Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Luck of the Irish Blog o'thon: "Finian's Rainbow" (1968)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Writing Credits:
E.Y. Harburg (screenplay)
Fred Saidy (screenplay)

Starring: Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele, Don Francks, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Hancock and Al Freeman Jr.

Released by: Warner Bros./Seven Arts

"Don't be superstitious, it's bad luck"

Despite worshiping Fred Astaire for many years, I have avoided Finian's Rainbow like the plague. Most of Astaire's die-hard fans agree that this is, unquestionably, his worst film and performance.

When I saw it listed as a suggested film for Silver Scene's Luck of the Irish Blog O'Thon, I decided it was finally time for me to watch this much reviled contribution to Fred Astaire's impressive filmography. Afterall, how bad could it really be?!

Fred Astaire as Finian McLonergan and Tommy Steele as Og, the leprechaun.

For those who have yet to ignore the copious warnings in regards to this film, Finian's Rainbow follows loveable Irish rogue Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his lovely daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) as they travel to American in search of prosperity and wealth. Also in tow, a crock of gold (stolen from a leprechaun) that Finian wishes to bury in proximity to Fort Knox in the hope that it will multiply. Unfortunately for Finian, Og the leprechaun (Tommy Steele) is rapidly regaining his mortality and is desperate to recover his stolen gold before it is too late.

Og pleads with Finian to return his crock of gold.

Finian's Rainbow is unlike any classic musical I have ever seen (and I've seen a lot of classic musicals). The main reason it stands apart is because of it's director- a young up and comer by the name of Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola is an auteur (if ever there was one) and his directorial influence comes through strong in this picture, despite it being one of his very first feature films. Tantalized by the prospect of working with the supremely talented Fred Astaire and lyricist E.Y. Harburg (who wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz), Coppola took on what he considered to be a "cockamamie" screenplay. Unfortunately, the production was littered with problems from beginning to end, the most notable of which being the firing of legendary choreographer Hermes Pan.

Francis Ford Coppola (far left) with the cast of Finian's Rainbow.

A long-time friend of Astaire's (and hired at his request), Pan's old-school choreography was a constant point of contention for Coppola, who felt his work on the film was too sophisticated for the whimsical subject matter. Pan, on the other hand, insisted that his choreography would only work on fully-prepared, flat dance surfaces and that the film's myriad of outdoor sets were inadequate (a sentiment echoed by Astaire). Coppola, who had been originally planned to shoot Finian's Rainbow on location in Kentucky, was keen to shoot outside and, accordingly, Warner Brothers transformed more than nine acres of their expansive backlot into the film's fictional Rainbow Valley.

Hermes Pan getting Astaire ready for "When the Idle Rich become the Idle Poor". 

After filming was completed on the number "The Great Come-and-Get-It Day", Pan opted out of his contract and walked off the picture (much to the delight of Coppola). After Pan's departure, though a replacement choreographer was hired (in Claude Thompson), the bulk of the remaining numbers were filmed without set choreography. Instead, Coppola encouraged his actors to simply "move with the music", an approach at odds with the notoriously meticulous Astaire. While this free-flowing, improvisational approach to musical direction was novel, it meant that every take was slightly different from the last (something seldom seen in the films of legendary musical directors Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli). Once Finian's Rainbow went into post-production, Coppola simply pasted together the best bits of each take, meaning there is a distinct lack of continuity in the film's musical numbers.

Coppola's unconventional approach to musical direction (and subsequent lack of continuity) is most prominent in the film's "Devil Moon" number. As Petula Clark and Don Francks sing lovingly to one another, your eyes are immediately drawn to the scene's 'haphazard' style of the editing. Nearly every single cut in this scene is unnecessarily emphasized by a lack of continuity from the shot before.

This kind of cinematic innovation (seen in films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse, Now) cemented Coppola's indelible legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, however it feels rather ill-placed in a film of this genre. While I quite enjoyed his unconventional approach to musical direction, I can see why it might have polarized moviegoers in the 1960's.

Don Francks and Petula Clark sing "Devil Moon".

To me, the problem with Finian's Rainbow doesn't lie with Francis Ford Coppola (at least not entirely). The disunity between Coppola's directing and the E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy screenplay is primarily what lets this film down. Warner Brothers refused to alter the screenplay, even after Coppola complained that it was outdated (which it is). They also left Coppola at the helm, knowing full well that he despised the material he was working with. 

Coppola directing Fred Astaire.

