A lovable rogue named Finian McLonergan absconds from his native Ireland with a pot of gold secreted in a carpetbag, plus his daughter Sharon in tow. His destination is Rainbow Valley in the mythical state of Missitucky, where he plans to bury his treasure in the mistaken belief that, given its proximity to Fort Knox, it will multiply.
Hot on his heels is the leprechaun Og, desperate to recover his stolen crock before he turns human. Among those involved in the ensuing shenanigans are Woody Mahoney, a ne'er-do-well dreamer who woos Sharon; his mute sister Susan, who expresses herself in dance; Woody's good friend and business partner Howard, an African-American botanist determined to grow mentholated tobacco; and bombastic Senator Billboard Rawkins, who wears his bigotry as if it were a badge of honor.
Complications arise when Rawkins, believing there is gold in Rainbow Valley, attempts to seize the land from the people who live there and makes some racial slurs while doing so. Sharon furiously wishes he would turn black himself—and, because she is in close proximity to the magical pot of gold, which is capable of granting three wishes, Rawkins does exactly that. Sharon is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake unless she can make him white again.
To save his daughter, Finian tries to find the pot of gold, unaware Susan has discovered it and hidden it under a bridge. Rawkins eventually meets Og, who quickly realizes what caused the senator's change in race. Seeing that the change of skin color did nothing to alter his hateful racism, Og casts a spell to make Rawkins more open-minded.
Sharon and Woody gather in the barn to be married, but the sheriff, his deputies, and the local district attorney barricade the doors and promise to burn the building down if Rawkins is not white by sunrise. Og meets with Susan on the bridge under which the gold is hidden and wishes she could talk. When she begins to speak, Og realizes they are standing above the gold.
For a brief moment he considers using the final wish to retain his leprechaun status and return to the fairy world. After a passionate kiss, he decides he would rather remain human with Susan and wishes for Rawkins to be white once more. Thanks to the now-empty crock helping to put out an accidental fire that was about to consume the barn, Howard's mentholated tobacco experiments become successful, ensuring financial success for all the poor people of Rainbow Valley, both white and black. Sharon and Woody are wed, and bid a fond farewell to Finian, who leaves Rainbow Valley in search of his own rainbow.
Since the musical was such a success on stage, there had always been interest in filming it. MGM was interested in filming it in 1948 as a vehicle for Mickey Rooney. However, Harburg set the price for the rights at $1 million and wanted creative control.
For a time, a German company wanted to make it. In 1954, the Distributors Corporation of America wanted to make it as an animated film. A soundtrack of the score was recorded by several stars, but the film was not completed. In 1958, the authors of the musical teamed with Sidney Buchman to produce the film independently but the film did not proceed.
In 1960, the rights were held by Marvin Rothenberg who wanted Michael Gordon to direct and Debbie Reynolds to star. It was announced the film would be budgeted at $2 million and be released by United Artists. However the film did not eventuate.
Harburg stated in 1960 that he was told part of the reason it was so difficult to get a film version made was Hollywood was scared of fantasy musicals. Another reason was the McCarthyism of the period.
In 1965, Harold Hecht bought the film rights and hired Harburg and Saidy to write a script and some new songs. Hecht said he intended to film in nine months. "This time we really mean business," said Harburg. "We've gotten a substantial deal and participation in money and production. Up until now Finian has been making so much money on the road that we didn't want to kill the goose laying all those golden eggs. But you become more idealistic as you grow older and you tend to stop thinking about yourself."
In September 1966 Warner Bros. announced they had the rights and they would make a film produced by Joseph Landon and starring Fred Astaire, with the aim to get Tommy Steele as the leprechaun. The budget was expected to be $4 million.
Francis Ford Coppola was signed as director in February 1967. Petula Clark then came on board as the female lead and Steele confirmed as the leprechaun, although Robert Morse had expressed interest.
Warner Bros. had optioned the film rights to the stage musical, and they were on the verge of expiring. With Camelot having proven to be more costly than anticipated, and its commercial success still undetermined since it had not been released, Jack L. Warner was having second thoughts about another musical project, but when he saw Petula Clark perform on her opening night at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he knew he had found the ideal Sharon.
He decided to forge ahead and hoped for the best, despite his misgivings about having nearly-novice "hippie" director Francis Ford Coppola at its helm. Although Clark had made many films in the 1940s and 1950s in her native Great Britain, this would be her first starring role in ten years, and her first film appearance since rising to international fame with "Downtown" four years earlier.
It was known that Dick Van Dyke was considered to play the role of Finian, back in 1965, however, financial problems caused the filming to be postponed, and Van Dyke dropped out of consideration. (Source: "The Films of Fred Astaire")
Fred Astaire, whose last movie musical had been Silk Stockings eleven years earlier, and who had concentrated on his TV specials in the interim, was persuaded at the age of sixty-nine to return to the screen to portray the title character. Given his status as a screen legend and to accommodate his talents, the role was given a musical presence it had not had on stage, and he was given top rather than the original third billing.
While a construction crew transformed more than nine acres of backlot into Rainbow Valley, complete with a narrow gauge railway, schoolhouse, general store, post office, houses, and barns, Coppola spent five weeks rehearsing the cast, and before principal photography began, a complete performance of the film was presented to an audience on a studio soundstage. In the liner notes she wrote for the 2004 Rhino Records limited, numbered edition CD release of the soundtrack, Clark recalls that old-Hollywood Astaire was befuddled by Coppola's contemporary methods of film-making and balked at dancing in "a real field with cow dung and rabbit holes." Although he finally acquiesced to filming a sequence in the Napa Valley near Coppola's home, the bulk of the movie was shot on studio soundstages and the backlot, leaving the finished film with jarring contrasts between reality and make-believe.
