Sunday, March 20, 2005

Doom and Gloom!

The new DVD of Finian's Rainbow is worth it just for the commentary track by director Francis Ford Coppola. Instead of just saying how great everything is -- which is what most directors do when commenting on their movies, good or bad -- he gives real, concrete information about the problems encountered in making the movie, evaluates the good and bad points of what he did, and criticizes his own mistakes. You can tell that with all his mixed feelings about the film, he still has a great affection for it, as well he should; with all its flaws, it's one of the better movie musicals of the '60s (and a hell of a lot better than Coppola's other attempt at a musical, One From the Heart).

Considering the way the film was made, it's amazing that it turned out as entertaining as it did. The Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow has one of the best musical theatre scores, perhaps the best; Yip Harburg's lyrics are dazzling and each of Burton Lane's tunes is extraordinarily memorable and rich in invention (there's hardly a single song in the score that follows a conventional A-A-B-A structure). The book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, was funny but somewhat bizarre. Harburg, one of the few politically-active people among the great Broadway songwriters, wanted to do a story about a racist Senator who turns black, but he couldn't think of a way to fit this in with his preferred style of whimsical musical comedy. Finally he and Saidy came up with the idea of doing it in the context of an Irish fantasy story: an old Irishman steals a magic pot of gold from the leprechauns and comes to America with it, hoping to bury it in the ground near Fort Knox (he believes that the soil will make the gold increase in value), and an accidental wish made on the pot of gold is what sets off the Senator's transformation.

The show was a hit in 1947, running a then-excellent 725 performances. But hit or no hit, no studio was willing to do a faithful film version; at first it was considered too politically risky, and by the time it wasn't politically risky anymore, it was considered dated. The creators wouldn't sell the film rights unless the story was left intact, so twenty years went by without a film being made.

At some point, Warner Brothers bit the bullet and bought the movie rights, and a youngish writer, Joseph Landon, set up the project as his first (and last) film as a producer. By this time, 1967, Warner Brothers was in trouble: their most recent big-budget musical, Camelot, was an expensive disaster, and they were about to get bought out. By all accounts Jack Warner didn't really want to make Finian, but they had the property and someone had convinced Fred Astaire to play the old Irishman, so WB agreed to let Landon make the film on condition that he made it for a low budget ($3.5 million, compared to the $17 million that the studio had spent on Camelot) and shot the whole thing on the studio backlot and leftover Camelot sets.

As Coppola mentions on the commentary track, the studio felt that a young director might help give this aging property some youth appeal, so they narrowed it down to two promising young directors, Coppola and William Friedkin; Coppola got it on the basis of his student film You're a Big Boy Now, which had been commercially released as a feature and had done rather well. Coppola, in true film-brat fashion, came in with lots of Big Ideas about how to shoot Finian's Rainbow. He wanted to shoot the whole thing on location in the South (the studio said forget it). He had the whole cast do intensive rehearsal of the full script, as a stage play, to get them used to their parts (he admits on the commentary track that this may have been a mistake, since it got everybody acting in a broad theatrical style). Midway through the shooting he fired the choreographer, longtime Astaire associate Hermes Pan, and dithered about hiring another one, with the result that he had to stage many of the musical numbers himself (he talks on the commentary about reaching back to his "experience" staging musicals in college). The crew consisted of WB studio vets about to be thrown out of work by the total collapse of what was left of the studio system. The project was the first, but definitely not the last, example of a Film Brat in way over his head, and Coppola's commentary track is fairly up-front about the fact that at certain points he didn't exactly know what he was doing.

And yet the movie is way more entertaining than Camelot or Star! or Hello, Dolly! or any number of late '60s musicals. It also did better at the box office; according to the IMDB it cost $3.5 million and grossed $11 million, a tidy profit compared to the huge losses being posted by musicals right and left in this era. Coppola does a number of pointless things, doesn't always seem to know how to stage a dialogue scene, and his solution to shooting a musical number is to cut to various vignettes while the song plays on the soundtrack. But some of his ideas work better than they have a right to, like staging the number "This Time of the Year" with some elements of late '60s Civil Rights protests (sit-ins, shaking police cars), or imparting some real sexual heat to the staging of one of the sexiest songs ever written, "Old Devil Moon," or staging "The Begat" as a cross-country car trip. And even the bad ideas have an energy to them; the film is just way more energetic and loose than the stodgy work of Joshua Logan (Camelot, Paint Your Wagon and other cinematic horrors), or the post-MGM Gene Kelly (Hello, Dolly!), or any number of other, more experienced directors who were doing movie musicals at this time. Finian may be appalling at times, but it doesn't put you to sleep.

Also, whereas most musicals in this era had horrible, horrible casting choices -- see Ball, Lucille (Mame), Eastwood, Clint (Paint Your Wagon), and Everybody, Everywhere (Camelot) -- Finian's Rainbow is, glory be, entirely cast with performers who actually have a right to be doing a musical: Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele and Canada's own Don Francks. (Steele is insufferable in this movie, as always, but he's not miscast, just annoying.) The chance to see and hear Petula Clark in a movie musical performing good songs is a special treat, since Clark was the kind of performer who should have had a big career in movie musicals but had the misfortune to rise to prominence just at the time when musicals were fading away. (The multi-lingual Clark also dubs her own dialogue and singing on the French soundtrack.) Add to that the fact that almost the entire Broadway score is intact, with only one song, "Necessity," being cut, and that the orchestrations are tasteful and not overblown, and it's clear that the score gets much more respect than Broadway scores usually got from Hollywood.

One thing that Coppola's commentary doesn't make clear, unless I missed the part where he explains it, is why the movie uses the script of the Broadway show almost verbatim. The writing credit reads "Screenplay by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy," but in fact there doesn't seem to have been a screenplay at all; nearly all the dialogue in the movie is taken directly from Harburg and Saidy's original libretto, and any "adaptation" simply consists of moving various scenes to different locations. Considering that Coppola mentions that he was distressed by the dated aspects of the show's script, and wanted to make it more relevant for the late '60s, one wonders why the hell he didn't do what all other movies do and write some new scenes. I can only think that it might have been part of Harburg's deal that his dialogue should be intact; that would certainly explain why it took so long to get it filmed.

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