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27 Things We Learned from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ Commentary

“Before I said I was going to do Finian’s Rainbow I should have read the book.”
Finians Rainbow Commentary
By  · Published on March 15th, 2017

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)

Commentator: Francis Ford Coppola (director)

1. Regarding the film’s opening frame featuring the word “overture” onscreen, he says it’s because this was what was referred to as a roadshow production. “They were like a night at the theater. You were given a program, it was an event, and as you came to your seat there was an overture playing.” It’s a long absent format, but Quentin Tarantino recently revived it for some screenings of The Hateful Eight.

2. He says a benefit of 70mm productions was that “the soundtrack would be in six-track magnetic stereophonic sound and was very high quality.”

3. The Warner Bros/Seven Arts logo reminds him of his time spent at the latter company working as a staff writer when they bought WB. “It was quite a coincidence related to my directing this film.”

4. The opening scene of Petula Clark singing in the field, the city, and elsewhere is one of his favorite parts of the film. “It was a part that I had not participated in very much.” The studio required him to shoot the film on their lot ‐ “on the old Camelot sets” ‐ so he asked his friend Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) if he could find doubles for Clark and Fred Astaire and shoot footage across the country for him to use in the opening credits “to tell the story of this Irish immigrant from Ireland.”

5. “This was before the era of the helicopter shot,” he says before recalling his idea to attach a camera to a crop duster plane and simply fly it over the pair as they walked in a field. He planned thirty takes with the pilot hitting a switch to start filming when he believed the pair were in view as he couldn’t actually look through the camera to confirm. He printed up all the takes as he was unsure if any of them caught the performers. “I had heard a story that one thing Jack Warner, the old man, hated was when a director printed more than two takes. He thought it was a waste.” When Coppola sat down to watch the footage after printing dozens of takes he was disappointed to see nothing but corn fields ‐ and then surprised to discover Warner sitting beside him when the lights came up. “He never said anything. He just got up and left, but my god my heart was in my mouth.”

6. He realized his challenge was “how to take this clunky, left-wing piece and set it a time when there really was going to be some progress in our country.” Sounds like the time is ripe in America for another remake!

7. The original Broadway songs and lyrics were kept intact although he felt the book ‐ the narrative details ‐ “had to be massaged a little.”

8. He began his directorial career with a desire to be “more of a European-style auteur director.”

9. His first film, You’re a Big Boy Now, was released theatrically even though it was his thesis film out of film school.

10. WB was looking for a “young director” to helm a big-screen adaptation of the musical, and to them that meant Coppola or William Friedkin who they liked from his Sonny & Cher film, Good Times. “The first thought,” he says, when he received the call about the job, “what I should have said is no.” He said yes though knowing it would make his father happy.

11. Coppola got along with his cast and crew “with the exception of Don Francks.” Francks plays Woody, the young male lead, and Coppola felt he had a chip on his shoulder. He realizes now though that all the actor was doing was “giving me for real the character.” The director says he wasn’t sophisticated enough at that point of his career to recognize what was happening.

12. He felt too many Hollywood musicals “ruined” adaptations by over-orchestrating the musical numbers beyond their original stage presentations. “I really tried to adhere to what I thought were the great, great songs of Finian’s Rainbow.”

13. Astaire’s dancing scenes make him nervous because he realized too late that he shot some of the scenes with the man’s feet just off-screen or dangerously close to the frame’s edge.

14. He wishes he had trimmed some of the dialogue scenes to make them more terse. “The film is pretty long, and I think it would have been better served had I cut it down to be a little more tight.” He left the editing to others though as he wanted to leave the “artificial” nature of the production behind as quick as possible to return to the real and gritty filmmaking he desired.

15. The pot of gold does not impress him. He had asked for a better prop, but this was all they would give him.

16. Og the leprechaun is supposed to be a shy character, but the studio cast a new sensation of the moment named Tommy Steele “who was the opposite of shy, he was brash and a real vaudevillian.”