Clark was nervous about her first Hollywood movie and particularly concerned about dancing with old pro Astaire. He later confessed he was just as worried about singing with her. The film was partially choreographed by Astaire's long-time friend and collaborator Hermes Pan, who was fired by Coppola during filming. Finian's Rainbow proved to be Astaire's last major movie musical, although he went on to dance with Gene Kelly during the linking sections of That's Entertainment, Part 2.
Clark recalls that Coppola's approach was at odds with the subject matter. "Francis... wanted to make it more real. The problem with Finian's Rainbow is that it's sort of like a fairy tale... so trying to make sense of it was a very delicate thing." Coppola opted to fall somewhere in the middle, with mixed results. Updating the story line was limited to changing Woody from a labor organizer to the manager of a sharecroppers' cooperative, making college-student Howard a research botanist, and a few minor changes to the lyrics in the Burton Lane-E. Y. Harburg score, such as changing a reference to Carmen Miranda to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Other than that, the plot remains firmly entrenched in an era that predates the Civil Rights Movement.
Because preview audiences found the film overly long, the musical number "Necessity" was deleted prior to its release, although the song remains on the soundtrack album. It can also be heard as background music, when Senator Rawkins first shows up in Rainbow Valley in his attempt to buy Finian out.
In August 2012, Clark told the BBC Radio 4 show The Reunion that she and her fellow cast members smoked marijuana during the filming of the movie. "There was a lot of Flower Power going on," she said. Fred Astaire as Finian McLonergan
Petula Clark as Sharon McLonergan
Tommy Steele as Og
Don Francks as Woody Mahoney
Keenan Wynn as Senator Billboard Rawkins
Barbara Hancock as Susan the Silent
Al Freeman Jr. as Howard
Ronald Colby as Buzz Collins
Dolph Sweet as Sheriff
Wright King as District Attorney
Louil Silas as Henry
Look to the Rainbow
This Time of the Year
How Are Things in Glocca Morra?
Look to the Rainbow (Reprise)
Old Devil Moon
Something Sort of Grandish
If This Isn't Love
(That) Great Come-and-Get-It-Day
When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich
Rain Dance Ballet
When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love
How Are Things in Glocca Morra? (Reprise)
Released in major cities as a roadshow presentation complete with intermission, at a time when the popularity of movie musicals was on the wane, the film was dismissed as inconsequential by many critics, who found Astaire's obviously frail and aged appearance shocking and Steele's manic performance annoying. In the New York Times, Renata Adler described it as a "cheesy, joyless thing" and added, "there is something awfully depressing about seeing Finian's Rainbow... with Fred Astaire looking ancient, far beyond his years, collapsed and red-eyed... it is not just that the musical is dated... it is that it has been done listlessly and even tastelessly."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, on the other hand, thought it was "the best of the recent roadshow musicals... Since The Sound of Music, musicals have been... long, expensive, weighed down with unnecessary production values and filled with pretension... Finian's Rainbow is an exception... it knows exactly where it's going, and is getting there as quickly and with as much fun as possible... it is the best-directed musical since West Side Story. It is also enchanting, and that's a word I don't get to use much... it is so good, I suspect, because Astaire was willing to play it as the screenplay demands... he... created this warm old man... and played him wrinkles and all. Astaire is pushing 70, after all, and no effort was made to make him look younger with common tricks of lighting, makeup and photography. That would have been unnecessary: He has a natural youthfulness. I particularly want to make this point because of the cruel remarks on Astaire's appearance in the New York Times review by Renata Adler. She is mistaken."
Time Out London calls it an "underrated musical... the best of the latter-day musicals in the tradition of Minnelli and MGM."
Highly praised by all was Petula Clark, whom Ebert described as "a surprise. I knew she could sing, but I didn't expect much more. She is a fresh addition to the movies: a handsome profile, a bright personality, and a singing voice as unique in its own way as Streisand's." In the Chicago Reader, David Kehr opined she "had every right to a distinguished career in musicals." John Mahoney of The Hollywood Reporter said she "invites no comparisons, bringing to her interpretation of Sharon her own distinctive freshness and form of delivery." In the New York Daily News, Wanda Hale cited her "winsome charm which comes through despite a somewhat reactive role." Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek said she "looks lovely" and "sings beautifully, with an occasional startling reference to the phrasing and timbre of Ella Logan's original performance." Variety observed, "Miss Clark gives a good performance and she sings the beautiful songs like a nightingale." Clearly, in the United States at least, Clark was known only as a singer, although she had appeared as an actress in British films since she was a child.
The film earned $5.1 million in rentals in North America.
The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy but lost to Oliver! Petula Clark was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy but lost to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl; Fred Astaire was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy but lost to Ron Moody in Oliver!; and Barbara Hancock was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture but lost to Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby.
Ray Heindorf was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Score – Adaptation or Treatment but lost to Johnny Green for Oliver! M.A. Merrick and Dan Wallin were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound but lost to Jim Groom for Oliver!
E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy were nominated for Best Written American Musical by the Writers Guild of America.
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The film was released on DVD on March 15, 2005. Presented in anamorphic widescreen format, it captures all of Astaire's footwork, most of which was unseen in the original release. It has audio tracks in English and French, with both the dialogue and songs translated into the latter language. Fluent in French, Clark was the sole cast member to record the foreign version.
Bonus features include commentary by Francis Ford Coppola, who focuses mostly on the film's shortcomings, a featurette on the world premiere on Finian's Rainbow, and the original theatrical trailer.
The film was released on Blu-ray on March 7, 2017.