The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Finian's Rainbow

October 9, 1968   Warners   145 minutes
Nowadays a Bway musical can take decades before making it to the screen, but in 1968 when Finian's Rainbow was finally filmed, it was overdue by an unheard-of 21 years. Not that it wasn't in development long before. In the mid-'50s an animated version was in the works (with Sinatra, Satchmo and Ella Logan as voices), but thankfully abandoned. One can imagine the sort of Disney-fied adaptation the times would've called for in softening the pointedly provocative racial elements. A decade later, Warners pulled it out of their long-shelved file in response to the gold rush for musicals after The Sound of Music soared. But after two decades Finian was a bit stale in the story department; which, let's face it, is nothing but a heaping bowl of malarkey--a lopsided leftist fairy tale with capricious rules of fantasy, fearlessly preachy, unaplogetically silly. It survives--and it does to this day--only to support a score that justifies such lunacy, composed by the woefully un-prolific Burton Lane.; with lyrics by the incomparable E.Y. Harburg, whose wit and invention were best released when given freedom to delve into the fantastic. Harburg conceived the show in response to anti-Communist hysteria afoot in the post-war Senate--in particular a couple of Southern blowhards whose racism made Harburg fume.  His idea was to turn a bigot black to experience his own prejudice, but the idea only clicked when paired with another story he'd been mulling, that of a leprechaun chasing after a stolen pot of gold. (Not exactly a natural leap--but no matter.)

The Bway production arrived in January '47, another pearl on the string of the post-war Golden Age musicals; when such pearls burst forth with regularity after R&H's Oklahoma!: Bloomer Girl, On the Town, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun. Brigadoon, High Button Shoes, Where's Charley? Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific--staples on stages for a generation. In many ways, Finian is the oddest of the lot; an improbable mix of Irish and Negro folklore set in rural "Missitucky," adjacent (for plot purposes) to Fort Knox. Among its characters: an overgrown leprechaun a dancing mute, a Senator who turns black under a magic spell; a chorus of casually integrated sharecroppers, and a title role that isn't much more than a supporting part. Whatsmore, the central romance has to strain to find an ounce of conflict; yet it somehow all holds together. Because of that glorious score--evidence of how R&H so quickly influenced, and inspired the Street--stretching the top talents to new heights. Burton Lane had a fair number of movie songs, two Bway revues and one failed book show (also with lyrics by Yip) to his resume, but this revealed a breadth previously untapped. It's one of those rare Bway scores, where song after song is of such quality and delight, not to mention diversity, that it's breathtaking. Unlike the similar fantasy-themed Brigadoon--which followed quickly on Finian's heels--this seemed like a catalog of Hit Parade tunes, an Irish jig here, a homesick lullaby there, a gospel barn-raiser; something sort of madrigal-ish; something sort of jazzy--and a whole lotta Bway knowhow. And so much of it sounding like genuine American folk music--from a non-existant region: a Deep South 46th St. Right from the top, what an unusual chorus is "This Time of Year," a rhythmic protest song--in plea of Spring, dripping in dewy country charm. It's got all the earmarks of Johnny Mercer:

     Magnolias are sentimental
         Persimmons are que-er
            Snapdragons won't pay no rental
                  This time of the year.

But it's Harburg all right:

       We can't be bothered with
            a mortgage man
                  This Time of the year

