When I did a week of reviews dedicated to great film maker’s debuts, I knew Francis Ford Coppola was going to be one of them. It would be a tossup between Coppola and Martin Scorsese as the first director I could recognise by name in my early movie nerd days as a teenager. I tracked down a copy of his debut, The Rain People, and felt like I’d finally crossed a long overdue movie off my to-watch list. Only, it turns out, The Rain People wasn’t Coppola’s debut. It’s not even his second movie. Sure, a quick google or search on IMDB would have shown me that, but I’m gonna clutch at straws here so I can justify The Rain People being his first, and me not being wrong.
Technically in the one and two spots on Coppola’s filmography as a director are Battle Beyond the Sun and The Bellboy and the Playgirls. But he share’s directing credit on these, and both look like foreign made movies, repurposed by some cheap grindhouse studio for the American market. There’s something called You’re a Big Boy Now that looks like an actual movie, so I guess all I can do is pretend it doesn’t exist. Then, there’s one more movie standing in between me being wrong and The Rain People being Coppola’s first movie, but this one is easy to dismiss. Because it is so batshit insane, that even though I just watched it, I’m not sure I believe it exists. Finian’s Rainbow is too nutty to be real, right?
Irish scallywag Finian (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) make their way to America where they find themselves on a tobacco farm owned by Woody (Don Frankcs). Woody reckons he’s on the verge of striking it big as a botanist combining tobacco and mint plants, meaning he can grow menthol tobacco. But time is running out to perfect his hybrid, because the farm is under threat of being taken over by local racist senator, Billboard Rawkins (Keenan Wynn).
“But Pete”, I hear my masses of non-readers saying, “I thought you said this movie was batshit insane and too nutty to be real.” Well, to that, firstly I say, back off. Secondly, here comes the nuttery. Finian has come to America with a pot of leprechaun’s gold. A pot of leprechaun’s gold that he wants to bury in the ground around Fort Knox because (for no real reason), he thinks that will make his fortune multiply.
But Finian has been followed by Og, the leprechaun he liberated the gold from. Losing his gold is turning Og into a mortal and he wants none of that. Also, Sharon wishes that Billboard could experience life as a black man to teach him a lesson bout tolerance. And since she makes that wish near the pot of gold, it comes true. Trust me, this movie makes even less sense then what I have just written.
So, we have all of this nut ballery going on onscreen. And, for some reason, a legend like Fred Astaire decided to be a part of it. Actually, I kind of get that. Reading a little about Finian’s Rainbow, it turns out that it’s based on a multi-tony award winning Broadway hit. So I guess that kind of explains its existence. What it doesn’t explain, is why a then unknown like Francis Ford Coppola was given the job to make this big budget, all singing, all dancing adaptation of a Broadway hit, starring a legend like Fred Astaire?
In the end, Finian’s Rainbow is a mess. But from a technical and visual standpoint, it’s a glorious mess that I’m sure put Coppola on a lot of studio’s radars as a young film maker with enormous potential. So while I may have found Finian’s Rainbow terrible on almost every level, if its existence has absolutely anything at all to do with Coppola getting the opportunities he would get in the years after this, I’m totally OK with this clunker existing.