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.

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.

Meeting Francis Ford Coppola

As is the usual formula, when beginning production on a film, the exterior shots on location were done first. So it was, that for the production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” Howard Kazanjian flew north from Los Angeles to San Francisco to meet the director and help him shoot exteriors in the Bay area. He arrived downtown and parked his rental car in the basement garage of the Hilton Hotel. He took the elevator up from there. Two men got on at the first floor – an older man and a young man with a beard. About the fourth floor the bearded man turned to the older and asked, “When is Howard Kazanjian going to get here?” That got Howard’s attention. The bearded man of course was Francis Ford Coppola, who had never met Howard before. The older man was the production manager, who did know Howard and quickly made the introductions.

Over the next few days Howard came to know and admire the film making sensibilities of Coppola. In their immediate meetings, no real plan was laid out blow for blow, just some destinations at which they needed to arrive for some opportunities that did have to be planned in advance. They would be on the lookout and stop along the road whenever they saw an interesting backdrop for the stars to gambol across. We would call this style these days, “guerrilla film-making.” This struck a chord with Howard.

The first day would be spent with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark in the environs of the Golden Gate Bridge, both south and north of it. What footage they captured would be used for the title sequence of the film. And when they finished, they needed to be up in the Sonora area, where they had scheduled a complicated shoot with the romantic lead Don Francks and a railroad train.

At the time there must have been a lot on Coppola’s mind. Coppola adored the music of Finian’s Rainbow, but not so much the story. In fact he called the book “klunky” and out of date. To give it a more contemporary feel he added a whole new subplot – the mentholated tobacco hybridization that the Al Freeman Jr. character was working on as a means to save the Rainbow Valley community financially. His activism and sit down strikes injected a civil rights flavor into the story.

Back in LA the production was still being put together. Casting had not been completed. Sets were still being designed and put together. At least they did not have those worries. Coppola and Kazanjian had a week ahead of them free to go where the wind blew them.