Finian on the Disney Ranch

Coppola states that for Finian he purposefully kept the cinemacality down. Yet it is interesting to note how he opened up some of the dance numbers to a bigger “stage,” working in fields and shooting with a camera from a helicopter. For these numbers he decided to move from Burbank out to the Disney Ranch up in Newhall, California. This decision meant a few more wrinkles for his assistant director, Howard Kazanjian.

Normally, Howard would put out “call-ups” for extras – but in the case of Finian the call was to SAG members who could dance, with the further qualification – that they have a Southern look.

He also had to have buses on hand for transportation. The extras may have driven to the Warner Brothers lot and parked there, but no one was allowed to drive their own vehicles out to another location. If any of the cast members were to be transported on a bus to a location, the clock started when they left the studio. Thus more records to be kept and submitted to the payroll department.

Besides the large scale dance numbers, “The Begat” number was also done out on the Disney ranch. Or more particularly in the area between the Disney Ranch and the Oxnard area. This was Coppola’s ideal situation, to be out of the studio, on the road, in real places. It gave him the opportunity for those chance discoveries that he longed for. (There was one fantastic instance – a field of red flowers near Malibu that made a beautiful backdrop for the singers to drive through).

After the antagonist Keenan Wynn had been changed on the outside by Petula Clark’s wish/curse, and having been “made good” on the inside by Tommy Steele’s spell, Keenan falls in with a quartet, the Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers (Roy Glenn, Jester Hairston, and Avon Long), who are in need of a fourth.

The number takes place all within the vehicle, a 1939 Plymouth P7 Roadking (a convertible coupe with a rumble seat), tooling along through the countryside, broken down alongside the road, chugging up a hill and then coming down the other side and hitting a tree. All ending by being towed away.

Coppola handles it all masterfully. The camera seems everywhere. Planted beside the road, panning. Running along beside. Mounted on the hood, shooting through the windshield. In the air above.  And whenever the cast is clearly in view (a good deal of the time), their lips can be seen to be in perfect sync with the music.  (Remember the track was all recorded beforehand).

There was one major disaster that had to be overcome. Filming on the segment spanned over the weekend, stopping on Friday and recommencing on Monday. Sometime during the weekend, the report came in that a fire had damaged the vehicle. A similar replacement was found, but this car had one big difference. It had a single full windshield in front, unlike that model’s standard split windshield that was set at a deep vee, and very noticeable.

Fortunately the vehicle with the split windshield can be seen only in the section when Wynn first meets the Gospeleers. Since the camera angle is from the side, and the actors focus your attention on them. You can only see it if you’re looking for it.

In one aspect it was a happy accident, for that single windshield gave the camera a clear and unhampered view of the singers in the car when it was mounted on the hood.

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.

Up in Griffith Park

Link to a clip for this scene from Finian’s Rainbow

Of all the scenes in Finian’s Rainbow the most memorable to me was the outdoor wash-line scene. The setting is the exterior area of the home that Fred Astaire and Petula Clark have acquired near Rainbow Valley. It begins with an interaction between these two, then moves on to a duet between Petula and Tommy Steele (“Something Sort of Grandish”). The movement, the color, the focus on the passing images are wonderful, and no doubt my delight with it is helped along by the whimsical wordplay of the song. And then Tommy ascending out of the well under the billowing dress perfectly caps the scene. So, of course I had to ask Howard Kazanjian how it was all done.

I was surprised to learn from Howard that it was not filmed on the backlot at WB. Rather it was filmed up in Griffith Park, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. I had known that James Dean’s film “Rebel Without a Cause” was filmed up there, but had no idea that so many other films and TV shows were shot there as well [Link to wikipedia article]. And that it has been a well used location ever since the early days of film, i.e. D. W. Griffith used it for the battle scenes in his 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation.”

A lot of preparations were necessary first. Permission was arranged with the city for them to shoot there (not Howard’s responsibility). Two structures were put up, one consisting of two facades joined together that stood in for the house, and nearby a structure that represented a well. Despite the presence of lots of vegetation, the greens man had a lot to do to prep the scene. Various plants were brought in to dress the area, including netted over tobacco plants down the hill from the “house” (viewable in the reverse angle from the main scene). And unlike in the backlot where there were sprinklers, all the grass in that area had turned brown, and needed to be sprayed painted green. And as a finishing touch, artificial plants were sprinkled throughout.

Then there was a lot of equipment to co-ordinate. Besides the usual array, two cranes were employed. First, a Titan crane mounted one of the cameras. This was fully mobile, being a truck with the crane attached to the flatbed on the back. And it had seats for three out on the boom – room for the DP, Camera assistant (Focus Puller), and the Director. The second crane was for lifting the actor – Tommy Steele – out of the well structure at the end of the scene.

The other big piece of equipment was the ritter fan wind machine, which was used throughout the scene. It was kept on a low setting to gently billow the clothes on the line and used to choreograph these objects with the music. And was once set at a higher notch to propel one long veil-like piece up against the blue of the sky to complement the lyric of the song. I was left wondering about that billowing dress onto which Steele was hanging. Was there another fan rigged inside of it? (Howard – No. The ritter (fan) was underneath hidden from the camera. The dress had a hoop ring inside the bottom hem to which Steele clung. He had no double. The only stuntman present was there to strap him into the harness).

Altogether it was busier behind the scenes than in front of the camera.