You don't really notice the number morphing into an unseen train bringing the story's hero. It's a real star entrance cue, tho it doesn't play like one; no following number for Woody to explain himself. Instead the show moves on, introducing Finian and daughter, Sharon--and it is she who sings the show's biggest hit, and the first of two consecutive "Irish" tunes. "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" has never done much for me (that cheap Irish sentiment, as Finian himself calls it), but "Look to the Rainbow" has a nice lilt to it, and tho both tunes are reprised thru-out much of the show, they conclude the Irish portion of the score. "Old Devil Moon" shifts the mood, a ballad that really drives--and 65 years later still feels free of cliche. It's a tune Rodgers, Loesser or Styne would have been proud to have written. Of the leprechaun's two songs--both waltzes--"Something Sort of Grandish" has the better melody (a sprightly madigral) but "When I'm Not Hear the Girl I Love" exhalts more on its lyric. "If This Isn't Love" recalls great Rodgers & Hart standards such as "Falling in Love with Love," and more obviously, "This Can't Be Love"--and who better than the Master to emulate? But Harburg & Lane show their evolving musical vocabulary with the production numbers ending the first act and beginning the second. "That Great Come-and-Get-It Day" is a Come-to-Jesus rouser, with an exquisite folk-sounding middle section ("Bells will ring in every steeple..."); an impudently optimistic affirmation from the man who wrote "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." But the familiar Harburg comes forth in "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," which was enuf to incite Red baiting from the more hysterical quarters of Communist witch hunters. Equality? Never! It didn't help that this was the first Bway musical to racially integrate its cast within musical numbers. The first of two "black" numbers, "Necessity" ("the maximum that a minimum thing could be") came late in the first act. It was a guaranteed crowd pleaser; as was the second act's "The Begat," meant for a Negro quartet. Both are usually solidly put over by their performers, but excuse me if I note these are of far less musical sophistication than the rest of the score, which--unlike with Gershwin--has a whiff of condescension about it. I'm just saying. According to John Lahr (who looks frighteningly like one of the sharecroppers in the chorus), brilliant as the score is, Lane had a hard time working with Harburg, who would absurdly claim 97% credit for the show--and resent Lane's acclaim for the music. They no longer spoke to each other by the show's opening; and sadly never collaborated again. Neither would have a hit like this again, either.
After being in family hands since its inception, Jack Warner sold his studio in 1967 for $32 million to 7Arts Productions. (whose co-chairman was Ray Stark)--and tho he stayed around to oversee, Warner no longer had much say in staffing decisions. But it was he who matched Finian's Rainbow to Petula Clark, after seeing her perform at the Cocoanut Grove. She had acted in films in England as a child, but was known only as a singer in America--striking pop gold with "Downtown," a song you couldn't avoid in the mid-'60s. Joe Landon, a screenwriter (whose biggest credit was Von Ryan's Express) with minimal producing experience, convinced the new regime to let him produce Finain's Rainbow on the strength of his getting Fred Astaire to come out of dancing retirement. He also secured then flavor-of-the-moment, Tommy Steele as the overeager leprechaun. Given the old-fashioned feel of the show by the mid-'60s Landon thought the film should have a fresher, younger feel. Francis Ford Coppola had made his master's thesis film the year before, financed by 7 Arts: You're a Big Boy Now--which got a studio release thru Warners, and earned an Oscar nomination for Geraldine Page. A decidedly youthful comedy greatly influenced by Richard Lester, Godard and the French new wave; this was the direction Coppola wanted to pursue--not major studio fare, let alone a Roadshow musical. Yet he had the experience and affection for directing  musicals in school, undoubtedly inherited from his family of professionals. His father was a composer and musician who played in many Bway pits, while his uncle conducted the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. Surprised by the offer, Coppola says he took the job in great part to earn his father's respect. Getting a crack at a family favorite combined with the chance to work with Fred Astaire, made it irresistible. Francis loved and knew the score by heart. What he didn't know--and discovered only after he'd signed on to direct--was the actual book. Civil rights for African-Americans had shifted more dramatically in the two decades since the show was written than at any other time. Tho the screenplay is credited to Harburg & Fred Saidy, who co-wrote the original book, Coppola made uncredited changes more current to the mood of 1968; tho nothing could entirely remove the patina of old-fashionedness. One of his additions--a botanist developing a menthol tobacco leaf--now has a backwardness of consciousness nearly equal to the ingrained blind racism of the '40s. By looking to correct old stereotypes Coppola cast a black stage actor, Al Freeman Jr. as the botanist, and made the chorus not simply a racially integrated group but an absurdly well-dressed one as well (in pre-Gap style) for a bunch of sharecroppers. Coppola narrates the DVD commentary track in his customary erudite fashion, confessing his failures and frustrations with the project. Tho the film was geared for a high profile release, Landon was given a small budget relative to what other musicals at the time were costing. Warners still had the elaborate soundstage "exteriors" from Camelot, which they were only too happy to put to use again. Coppola wanted to shoot on location in Kentucky--which would give the film a more genuine sense of place, but cost restraints forced a studio shoot. Exteriors, of which there were many, employed the Disney ranch with its unmistakeable California terrain--making a jarring and unfortunate contrast with the lush, artificial Camelot woodlands--which really makes the better visual setting for the fantasy-hokum that is Finian.