Harburg and Saidy originally drafted the screenplay for Finian's Rainbow in the late 1940's- that's over 20 years before the film's eventual release! The hiring of Coppola is an understandable one by Warner Brothers- he was considered hot property after the success of You're a Big Boy Now in 1966 and they believed he could breathe new life into the film's prehistoric screenplay. Unfortunately, instead of enhancing the screenplay, Coppola's hiring only succeeded in exposing the considerable disunity between 'Old Hollywood' and the 'New Wave' (of which Coppola was the pioneer). Considering the age of the screenplay (and that it was obviously written for studio era filmmaking), you can't help but wonder whether Finian's Rainbow would've been more successful had a different (more experienced) director been at the helm, specifically one with a long tenure in musicals such as Donen or Minnelli.

Coppola's ambitious approach to directing the film doesn't quite capture the screenplay's emotional depth, with Finian's Rainbow coming across as a rather shallow production (despite having one of cinema's greatest auteur's at the helm).

Because of the film's somewhat 'ancient' screenplay (which was almost identical to it's 1947 Broadway counterpart), many historians argue that the film's handling of prominent social issues, most notably racism, is outdated and doesn't reflect the civil unrest that America was facing in 1968.

At the time of it's original Broadway run, Finian's Rainbow was lauded for it's groundbreaking portrayal of the racial tension and bigotry that existed in America's southern states. It was this groundbreaking subject material that kept Warner Brothers (though they had optioned the rights to Finian's Rainbow almost 20 years before the film's eventual release) from adapting the musical for the screen, despite it's enormous success. Unfortunately, by the time Francis Ford Coppola got a hold of Finian's Rainbow, it was no longer groundbreaking- with films such as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner dominating the box office the year before (in 1967).

Keenan Wynn's bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins refuses to acknowledge that an African-American man could be a geologist in this scene from Finian's Rainbow.

Never having studied American history (I'm Australian), I wasn't overly conscious of the film's mishandling of historical context and therefore am not well equipped to effectively discuss how this film handled or didn't handle the social issues facing Americans in the 1960's. I did, however, think that the film's gentle plea with it's audience to abandon their racial prejudices was well executed, regardless of the social climate in 1968. At the end of the day, let's not forget that this is a musical about a drunkard and his stolen crock of leprechaun gold. Anything more deliberate (and more accurate) would've detracted from the fantastical nature of Finian's Rainbow and significantly altered the tone of the film. If you wish to see an accurate filmic representation of the racial tension in America's south during the late 1960's, watch Norman Jewison's Oscar-winning classic In the Heat of the Night starring the legendary Sidney Poitier. It is an incredible film and, by all accounts, an accurate depiction of the racial tension in America's south at the time.

The most prominent device utilized by Harburg and Saidy's screenplay in order to tackle the issue of racism is humor (particularly when dealing with Keenan Wynn's bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins). My favourite scene in Finian's Rainbow is an example of just that.

Al Freeman, Jr. in one of the film's funniest scenes.

After Howard (portrayed by Al Freeman Jr.) accepts a job as a butler for Senator Rawkins, he is told by the Senator's Assistant that he is performing his duties "too fast" and to use Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind as an example of how he should act. A few minutes later in the film, he is called to perform his first task, delivering a Bromo-Seltzer to a visibly distraught Senator. The way he performs the task is a nod to comedians Stepin Fetchin and Willie Best, whose racially stereotyped characters are reviled by modern film audiences. It also serves to (rather bluntly) make a mockery of the disgusting roles assigned to African-American actors in Hollywood throughout the 1930's and 40's.

Aside from Al Freeman Jr. (who delivered the best performance in the film, for mine), the rest of the cast did an admirable job with the screenplay they had at their disposal. Watching the film for the first time, I was particularly struck by the charismatic presence of Petula Clark, whose impact on the film industry is mostly forgotten today (despite her enormous talent and successful music career). 

Petula Clark and Don Francks performing a reprise of "Devil Moon".

Unfortunately, though I love Fred Astaire more than mere words can say, his performance was a little creaky. The aging Astaire was coaxed out of retirement (at age 69) to play Finian McLonergan and you can't help but feel as though his heart just isn't in it. I enjoyed watching him (and thought the film was better for having him in it) but his performance is riddled with inconsistencies, not the least of which is his propensity for slipping in and out of his Irish accent from sentence to sentence.

Fred Astaire sings "When the Idle Poor become the Idle Rich".

The real highlight of this film is it's songbook, featuring such note-worthy tunes as "Look to the Rainbow" (which I guarantee you will be singing long after you've watched this film- I still break into a verse every now and then), "Devil Moon", "How are Things in Glocca Morra?", "If This Isn't Love" and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love"- all of which are taken from the original 1947 Broadway musical. Unlike a lot of the other elements in this film, the songs featured in Finian's Rainbow (with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) truly stand the test of time. They also provide the film's aging star (Astaire) with his only real opportunity to shine in his role as Finian McLonergan. When Astaire's feet start moving, everything else about his performance (and the film as a whole) is temporarily forgotten.

