Friday Flashback: UNDER THE RAINBOW

We continue our celebration of the shortest month of the year with a look at some movies featuring Hollywood’s shortest actors…

There’s a scene in Under The Rainbow that had I seen the movie in its original 1981 run would have made me love it forever. In it, Carrie Fisher cowers in slinky underwear while two little people sword fight through a hotel’s kitchen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the pre-teen me who first saw this movie, but one entering his fourth decade on the planet and is having a hard time forgiving all the rest of the crappy film that brackets this great scene.

It’s hard to decide which is the fatal factor that contributes to Under The Rainbow‘s failure as a film- the screenplay or the direction. The script is a muddled mess. The year is 1938. We are first introduced to Rollo, a little person Rollo (Cork Hubbert), who hopes to head to Hollywood to become an actor. We then cut away to Chevy Chase as a Secret Service man protecting a European Duke and Duchess (Joseph Maher and Eve Arden) from assassination attempts while they cross the country by train. Everyone converges on a Hollywood hotel where studio employee Carrie Fisher is housing the 150 little people who will be playing the Munchikins in the upcoming production of The Wizard Of Oz but seem more occupied with just running amuck. Added into the mix is midget Nazi spy Billy Barty, who is supposed to receive a map of American coastal defenses from Japanese spy Mako. However, Mako appears to be indistinguishable from the bus load of stranded Japanese tourists also staying at the hotel.

That’s a lot of plot, but the film never lives up to its potential, story-wise or comedicaly. For having all the makings of a screwball comedy of mistaken identity, Under The Rainbow is a paceless mess. Director Steve Rash seems to be totally adrift here, not building any kind of comedic momentum to any scene. Take the below scene from early in the film in which many of our characters first start to intersect with each other. The shot choices are poor and none of the action, a word I use in its loosest definition here, seems to build to anything.

When a movie announces its comic ambitions in its opening reel by having a midget Nazi give a “Heil Hitler” salute that results in the Fuhrer doubling over from a shot to the nuts, you may suspect you’re in for a rough, low brow ride. By the time you hear one of the little people come out of a room remarking, “That’s the first time I’ve ever gone up on someone,” your suspicions should be confirmed. Even the normally quippy Chevy Chase seems relatively sedate here. Add in the most racist caricature of the Japanese since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and you’ve got the makings of a picture that managed to earn itself two Razzie Award nominations.

Of course, the film’s big draw, if we are to believe the advertising, is a hotel of little people gone wild. Needless to say, nothing like that ever remotely happened during the actual production of The Wizard Of Oz. And I have to wonder how the producers managed to snare original Munchkin actor Jerry Maren for a few scenes, given his vocal denouncements of the film after its release.

There are a few things, though, that will make film fans smile. In the film’s climax, as the cast runs amuck through MGM Studios’ backlot, the little people disrupt the shooting of Gone With The Wind, causing Clark Gable to yell out, “Hey Victor (Flemming), I think you should leave this scene in the picture!” In various scenes of the little people partying hard in the hotel, you can see some of them swinging from chandeliers as if they were trapezes and walking on balcony railings tightrope-style. This would be in keeping with the fact that many of the Munchkins had been circus performers in Europe before coming to America.

But as bad as the film was, I didn’t actively hate it until the very end. It attempts to ape a certain 1939 MGM classic (and shame on you if you need three guesses to figure out which one), but while the ending makes internal sense in the original, it stands out here like as an illogical sore thumb.

Interestingly, until recently, Under The Rainbow has been missing on DVD since the format’s inception, especially when it seems as if every other studio film from the past 30 years or so has gotten at least a cursory, bare-bones edition issued. But when you look a little closer, maybe that isn’t so surprising. Although produced by Orion Pictures, Under The Rainbow was distributed by Warner Brothers, who still own the rights. Warners also distributes The Wizard Of Oz on DVD for Turner Entertainment. As Oz is a perennial money-maker for they studio and Turner, I would think that Warners might be hesitant to do anything that would jeopardize their relationship with Turner. Still, it has recently been added into the list of films that are available on burned-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive program. It’s up to you if you find the #19.95 price tag justified, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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About Rich Drees 6968 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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