An Irish immigrant and his daughter move into a town in the American South with a magical piece of gold that will change people's lives, including a struggling farmer and African American ci... Read allAn Irish immigrant and his daughter move into a town in the American South with a magical piece of gold that will change people's lives, including a struggling farmer and African American citizens threatened by a bigoted politician.An Irish immigrant and his daughter move into a town in the American South with a magical piece of gold that will change people's lives, including a struggling farmer and African American citizens threatened by a bigoted politician.
In a way Finian's Rainbow was always a mix-and-match musical. The E.Y. Harburg-Burton Lane score blends Broadway brass with Irish jigs and occasionally gospel to surprising success. The story also places old-world folklore alongside contemporary racial issues, in what is a sometimes awkward but generally passable modern-day fairytale. Aside from anything else, the Lane melodies are of considerable beauty and the Harburg lyrics witty enough that it makes a broadly appealing and timeless package. Fans of the inventive wordplay in the numbers from Wizard of Oz, which were also penned by Harburg, will appreciate such clever twists as "Make him a better person not a worse 'un" Harburg even reuses the word "individdle", here rhyming it with fiddle, having rhymed it with riddle in Oz.
Another relic of the old days appears in the form of Fred Astaire as the titular Finian. Astaire may be lacking his cane and topper, he may be showing the signs of his age a little, and his accent may be about as authentically Irish as a gift-shop Shillelagh – but it's still the same old Fred, full of the effortless dance-steps and easygoing charm that won over audiences thirty-five years earlier. It's a real delight to see him here, partly because his endearing demeanour is so reassuringly familiar, and yet he still makes an honest attempt to deviate from his regular persona to create this crusty yet lovable old Irishman. Representing the new is a fresh-faced Tommy Steele, playing the leprechaun Og. A certain proportion of Steele's performance, say 10%, is pure brilliance. Unfortunately the remaining 90% is pure annoyance, as Steele grins and capers his way maddeningly through some disappointingly flat renditions of the Harburg-Lane numbers. Still, he does appear to have struck some kind of unlikely rapport with Astaire, and their scenes together are among the most brightly comical.
The director was from the young side of the fence. Francis Ford Coppola was a graduate of Roger Corman's schlock factory, and this was his first big-budget assignment. Coppola had already demonstrated himself to be a director who took a detached and distant view of things, often keeping his camera high above the action or peeping from amongst foreground foliage. Oddly enough this sets him up well for the light and abstract world of the musical, in which the broad canvas, rich detail and ensemble are more important than the intense close-up or the dramatic long take. Coppola shows real sensitivity to the music, keeping rhythms going with natural-looking background movement – check out the way the crowd shifts behind Petula Clark and Don Francks during "Look to the Rainbow". He also uses his harmonious technique to draw attention to the lyrics, for example having the camera pan up to the heavens on the line "Skies could be so bluish blue" in "Something Sort of Grandish".
The conventions of the time and the sensibilities of the young production team have certainly left their mark on Finian's Rainbow. There are many thinly-veiled references to hippy and protest culture, with the "tobacco"-growing enterprise, a business-like police force and even a sit-down, in a reasonable attempt to make this a musical equivalent of In the Heat of the Night. However the difference between the old and the new is too stark for them to fuse. Coppola's penchant for realism results in some stunning outdoor photography, but this only grates all the more with the woefully fake-looking studio "forest", the like of which would now only be seen in a kid's TV show. Most of the components are glorious, but as a whole it is occasionally like watching two separate films spliced together.
However, Finian's Rainbow is at least self-aware enough to realise that it has the opportunity to be a respectful homage to the classic musical, and never descends into a roughshod "update". The most profound and emotionally stirring aspect of the picture is that Astaire evidently knew it would be his last appearance as a dancer. Coppola surely knew it too, and the tender staging of Astaire's final scene is among the most poignant moments of self-reference in movie history.
- Jul 12, 2010