7 November 2004 | SFTVLGUY2
MORE SILVER AND BRONZE THAN GOLD AT THE END OF THIS "RAINBOW"
The film version of "Finian's Rainbow" was conceived at a time when the public's interest in movie musicals was on the wane; in fact, in light of the poor critical reception accorded "Camelot" the year before, studio head Jack Warner would have been content to pull the plug on what he perceived as another sure-fire disaster. To an extent, his feelings were justified - what had been a daringly provocative look at racial strife in the deep American South as seen through the eyes of a scheming Irishman and his less-than-supportive daughter when it debuted on Broadway in 1947 was no longer very pertinent twenty-one years later, and the fairy tale aspects of the plot - which included the hyperactive antics of a leprechaun intent on retrieving his "borrowed" pot of gold - were going to be a hard sell in 1968. The score, although exquisitely timeless and highly recognizable, was old-fashioned in its theatricality and not likely to result in a best-selling cast album. Furthermore, directing the project was a virtual unknown, a "hippie" from northern California named Francis Ford Coppola, with only one prior film - a non-musical - to his credit. Given the odds the movie was doomed, Warner basically maintained a "hands-off, don't-ask, don't-tell" policy and simply hoped for the best.
The end result may not have been the "best", but it is considerably better than most critics described it upon its release. The overlong book, with several insignificant sub-plots, could have used some judicious trimming. Tommy Steele's performance as Og, the slowly-turning-into-a-human leprechaun, is frantically overblown. The film's editing is criminal in that Fred Astaire's feet are often unseen in his dance routines. And the attempt to blend reality and make-believe results in an awkwardly uneven balance of the two - Coppola would have been far more successful had he decided to emphasize the whimsical and play down the outdated political aspects of the story. But for all these shortcomings, "Finian's Rainbow" - from its spectacular opening credits to its nicely staged farewell to Finian - almost a goodbye to Astaire himself, for whom this would be his last dancing role - is pleasant entertainment, buoyed by its familiar score and anchored by the presence of Petula Clark, whose delightfully fresh and sweetly seductive performance is the true gold to be discovered here. At the time known in the States as the pop singer responsible for the mega-hit "Downtown", Clark drew on her previous experience as an actress in mostly grade-B British films and developed a character whose acceptance of a leprechaun hiding in the backyard well is as easily believed as her skepticism regarding her father's plot to multiply his borrowed gold by burying it in the shadows of Fort Knox and her fiancé's plans to grow mentholated tobacco. The Arlen/Harburg score - including such standards as "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Look to the Rainbow" - could well have been composed specifically for her voice, which wraps itself around each note with a hint of a brogue and - in the case of "Old Devil Moon" - a raw sensuality suggesting the woman inside the sweet Irish colleen. Deservedly, Clark was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sharon McLonergan, and if for nothing else, her performance makes "Finian's Rainbow" definitely worth a look-see.