Overall, Finian's Rainbow is a sentimental musical that feels, at times, like a farewell to Hollywood's Golden Age. While it is riddled with faults, flaws and inconsistencies, I couldn't help but enjoy what really is the last Old Hollywood musical. In 1968, the film industry was changing and Francis Ford Coppola represented the new wave of cinema that would, ultimately, replace the dilapidated studio system. While his vision is at odds with this particular screenplay (which was crafted for a different era of filmmaking), he was four years shy of making his seminal masterpiece, The Godfather, and there are moments throughout Finian's Rainbow where you can sense his greatness.

Through all the good and bad of Finian's Rainbow, the fact that this is Fred Astaire's final musical makes it all worthwhile. At the end of the film, Finian once again departs the land he's called home in search of prosperity and wealth. As he waves goodbye to his family and friends, you can't help but feel as though Astaire is also waving goodbye to the audience that has loved and adored him for over 30 years.

And just like that, the incomparable Mr. Fred Astaire departed musicals forever.

My Rating:

Your eyes aren't deceiving you, I actually gave this film three stars. Despite it's myriad of faults, I couldn't help but enjoy this, mainly owing to my extremely low expectations (which it exceeded tenfold).

It should also be noted that my rating is a whole star less than what legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave Finian's Rainbow upon it's release in 1968. So there.

Film Trailer:

More Screencaps:

The post is part of The Luck of the Irish Blog o'thon hosted by Silver Scenes (click the poster to read the Blogathon's other entries);

Resources: The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television by Thomas S. Hischak (2008), American Film Musical Themes and Forms by Michael Dunne (2004),The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia  By James M. Welsh, Gene D. Phillips, Rodney F. Hill (2010),Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola by Gene D. Phillips (2014), Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire by John Franceschina (2012).


  1. "Finian's Rainbow" is a frustrating mess, but those songs are immortal. Revivals on Broadway have never equaled the original production's success, but I wonder if anyone would ever tackle another film version.

    1. I don't think another film version would ever be tackled, simply because of how outdated it is. If they did do another film version, I'd rather it be a re-imagining of the original play rather than a modern replica of what Coppola did in '68.

      Reading up on this film, apparently (despite it's monumental success upon release) not many producers (even at a high school level) have been willing to touch it because of how dated it is. The songs are amazing though, I completely agree with you :)

  2. I agree with you about everything you said about Finian. It was really not a good movie at all, but Freeman as poor Howard, the highly educated man who was taught how to shuffle, was absolutely hysterical. He got the picture, didn't he, and made the racist guy go crazy waiting for his bromo. I really don't know how it would go over now, but it was the funniest part of the movie. I really enjoyed your in-depth look at Finian, and am so glad you joined in the blogathon!

  3. Oh for Pete's sake, Laura -- I came to your blog to read your Cinemascope article, and I got so interested in your Finian's Rainbow article that I read it through and forgot it was not your actual contribution! Well, that is a compliment to the interest you engendered in me! Now, on to Black Widow!

    1. Haha! What a compliment! I'm so glad you enjoyed my review :) I agree with you, I don't think that scene would go over well with audiences now- but it sure was funny!

  4. I've never seen this movie (nor had any desire to do so), but you gave it a sterling critique. Nicely done!

    1. Thank you so much! Thanks for reading :)

  5. You gave this film a thorough working-over and, although I've seen the film twice and never did quite warm up to it, your review ( and those gorgeous screenshots ) tempt me to give it another try. The third time is the charmer, as they say! I remember that after seeing it the last time I was trying to visualize what the film would have looked like had it been made in 1944 with Minnelli at the helm instead and it was sooo much better. Just this evening I read that Albert Sharpe performed in Finian's Rainbow on stage in the 1940s. That must have been nice. Thanks for a great write-up! And on side note, your knowledge of 20th-century American history is fantastic. :-)

    1. Aww thank you so much! That means so much to me. I'm so glad you enjoyed my review- and that it made you consider watching it again! Thank you for letting me a part of your wonderful Blogathon- I had a lot of fun deconstructing this rather polarizing musical :)

  6. Don Francks passed away in Toronto this past weekend. Truly a most incredible life

  7. Didn't Coppola claim the studio wanted to update the script to 1960's hippies but Coppola chose to remain faithful to the original libretto?