The movie gets off on the wrong foot with the opening credits. Musically it's fine: Petula crooning "Look to the Rainbow," a capella at first, then swept up by the studio orchestra. We're watching the backs of two vagabonds, an old man and his daughter, on their journey across the land. But would they really be trudging up steep mountain peaks, across glaciers, teetering over the Grand Canyon, always with luggage in hand? Their search criss-crosses America, and tho beautifully shot by Caleb Deschanel, it feels so conspicuously wrong. For Finian is simply looking for Fort Knox--couldn't he follow a map? Coppola admits his biggest challenge was making sense of the musical numbers in a contemporary manner. Astaire's longtime collaborator, Hermes Pan was in charge of choreography, but Coppola balked at Pan's too symmetrical, too staged ensemble pieces, and--with some chutzpah--fired him fairly early in the shooting; bringing a younger local choreographer in to stage dances that look only marginally hipper than Hermes.  (It was choregrapher Michael Kidd's first Bway show.) Francis staged most of the ensemble numbers himself, breaking them up in self-described "fractured vignettes"--a technique which worked better for Richard Lester in A Funny Thing Happened. where each vignette was a punchline. It's less imaginative here. Some of it works, all right, but the deliberate lack of visual continuity often feels gimmicky. The movie begins on Dogpatch energy, a speeding police car with siren, scattering chickens and citizens; an eviction warning, a chorus answering no to "This Time of the Year," somewhat awkwardly parading about the dirty backwater. Midway the song shifts to focus on "Woody's coming," and the brash young director gives us a collage of Woody on all parts of the moving (thru Napa Valley) train: front, back, inside, out, on top, hanging off; culminating in one sped-up swoosh thru the interior from cow-catcher to caboose--something the film student picked up from a short film on toy trains by designer Charles Eames. If Coppola strove for realism (a bit misguided for such a fairy-tale) he saw no contradiction in employing fanciful editing. "If This Isn't Love," romps across Griffith Park with a similar abandon as Pajama Game's "Once a Year Day," but loses steam cut up into so many "moments." A lack of cohesion is best demonstrated in "Look to the Rainbow"--which morphs from a ballad, to Irish jig, to Riverdance, to country frolic (the whole town absurdly stomping down a stream at one point), to synchronized ensemble in a large field with jazzed-up orchestration. It's rather audacious, if not quite successful. And how bizarre is "That Great Come-and-Get-It Day"?--A call-to-arms for abusing credit. Come and get it? More like Take and burn it!--Would the community really dump all their possessions so quickly and so eagerly--just on Woody's word? There are nice moments nonetheless; Astaire, a pied piper, tripping down a dusty country lane; Tommy & Petula cavorting with clothesline laundry for "Something Sort of Grandish" (her "la-la-la's" under Steele's final verse are so ingrained I sorely miss them on every other recording)--tho Og's sailing over Rainbow Valley on a puffy gown-turned-balloon is a bit too Mary Poppins. Coppola left "Old Devil Moon" unadorned (except for its absurdly green Camelot glen--in such glaring contrast to the burnt California hills) and its surprising how contemporary the orchestration and vocal arrangement is. "The Begat" is perhaps the best of Coppola's storyboard vignettes: a road journey in a jalopy that has one too many breakdowns. Astaire opens the second half with another heavily edited number, "When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor," that settles down midway in a barn where Fred gets a solo--mostly jumping up and down a stairway of crates--that painfully reminds us of his age. But then why wouldn't Finian be 70? You could scarcely improve on his casting.

