The film was Finian's Rainbow (1968), starring Fred Astaire in his last screen musical. It marked the first major studio feature for Coppola, who up until this point had directed B-movies like The Playgirls and the Bellboy (1962) and Dementia 13 (1963). Coppola maintains that it was not his talent that landed him the job, but his age: he states in Francis Ford Coppola, A Filmmaker's Life, "The only reason I got the job was because I was young. Warner's had this creaky old property lying around, and they wanted a young director to modernize it. It was between me and Billy Friedkin." The creaky old property was actually a huge Broadway success twenty years earlier, and this was the first attempt to bring it to the silver screen. Theories explaining its delay ranged from writer E. Y. Harburg's steep asking price to hesitation surrounding the story's controversial racial tolerance subtext. Regardless of the reason for its late arrival to film, Finian's Rainbow was rushed into production at the behest of Warner Brothers; they wanted to capitalize on the recent success of The Sound of Music (1965), so time was of the essence. Given only a fraction of other film musicals' budgets, Coppola was regulated to the Warner's lot to shoot the movie. To cut costs even more, the studio reused the forest sets from Camelot (1967).
Astaire signed on to the film, agreeing to part from his usual dapper persona to play a rough and tumble type of character. In the original script, Finian did not dance and barely sang; Astaire expanded the role to include his talents onscreen. The dancing in the film became a point of contention. Astaire had insisted on the hiring of his favorite collaborator Hermes Pan as choreographer but Coppola disliked the man's work and fired him halfway through production, leaving only himself to map out the dance sequences. Largely employing improvisation techniques, Coppola managed to eke out the action, but admitted its shortcomings: "There was no planning, no set choreography. It was a matter of doing what seemed right at the time."
Astaire's co-star was Petula Clark, a British pop star best known for her top forty hit "Downtown." Curiously, both actors were apprehensive about working with the other: Clark was too intimidated to dance with the legendary performer, and Astaire fretted about singing with Clark. The tension dissipated when, after the first recording session, Astaire jumped about and shouted, "I sang with her! I sang with her!" Nonetheless, it was an odd pairing; industry speculation alluded to Clark's contract with the Warner's music division as a cost-effective motive. Another Brit pop star whose singing career had peaked in the late fifties was cast as the leprechaun - Tommy Steele. But his over-the-top performance wavered wildly out of Coppola's control. As the director explained later, "I felt the leprechaun should be more shy and timid and bewildered. . . And at my insistence Tommy started to do just that in rehearsal, and he was really good at it. . . Somehow during the actual shooting, little by little, he slipped back into his familiar character. . . He eluded me." Rounding out the supporting cast were Keenan Wynn, son of vaudevillian legend Ed Wynn, and Don Francks, a Canadian TV star and lounge singer.
Frustrated by the film's problems, Coppola sped through production, completing the film in twelve weeks. "Everyone at Warner's thought Finian's Rainbow was going to be a big hit; they were just wild about it. They decided to blow the picture up to 70 - from its original 35mm specifications - and make it a road show picture. And when they did that, they blew the feet off Fred Astaire when he was dancing. No one had calculated the top and bottom of the frame. I just wanted to be done with it, but I was upset thinking that this thing might be an enormous success."
Coppola had nothing to worry about: the film flopped almost immediately at the box office and marked the beginning of the end for big budget movie musicals with few exceptions. Finian's Rainbow earned vicious reviews, such as the one from Time: "The movie might have survived were it not for the ham-handed direction of Francis Ford Coppola." But there were also some fans; The Saturday Review lauded, "They have kept it just the lovely show it always wasn't tuneful, well-intended, occasionally funny, always appealing." Finian's Rainbow picked up two Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Score, but perhaps the most rewarding outcome of the film was off-screen. Coppola hired an unknown film student named George Lucas to be a production assistant. Working on the film together would form the foundation for their lifelong friendship, lasting long after the final credits rolled on Finian's Rainbow.
Producer: Joel Freeman, Joseph Landon
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Fred Saidy
Art Direction: Hilyard M. Brown Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Editing: Melvin Shapiro
Music: Burton Lane
Cast: Fred Astaire (Finian McLonergan), Petula Clark (Sharon McLonergan), Tommy Steele (Og, the Leprechaun), Don Francks (Woody Mahoney).
by Eleanor Quin