern town of Rainbow Valley and its rich, brown/green color palette is fleshed out in great detail by production designer Hilyard M. Brown.    Ray Heindorf rounds out the list of technical collaborators with his arrangement of the musical’s many numbers into jaunty, energetic orchestrations that retain a decidedly Irish influence.

Having been released in the prime days of the Civil Rights movement, FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s racial and cultural politics have now aged into amusing, quaint oddities.  Its incorporation of actor Keenan Wynn playing blackface (having been magically transformed from white to black in the course of the story) was understandably met with controversy upon its release.  So many decades on, it still comes off as extremely politically incorrect, but is now more-easily written off as a product of antiquated cultural views.  This is further reflected in the film with earnest, positive expressions about the benefits of credit, and even asbestos.  Moments like these paint a fuller picture of an optimistic time gone by, albeit at the cost of losing a certain, timeless aura.

Coppola does an admiral job directing FINIAN’S RAINBOW, breezily clipping along the film’s 2 ½ hour running time so that it’s not a complete snoozefest.  There are many positive things to recommend about it– Astaire’s performance, and the set design to name a few– as there are negative.  Its cultural legacy has since become its relevancy to Coppola’s development as a filmmaker.  It was a huge step up for him, and the first real test of his talent.  The sheer task of directing such a big, mainstream production would efficiently prepare Coppola for the biggest challenges of his career, and would allow him to soar like Astaire himself when lesser filmmakers would’ve fallen flat on their faces.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers.

Credits:

Cast: Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele, Don Francks, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Hancock

Produced by: Joel Freeman, Joseph Landon

Written by: E.Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy

Director of Photography: Philip H. Lathrop

Edited by: Melvin Shapiro

Production Designer: Hilyard M. Brown

Composer: Ray Heindorf