Is it surprising that Petula Clark has nearly as much appeal as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music? She's lovely, she's fresh, well-sung, slightly rough around the edges--another Brit embraced by Americans. The story finds her branded a witch--and there is something a little bewitching about her. Tommy Steele completes his trio of Hlwd musicals as a leprechaun--his Cheshire cat grin practically devouring the screen. Coppola thought him all wrong for the part, but was stuck with Landon's choice. He wanted another Brit, Donal Donnelly, who had just made a minor splash in the film The Knack, and How to Get It, and could convey the requisite shyness of the character.  Shyness was something Steele couldn't get arrested for. Some of his scenes are unendurable--one particularly puzzling longeur has him "dancing" a one sentence question--over several attempts. I don't mind him so much in his musical numbers--he is a polished peformer, and moves unusually well. One role Coppola cast by himself was the movie's romantic lead, Woody. True to his indie aspirations, he chose a minor TV actor, vocalist and jazz musician, Don Francks--a Canadian who'd starred as Kelly in the ill-fated '65 musical, (about a man who jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge) which played but a single performance on Bway. He has a smooth pop voice ("Not in the Gordon MacRae vein," according to Coppola) and sounds especially fine on "Old Devil Moon," as does Petula. He has an inviting presence; looks like a cross between Jason Bateman and Rob Lowe, but is a bit too mellow to radiate star charisma. For the comically bigoted Senator, they could hardly do better than Keenan Wynn, absent from musicals since Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun.. Interestingly, he looks every bit as convincing (perhaps even more appealing) as a black man. He completes a happy quartet joining Avon Long, Roy Glenn and Jester Hairston on "The Begat," an amusing diversion. The other "black" song from the show, "Necessity" was filmed but left on the cutting room floor when the movie ran too long. Better they had trimmed more of the scenes. For Susan the Silent, Astaire pushed for his final dance partner, Barrie Chase, but Coppola deemed her too polished and too old, and chose a local dance student, Barbara Hancock--a dead ringer for comedian Amy Schumer. She gets a moment of her own, a Rain Dance Ballet--utilizing that Camelot forest again, set to an untypical arrangement of "Old Devil Moon" (Ray Heindorf's scoring of Lane's melodies is as superlative as it was in The Music Man--and earned, along with Sound, the film's only Oscar nominations.) There's far too much plot and staged business that drags out in the second half, which Coppola now repeatedly laments. He left Landon to edit the film, moving quickly on to The Rain People--the sort of indie cinema he preferred. but not the sort of blockbuster features he would shortly become famous for.
The Roadshow premiered October 9th at the former Warner, then Penthouse Theater in Times Square, to lukewarm reviews and little traction, caught between the just opened Funny Girl, and the highly anticipated Star!--with Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence-- on the horizon. Finian lasted but 18 weeks at reserved seats, compared to 72 for Funny Girl, 47 for Oliver! and 23 for the stunning flop that was Star!  It collected $5,500,00 in film rentals--among the top 20 films of 1969, and tho it didn't cost nearly as much as Star! (which made considerably less) it was still considered a big disappointment. The less-than-persuasive modernization of the show did little to abate its fading reputation. But several decades later it would be recognized again, without apology, and see some regular resurgence. City Center's Encores! production in 2009--making a star of Kate Baldwin and a lug of Cheyenne Jackson--made the leap to Bway but never took off. For my money, it would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable production than the one done at LA's Reprise company in 1997. With the lovely and lovely-voiced Andrea Marcovicci and Rex Smith as the romantic leads, I was transported to a cloud in musical comedy heaven. After shooting the film, Astaire invited Coppola to see Bway's current smash, Hair--so that he might be able to understand its appeal. He wasn't persuaded. The days of Fred & Ginger were retreating into history.