17. Coppola added Howard’s (Al Freeman Jr.) subplot about his attempts to crossbreed mint with tobacco. “This was just a silly idea that I came up with to try to have a little subplot to justify this more contemporary African American character.”

18. The sequence where Howard acts as instructed in delivering the refreshing drink to the senator (Keenan Wynn) made audiences howl with so much laughter that they added the fade to black at 59:41 so as not to step on the next scene.

19. He thinks most movies, good and bad, have an equal number of flaws. “The difference isn’t that the good ones don’t have the flaws, the difference is that you don’t care about the flaws. You don’t look at them, you don’t notice them because you’re so caught up in the life of the people.”

20. Coppola’s sons Roman and Gian-Carlo were supposed to take part in the scene where the children come dancing and singing over the hill, but Roman was having none of it. When he watches it now “all I see is Roman and Gian dressed up in their little bib overalls and Roman just crying and crying.”

21. He continually beats himself up over dialogue scenes that he should have trimmed. The problem, he acknowledges, is that he spent his time thinking about set-pieces and how to structure scenes as opposed to thinking about the scenes themselves. “In a way I would love to just take the film, look at it and cut all the parts that I would cut out so that the movie would have kind of a dynamic forward movement. Maybe when I get older I’ll just take a copy of it and cut it down.”

22. Warner had a standing policy that directors and producers in production would eat meals in the studio’s executive dining room a few times per week, and those who skipped it would get a note from his assistant saying as much. “He sat at the head of the table, and where you were seated was the pecking order, and of course this was Warner’s way to berate whichever director was going over budget or doing something that he didn’t like.” A room to the side holding all of Warner’s awards was where you’d meet him after the meal and “where he’d really give you hell.” Coppola was pulled in when Warner heard he was resistant to the studio-picked editor. He fought it and won, but he thinks the film would have been better had Warner won out instead.

23. Astaire’s preferred choreographer, Hermes Pan, cameos in the film at 1:32:00 as the man shining Finian’s (Astaire) shoes.

24. One day during the production he noticed a young man in a sweater and a beard standing off to the side watching the filming. He had won a contest to come experience a real production at WB, and when Coppola asked what he was looking at the man said “Well, nothing much.” It was George Lucas, and the two became fast friends.

25. Coppola initially offered the role of the senator to George C. Scott.

26. Astaire invited Coppola to a popular new musical one time when they were both in New York City because the aging performer didn’t quite understand it and he wanted a younger person’s take on it. It was Hair, and Coppola wasn’t a big fan of the story either although he loved the music and songs.

27. Susan the Silent (Barbara Hancock) gains her voice at the end of the film and contributes to the final song, and Astaire thought she was a poor singer. Coppola defended her saying “but she couldn’t speak and magically got her voice, so it’s okay that her voice was untried.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“My request to shoot Finian’s Rainbow on location was denied.”

“So here’s the very unlikely plot device.”

“It was a source of great embarrassment to me that in a number of scenes when Fred danced his feet were cut off.”

“I like this sequence though with the tree.”

“I thought I knew how to stage musical numbers.”

“I look at that and I just see sod.”

“I actually had never met an African-American person in my life until college when I met a fella at school named Doug.”

“You can’t make a movie without flaws.”

“At this point I had no choreographer. At all.”

“What is that Volkswagen doing coming through the frame? Hmm.”

Final Thoughts

Finian’s Rainbow isn’t a great film, but for the standards of the time and the genre it seems competent enough. Its biggest issue is its excessive length, and it’s there where Coppola spends a good amount of his commentary’s focus. There’s quite a bit he would do differently as a more seasoned director, and much of it comes down to trimming numerous dialogue scenes in part or in whole. It’s an interesting listen and a rarity too as most commentaries don’t occur with several decades of hindsight between their recording and the film’s production. Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray ports over the track onto a vibrant and sharp picture.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.