The Greening of Finian and Magical FX

When the production of Finian’s Rainbow moved inside, it tied up two of the sound stages at Warner Brothers. One had the running brook set that was bounded by steep rock walls (they were sealed underneath to keep the water isolated), the other held the bridge, a pivotal setting that set up the ending. One of the stages had a wooden floor which was removable, giving access to more area, allowing them to build up from the “basement.” (Howard Kazanjian- WB had several of this type of soundstage. You chose it normally when you needed to give your set a dual level. If your set was on the stage floor and the stairway went down, you needed to remove that portion of the floor to accommodate the stairs down).

Both sound stages were “greened in.” Even though one had just recently held the forest for Camelot (also a credit for Howard, see previous posts), it was completely revamped – with new trees, bushes, sod etc. Some of the trees and bushes were fake, but the sod was all real. The sod gave a rich green color to the scenes, but like the grass out at Griffith Park it would turn brown too, but for the opposite reason. (Howard – inside the sound stages there was no sunlight – hence no photosynthesis could take place). They kept having to replace the sod. This green turf also meant problems for the actors. It was slippery, and had a tendency to slide out from under the actors, notably during the duet “That Old Devil Moon” between Don Francks and Petula Clark.

Like for these two, the stages were busy crossroads for the other main actors. Fred Astaire’s character, shadowed by leprechaun Steele, buries the pot of gold beneath the sod. The SFX department was called in to give this crock some “magical” properties. It is quite striking to see Fred’s face illuminated by the golden light when he removes it from his carpetbag, prior to burying it. It was a simple effect. (Howard – it was a 100W bulb on a dimmer. The interior of the crock was sanded thin so the light could shine through).

A more complicated effect was put in place for the exchange between Tommy Steele and the antagonist Keenan Wynn. Earlier, Wynn had magically been changed from a white man to a black man, when Petula wished for this, in exasperation at his bigoted attitude. (This transformation was an effect all done with the camera, the soundtrack, the editing, and another use of the wind machine). After Steele encounters the grumpy antagonist in the forest he sets about to cast a spell to make him good on the inside. The pool beside them begins to swirl and “magically” change colors (from green-yellow, to red, to yellow, and back to red again). It was all mechanical and chemical. Howard told me that FX guys built into this pool a mechanical device that set the water in motion – and the colors were from different dyes whose release was governed by a timer. (Interestingly, Keenan’s transformation back to white was executed by a jump cut, a nicely done edit, in one clip he was in blackface, in the second he was without).

Barbara Hancock’s ballet was probably the last thing done on the running brook set. There was a large area nearby above the brook simulating a meadow. Water was sprinkled from above, and an arc light flashed for lightning, as she glissades, jetes, etc in the “rain.” (Howard – the master shot was done in one take, with many pick-up shots and closer shots captured later). It culminated in her character unearthing the buried crock, and another chance for the SFX department to display their wares.

Under the Spreading Cement Tree

Link to pertinent scene from Finian’s Rainbow

It really wasn’t made of cement. It just looked like it.

While Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian were busy filming location footage up in the Bay area, the construction crews back at the studio were prepping sets both on the sound stages and in the backlot. One of the structures of note was a tree at the center of the setting for the fictional town of Rainbow Valley. It was scheduled to be used over a period of several days. Though not actually cement it was built of some other sturdy materials and plastered over. It had to be sturdy to support the weight of up to three actors (in one instance, Fred, Petula, and Barbara were all up in its branches). Also, one of the show’s song and dance numbers was scheduled for the platform built around the base of this “tree.”

Filming this number (“Look to the Rainbow”) featuring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark took place over a two day period. A bit of film history occurred under this tree, other than which was recorded on celluloid. On the day that they were working on the dance, Howard got a call from a former USC classmate and DKA Honor fraternity brother – George Lucas. Just two years prior to this, WB had set up an annual 6 month scholarship for a lucky student at USC. George was the second recipient.  (Howard – The first was Joyce Gellar. While there she wrote a script called the Cool Ones, which WB bought. I worked as 2d AD on that film. One of the actors on a day rate was unknown Glen Campbell). George reported to the studio on the day his “internship” was to begin, was assigned an office on the lot, but was given nothing to do. George called down to Howard to tell him of his plight – he was sitting there bored out of his skull.  Howard invited him down to the set.