Roadshow movie musicals were still coming steadily out of Hlwd--tho not within my reach in LA's far-western suburb of Canoga Park. The autumn of '68 would be my final one there; the last months with my beloved housewives, the Brooklyn-bred Gloria, with her earth-shattering viral laugh; the stylish Esther with her bountiful record collection; the vivacious Iowan, Dodo, who was more my hero than I realized. They were never replaced--not even half-heartedly --as I now realize we never got to know any of our new neighbors in Cupertino. I would also soon lose my favorite radio station, which played a full Bway cast album each night at 7--and one I counted on to first hear the latest shows. I got to the movies only once after summer, and that was to see The Producers, which with its Bway theme, and my David Merrick aspirations was de rigueur--it was also within bicycle distance. Aside from books and research, most of my cultural education came from TV: still only three networks, but a nightly menu that kept me occupied: Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason, Lucy, The Smothers Bros, Green Acres, That Girl, Laugh-In, and something that excited me more than any other that season, a weekly musical comedy on ABC called, That's Life, starring Robert Morse and EJ Peaker as a newlywed couple, with Kay Medford as Peaker's mother. There were guest stars galore and some nifty production numbers of well-known and original tunes. It was TV, which meant cheap production values, but I loved it, and was quite peeved I had to miss the last 10 shows (out of 26) because of our move up north. After New Years, I spent four weeks living with the Milano's next door, to finish my first year of high school (which in  SoCal ended, as it began, in January.) Life with Gloria was a giddy rebuke to the dour Russian homestead of my parents. But this idyll was soon over, as I rejoined my parents up north in Cupertino, in the confines of a small trailer for ten weeks while we waited for our new house to be finished. Without privacy or a TV the three of us were driven stir crazy; forced to go out each evening to a mall, or furniture store, or carpet outlet, somewhere, anywhere. I, of course, wanted to go to the movies, which we never did again as a family unit. But they relented to drop me off at Century 23 to see Finian's Rainbow, that first week. With the quartet of snowball-domed cinemas next to the Winchester Mystery House in Santa Clara, I would now have access to the big Roadshow movies on gigantic screens. I can't say I knew the musical prior to then, except for what I'd read about it in books, so my expectations were not particular. What most disappointed me was the lack of visual appeal--musicals, as I'd gotten hooked on them, evoked glamorous or at least exotic or colorful locales. Backwoods country life (and so topographiclly schizophrenic at that) was not my idea of a retinal holiday. But as it had with so many others, including Coppola, the score stuck to me like glue. I couldn't get Lane's whimsical melodies out of my brain. One after another they came at me; I could somehow remember most of each one, and hummed and dreamed them all that winter of 1969--when I had no access to my record player either. A great deal more was shifting at that time than just our living quarters. The zeitgeist was a moving target. And popular cultural was drawing from sources previously unknown or unimagineable. Bway--tho I couldn't yet see it--was rapidly losing its luster and influence. And I hadn't even gotten there yet!

Next Up: Oliver!

Report Card:    Finian's Rainbow
Overall Film:    B-
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway:  10
Songs Cut from Bway:  1
New Songs:  None
Standout Number: "The Begat"
Casting:   Mostly spot on    
Standout Cast: Petula Clark, Keenan Wynn
Sorethumb Cast: Tommy Steele
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Confused, mildly experimental
Choreography:  Rambling, inconsistent
Ballets: B-   Susan's “Rain Dance Ballet"
Scenic Design:  Scattershot, mix & match
Costumes:  Dull, early Gap
Standout Sets: forest glen from Camelot
Titles: Absurd travelogue, with credits in an
    instantly-passe typeface.
Oscar Noms:  2: Sound, Scoring.

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