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Finian’s Rainbow: A forgotten musical classic

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Finian’s Rainbow is a classic film that has sort of slipped through the cracks. It was made as a movie in 1968, decades past the original hit 1947 Broadway play. For starters, the play introduced the classic hit “Look to the Rainbow” and one of the all-time Broadway era standards, “Old Devil Moon.”

The film version was directed by no less than Francis Ford Coppola, who was handed a ready-made all star cast starring Fred Astaire. However, careerwise neither man was at his peak. This was Coppola’s first major budget feature. He was still several years from making the big name with The Godfather. It was Fred Astaire’s last starring musical role. Nobody seemed to be satisfied with the finished product.

Quick rating on some basic component elements of this 1968 musical. SONGS are the most central element of a musical. They wrote some memorable songs for the original play, including the major standard “Old Devil Moon”. Can’t argue against that.

DANCING of course is a major element for musicals. The dancing here is fair to middling. It’s competent and all, but the director threw out most of the fancy choreography designed for the movie. Apparently he was striving for a more naturalistic look, and didn’t want a lot of stage-y steps. The simple Irish jigs and such that he ended up favoring are serviceable, perfectly watchable.

However, this was not really a Fred Astaire dancing movie. He performed marvelously, but was not even attempting anything to compete with his classic work in this most important aspect. The actual best stepping in the movie ended up being by Silent Susan, who didn’t speak but rather expressed herself through ballet steps.

The general MOVIE MAKING rates quite good here. Young, hungry Francis Ford Coppola created a beautiful and subtle vision. As appropriate to the story and characters, the movie looks significantly naturalistic and pastoral, yet indefinably and subtly odd and fantastic.

Even most of the best musicals frankly have crap for a storyline. They’re mostly just setups for the dance set pieces. Fred meets Ginger, impresses her with his superior dance prowess, dance bliss, forced fight, reconciliation dance.

The real special strength of the Finian’s Rainbow movie by contrast, however, is precisely the STORY AND SCRIPT. This has an interesting story, with dialogue and a fascinating odd philosophical speculation. The lyricist Yip Harburg was a damned pinko type who eventually tangled asses with McCarthy and the dreaded HUAC. He also wrote the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”.

In the meantime, he expressed his political ideas not by destroying a mask of the president on stage a la Pearl Jam, but rather by writing a parable about money, including the classic songs “That Great Come and Get It Day” and “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.” This took some actual serious creative effort.

The story involves a mischievous old Irishmen- Astaire as the titular Finian. He has stolen a pot of leprechaun’s gold, and has come to America to bury it. Near as he can figure, see, there’s some kind of magic in the American soil that turns gold into wealth, into bunches of stuff. He’s come to bury the already magical leprachaun’s gold somewhere identified as within a couple of miles of Fort Knox. On this basis alone, the movie gets a couple of extra Al points for being at least nominally set in Kentucky.

Of course, the leprachaun from whom he stole the gold has come after him. In short, he wants it back. He argues that humans should not have gold. It will only hurt them, bring bad things to them. This in fact seems to be the case for Mr. Finian.

I’ll be much more open to left-wing ideas in such a case as this, in that it involves actual ideas. They’re speculating about the nature of wealth and what makes gold so special. There’s some thought behind this, unlike many modern celebrity activist types. This involves serious songwriting and storytelling, not mere finger waving.

One aspect of the movie I found less than compelling was the business with the stupid bad senator played by Bat Guano, who finds himself magically “demoted” to being a Negro. The bad racist white southerner made me want to be annoyed. However, consider that this was being written in the 1940’s, and Jim Crow was at his peak of power. What seems like an overly obvious sentiment to me was probably seen by some back in the day as radical race mixing and communism. That pretty well argues against my idea of it being trite. I guess I should take account in my larger critical judgments that such obvious sentiments would have been controversial in some quarters really still as late as the time of the movie version in 1968.

I’m a heterosexual Midwestern male with principal musical interests in rock and country. Therefore, I may not be considered one of the top authorities on Broadway musicals.

Within the humble limits of that note however, I’d consider this one of my top 10 traditional movie musical picks ever. Beautiful songs, and it was a beautiful swan song for Astaire, exiting with a twinkle in the eye.

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