Gratefully George joined Howard on the set, and between takes Howard introduced George to Francis.

As part of their production routine Howard would accompany Coppola back to his office at the end of a day of shooting, and there they would debrief, talking over the day and planning for the next. Sometimes these sessions led to extra work for Howard. One time Francis casually mentioned that they would be using a crane for a shot the next day – the only thing was, none had been requested on the equipment call sheet. This was the first Howard had heard of it – so he had to put in an order for it immediately. Sometimes the crisis involved people that he would have to line up last minute. If it were for instance the corps dancers, he had to track them all down by phone. It was a terrible chore, and could take hours, not to mention the costume department that needed to be alerted also. But it was also a fun time. George accompanied Howard to the meeting that day. They listened to Coppola with keen interest. Coppola had some strong opinions – he hated Hollywood, its system, and wanted to be out on his own. George was definitely a kindred spirit. Later, George showed Francis his student film THX 1138.  Coppola encouraged him to turn the script into a feature, and then got WB to buy it and he himself stepped up to produce it.

George stayed on, but just as an observer and later was given the privilege of attending the dailies. (Howard – there was one thing that George got to do for the production.  Francis needed to review a particular film clip. Howard couldn’t leave the set, so he asked George to go fetch it from the editor).

Coppola took George on the road with him for his next project, The Rain People. Howard almost went along too – but that’s a story for another day.

Rehearsing Finian

There were three weeks of rehearsals at the studio before principal photography started. It was made up of many elements and Howard Kazanjian was right in the middle of it.

As in his turn on Camelot, Howard was given charge of the stars in the morning call for Finian’s Rainbow. He would check in on them and ask about their needs (had they eaten, etc.). He had one actor this go-around that gave him no end of problems when it came to his make-up call. Don Francks had an attitude problem (it nearly cost him his role in the film). [Howard  – he was not likable – he had that STAR mentality that sometimes infects performers. It went like this – on a first film an actor would talk to you – by the second, you had to knock on his door – by the third stage, who are you? Francks had jumped to the third stage in this his first major film].

On the other hand, Fred Astaire was grand. He and his choreographer Hermes Pan arrived early on the set and would spend the whole day, rehearsing, rehearsing, and more rehearsing. At first the songs were all pre-recorded versions. Later they added a live piano on the set. Howard was in awe of Astaire’s “dance ethic.” Fred was dedicated and meticulous (in his old RKO and MGM days, Fred was known to have rehearsed some numbers for six months before committing it to film).

Astaire had some disappointments along the way in the production of Finian. Fred had preferred one of his experienced dance partners, Barrie Chase, in the role of Susan the Silent. Instead, Coppola opted for a younger unknown dancer, Barbara Hancock (Howard – she turned out to be a real trooper – in the dance number in the rain – Barbara persevered despite suffering from the flu). But his biggest disappointment was the loss of his long time collaborator, Hermes Pan. Coppola let him go half way through production and replaced him with someone far less experienced. Fred didn’t fight it, philosophically he chalked it up to the prerogative of the director. Still, it was a blow to Fred and may have bled into his performance. Howard noticed that the solo dance number that Fred performed in the barn seemed flat and unenergetic [Howard – I had watched him dance his heart out all day long in those rehearsals. He was much more agile than that. He could have done much more and better!]

As part of the rehearsal process, Coppola had a table read through the whole script, just with the principals. And as an additional aid, they booked the rehearsal hall on the WB lot and did the whole show, a full-blown “Broadway Musical” – just no sets. Coppola even brought in his father Carmine to provide the music accompaniment. Howard was the stage manager, cueing everything, including the lights from his place in the theater seats. This was an important step for two reasons. One, Francis got a feel for the flavor of the whole production; and two, the cast got a feel for how all everything fit together, a crucial understanding, especially as they entered film production and its need for shooting out of order.

Be sure to catch next Wednesday for “Under the Spreading Cement Tree,” the next post in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian.