This month, Warner Archive has released a pair of titles on Blu-ray where classic musical stars adapt themselves to modern times. Fred Astaire abandons the controlled environment of a big studio sound stage for wide open spaces in Finian's Rainbow (1968), while Julie Andrews exposes her raunchy side in S.O.B. (1981).
Though the original stage play debuted in the late forties, attempts to censor the racial politics of Finian's Rainbow prevented the musical from making it to the screen until the more liberal sixties.
In it father and daughter Finian and Sharon McLonergan travel from Ireland to the mythical Rainbow Valley, Mistucky with a pot of stolen gold in a carpet bag. Finian thinks that because of the valley's proximity to Fort Knox, the fortune will multiply if he buries it. Instead, the pair end up getting involved with a merry, multi-racial band of rural landowners who are battling a racist Senator (Keenan Wynn) who wants their property, while a leprechaun (Tommy Steele) falls in love with Sharon.
Finian's Rainbow could be recommended on the basis Fred Astaire's performance alone. After decades of dancing on immaculate indoor sets, here he prances around on grass, dirt roads and even through a rocky creek bed, managing the danger of those uneven surfaces while maintaining his usual grace. Surrounded by young dancers, he matches them step-for-step (or they match him) while swinging around an enormous carpet bag. He dances up hills, ladders and trees without sacrificing pace, elegance or precision. While it's clear that he sometimes economizes movements to conserve his strength, he is far more limber than most people half his age. In addition to all this, he's such a pleasure to watch: the ice blue eyes, his lean figure and the way he makes every movement a performance.
As the leprechaun, musician Tommy Steele is almost precisely the opposite side of the coin for me. Where Astaire is effortless, Steele's effort to entertain is painfully visible. No matter the role, there's no line, movement or smile this man seems to deem worthy of any subtlety. Even playing a fanciful character like a leprechaun doesn't require so much flailing and eye bugging. I know this man is adored by many, but I don't yet understand why.
Though Petula Clark is most famous for her singing career, she has also had a long career as an actress, starting as a child. She's a great fit for musicals; it's a shame she didn't have the opportunity to appear in more high profile projects. That said, it's miraculous that, along with Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), she found two major productions in which to star in an era where big studios and old-fashioned singing and dancing were going out of style. It's great to watch her with Astaire. They have good chemistry, and you can tell she appreciates the legend dancing alongside her.
As the racist Senator, Keenan Wynn takes his mischievous persona to horrific places. It's uncomfortable to watch, because he so completely understands the rot at the core of this man, but he has that Joan Blondell quality of never being able to turn in a bad performance.
The rest of the ensemble is cheerful, light-footed and almost ridiculously adorable. This different generation of dancers mixes well with Astaire, looking like a band of hippies who haven't heard of drugs and who bathe twice a day. It all borders on being too corny, but their uncomplicated joy practically forces you to love them.
A jaunty score by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg doesn't have many stand-outs, though the hit Look to the Rainbow would become a classic. Like the rest of the film, it has its good points, but eventually begins to wear out its welcome.
The color on the Blu-ray is gorgeous, sometimes revealing a remarkable glow to the cinematography. Special features include an introduction and commentary by Francis Ford Coppola and the featurette, The World Premier of Finian's Rainbow.
I've always said that at its core, comedy is more serious than drama, and Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (Standard Operating Bulls***) is perfect evidence of that. Making people laugh is a great way to slip in hard truths. That can be seen in this wild, vicious account of a failed movie director (Richard Mulligan) who wins back his box office mojo by turning a perky musical and its wholesome star (Julie Andrews), who is also his ex-wife, into a scandalous erotic production. Reportedly this satire of the film industry hews close to Edwards' own Hollywood experiences.
It's a huge cast, and everyone plays their own version of a jerk with self-interested, horny, hedonistic zeal. Julie Andrews seems to enjoy unleashing a few curse words, while William Holden (in his final film) is in that contradictory part of his career where he looks old and tired, but still handsome, and Richard Mulligan doesn't have a moment of sanity as the suicidal director with nothing to lose. Robert Preston stands out as a jovially blunt doctor who loves hurling insults like, "you look like an anemic turtle!" and "you look like 180 pounds of condemned veal!" His lines are so much more outrageous than the rest if the cast that I wondered if he had some input into what he said.
Also along for the ride are Shelley Winters, Loretta Switt, Robert Vaughn, Larry Hagman and a very young Rosanna Arquette. Altogether it's a madhouse. They all seem to have been told to crank it to eleven and keep it there.
This film is notorious for featuring Andrew's first onscreen nudity. The great reveal doesn't yield many surprises. Julie Andrews' boobs look pert, proper and like they are about to remind you to clean behind your ears. If she thought going topless would change her image, she clearly didn't realize how thoroughly drenched she was in her squeaky clean persona.
Though much remains of the movie after this moment, it is in some ways the end. There's a bit more insanity, a few more laughs, but for the most part as it gets more blatantly mournful and the pace slows along with that change in tone. S.O.B. isn't a great film, and it overstays its welcome, but it makes its point in an entertaining way and the insanity has its appeal.
There are no special features on the Blu-ray.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.