Francis Ford Coppola’s first shot at a big budget movie was Finian’s Rainbow, the first and last film adaptation of the 1947 stage musical by Burton Lane. While the result has often been written off by posterity, it’s a clear forerunner of his 70s films, both in its scale and ambition, since it runs for two and a half hours, was originally exhibited in a Roadshow format, and features some of the most unusual and idiosyncratic moments in Coppola’s early career. It starts with a sublime credit sequence, in which we follow Finian McLonergan, played by Fred Astaire, and his daughter Sharon, played by Petula Clark, as they traverse a swathe of spectacular American landscapes, before settling on the small town of Rainbow Valley in the fictional state of Missitucky. Shot with a limpid and languid naturalism, these widescreen vistas seem light years away from the stagebound productions of the classical musical, anticipating the ambling melancholy of New Hollywood, as Finian and Sharon walk and walk – and seem to have walked from Ireland itself, so many landscapes do they cover.
When they arrive in Rainbow Valley, the story begins, which in its original version already seemed to take the heroic national narrative of the American musical to its logical and absurd conclusion. We quickly learn that Finian plans to bury a stash of gold in the soil in Rainbow Valley, hoping that the proximity of Fort Knox will cause it to multiply, and to then “radiate a certain power” that will result in the “skyscrapers, automobile assembly lines and self-made millionaires” of contemporary America. In effect, Finian tries to recapitulate the foundation of America in miniature, but without the decimation of First Nations people and the enslavement of African people as a precondition for capitalist development. That doesn’t mean that the original musical entirely bought into this heroic narrative, though, since it’s still notable for being one of the few classical American musicals to deal directly with race – or at least to deal with race on American shores. For the most part, musicals such as South Pacific and The King and I tended to displace American race politics onto exotic locales, meaning that the musical itself functioned as a pre-Civil Rights genre, a site where American race could be refracted through other cultures in the name of nationalism.
In some ways, the original version of Finian’s Rainbow resisted this narrative, as well as the heroic vision of capitalism that often accompanied it, with Finian’s leprechaun Og, played by Tommy Steele, observing early on that “gold was never meant for mankind – it’s a fairyland metal, that only fairies can see.” Still, there’s something dissonant about Coppola adapting a pre-Civil Rights genre as a post-Civil Rights commentary on race, which is what he tries to do, so it’s not particularly surprising that this remains the last major production of the musical, which hasn’t been revived since. Something of this dissonance comes across in the very first scenes in Rainbow Valley, which appears to unfold in a Southern antebellum utopia that subsists on tobacco plantations, but to also reflect the rise of Civil Rights. Many of the early musical scenes feature Civil Rights imagery – such as protestors shaking a police car – even as Rainbow Valley is racially integrated to an extent that never quite feels plausible, not least because the entire town is a nostalgic fantasy of Finian’s Irish homeland.
To some extent, Coppola deals with this tension by making the role of black folk in musicals the subject of Finian’s Rainbow. In fact, the performance of blackness underlies most of the opening scenes and musical numbers, most notably in an exchange when Senator Billboard Rawkins, an old-school plantation owner, instructs an employee to serve mint julep in the same way as the actors in The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Within the strange and inconsistently developed space of the film, this instruction feels weird – the employee asks “Why do I have to shuffle?” – while jokes that perhaps felt irreverent in the original musical now feel strangely outdated: “I’m working on my Masters” “Your Master’s what?” Since the original musical seems to have glimpsed the absurdity of its heroic national vision, but not quite committed to it enough to negate the musical genre, Coppola often seems to struggle to articulate the right degree of critical distance, or the right kind of critical distance, in turn. The result is a series of “progressive” lessons that can feel quite regressive, forcing Coppola to play the “moral” lesson of racial tolerance as a farce at certain moments.
However, Coppola captures this ideological schism most eloquently through the two very different types of musical numbers and musical spaces that populate the film. On the one hand, there are a series of sequences that play out on a highly stylised sound stage, replete with hyperreal trees, brooks and magical elements. On the other hand, Coppola also resorts to naturalism for some of the key sequences, starting with the blurry footage that opens the film, and which could easily be taken from the New Hollywood palette of his next film, The Rain People. These more naturalistic music sequences tend to be shot outdoors, on location, and often seem to prefigure the imagery of Woodstock, since Coppola opts for expansive, mobile aerial shots that collapse discrete songs into more amorphous happenings in which people sing, run and commune in fields and pastures. During these scenes, Coppola cuts rapidly between different spaces and types of camera movement, often cutting to a new shot or scene with each musical verse, while intensifying the musical momentum with cars, trains and other mechanical motions that gather the camera into their propulsive passage.
As a result, these naturalistic musical numbers effectively play as montage sequences, or even an incipient music video sequence, starting with the hallucinatory array of backdrops on display during the opening credits. The most spectacular of these sequences occurs when black folk take the foreground for the first time, as the disgraced Senator, who finds his own skin turned black, takes a car ride with a trio of musicians that gets more expansive and mobile as it proceeds. Even when the car crashes into a tree, Coppola quickly shifts to the same car being towed by a truck, before panning back to the most buoyant aerial shot of the movie, filmed from what appears to be a helicopter. During this scopic sequence, Coppola finally envisages horizons far beyond the sound stages and even the location shots of Rainbow Valley, glimpsing a cavernous spatiality that yawns forward to the postmodern wastelands and crushing, sublime dimensions of The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now.
For the most part, these two types of musical spaces – staged and naturalistic – remain incommensurate throughout Finian’s Rainbow, which is not to say that there is no movement or traffic between them. However, this movement can only occur as a carnivalesque effect, and is always facilitated by Og, the leprechaun, whose main role in the film is to turn social categories upside down. Under his spell, poor become rich, and white become black, as if class and race were so inexorable that only supernatural intervention could traverse them – a very different message from the self-made optimism of the classical American musical. At times, this comes very close to a modern musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially around the sound stage scenes, since there’s a similar sense of social boundaries being commingled and upended under the trance of the woods.
Dance tends to be the medium that Og uses to connect these two disparate parts of the film, which he navigates with Susan the Silent, a deaf-mute woman who can only communicate through dance. Both Og and Susan feel like refractions of the black struggle for humanity, since they’re perpetually presented as part-humans that can’t quite exist autonomously of the white cast, and their domination of American humanity. In their hands, dance becomes a refraction of the black struggle – or, more pointedly, the film recognises that dance was one of the few public languages that black folk had at their disposal during the era of the classical musical. The fact that dance is largely the province of white part-humans thus suggests that the American musical is so structurally centred on whiteness that it can’t properly process blackness – even when this is clearly Coppola’s intention – epitomised by the absurd premise of black folk yearning for an Edenic Irish homeland. In that sense, Coppola is working against the musical even as he tries to adapt this particular musical, which still ends with black folk mourning “their” home of Glocca Morra, Ireland.
In other words, Finian’s Rainbow is driven by the schism of a director in 1968 trying to turn a pre-Civil Rights musical into a commentary upon Civil Rights, perhaps explaining why Coppola would attempt to refurbish the musical on his own terms with an entirely original creation in One From the Heart. To some extent, Coppola deflects this process into Astaire’s presence, and so tries to rehabilitate Astaire’s legendary footwork for a new era, choreographing him through a dazzling array of landscapes and surfaces, including the bed of a stream, that inspires the villagers behind him to adopt increasingly modern and experimental dance moves that in turn radiate out through the texture of the film. Not surprisingly, this proliferation of new dance moves tend to accompany songs that focus on the folly of social conventions, and the limitations of social categories, bridging the gap between fantasy and naturalism in ever more precarious, provisional and provocative ways.
These dance sequences intensify in the final moments of the film, where they help Finian to articulate an unusual twist – that neither fantasy nor naturalism can acknowledge race within the confines of the classical American musical, which is ultimately so invested in its own heroic narratives that its own racist assumptions are naturalised. In these closing scenes, Coppola instead opts for a kind of intensified convergence of fantasy and naturalism that anticipates his heightened style of the late 70s, untethering his last scenes from music and plot, and instead subsisting on a manic, hallucinatory energy that accelerates to the closing images. To some extent, this kinetic impulse has built throughout the whole film, from the sped-up shots of the opening numbers, to the omnipresent (and improbable) railway line that runs through Rainbow Valley, and then the surrogates that the camera seeks out for itself in the second half – a train, a police car, other cars, a fire engine, and finally the first of many helicopters in Coppola’s body of work, which causes a break in the music when it appears, as if pausing to apprehend a new kind of intensified film language.
This heightened realism, or heightened irrealism, is the final note of Finian’s Rainbow, which differs from most other Technicolor musicals – or perhaps signals itself as one of the last great Technicolor musicals – by using green as its dominant color anchor, rather than the warmer tones typical of Technicolor. By the time the film ends, this green has started to turn psychedelic, activating the pleasure centres of everyone who encounters it until the whole cast feels mildly stoned. The result is finally closer to an animated film than a live action film, especially since Finian is mildly, cartoonishly inebriated for the vast majority of the plot, and Astaire was reputedly smoking marijuana, at least according to Petula Clark. Despite starting with the grand aspirations of the American musical at its peak, Finian’s Rainbow eventually comes closer to the happenings and experimental events depicted in You’re a Big Boy Now, making it an eloquent transitional work between Coppola’s early work and the New Hollywood masterpieces that start with The Rain People.