“In a world where there are no longer books we have almost all of us read, the movies we have almost all of us seen are perhaps the richest cultural bond we have. They go on haunting us for years the way our dreams go on haunting us. In a way they are our dreams. The best of them remind us of human truths that would not seem as true without them. They help to remind us that we are all of us humans together.” Frederick Buechner in Beyond Words
Finian’s Rainbow may not be a movie we have almost all of us seen, but it is one that’s stayed with me since it came out in 1968. It’s a whimsical musical starring Fred Astaire (his last film role) and, at that time, newcomer Petula Clark. Astaire plays Finian McLonergan, an Irish rogue who comes to America with his daughter Sharon to make his fortune. His destination is Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, USA, where he believes he will become rich by burying a pot of gold and letting it multiply—due to the power of rainbows and the Valley’s closeness to Fort Knox. Finian “borrowed” the crock of gold from the leprechauns of Glocca Morra, but he plans to return it once he makes his fortune. He doesn’t realize that because he took their gold, the leprechauns can no longer make wishes come true. They’re slowly turning mortal. Og (played by Tommie Steele) is a singing, dancing, ever-growing leprechaun who has come to retrieve the crock of gold to save himself and his fellow leprechauns. While trying to do that, he thinks he is falling in love with Sharon.
In Rainbow Valley, the McLonergans become involved with a mixed-race group of poor sharecroppers at a tobacco co-op. Finian helps them pay the back taxes on their land to keep them from losing it. Later, when a corrupt racist senator, Billboard Rawkins played by Kennan Wynn, tries to take their land by writing a local segregation law, Sharon shouts at him that she wishes he could experience what it is to be black. Because she is standing where the pot of gold is buried, her wish comes true. Rawkins, suddenly finds himself a black man and runs off, chased by his own dog he had trained for that purpose. In the woods he meets Og who gives him some food. Og decides the problem is not the senator’s outer skin color but his inner mean personality. So he changes it. Soon the better-natured senator meets a black gospel quartet who lost one of their members. He happily becomes their fourth.
Even if you never saw the movie, you’ve probably heard some of the songs (or can on the internet), such as “If This Isn’t Love,” “That Old Devil Moon,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and, every year about this time the lilting “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” One of my favorites from it is “That Great Come and Get It Day.” It sounds almost like a spiritual about Judgment Day for believers where we get eternal rewards:
Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.
That’s the time things’ll come your way
On that great, great come and get it day.
Glory time’s comin’ for to stay
On that great, great come and get it day.
In the film this is sung when a mail-order store gives the community an unlimited credit line based on the rumor that geologists discovered gold on the land. In reality, the only gold was the one pot Finian buried. The sharecroppers, never having credit before and thinking they must be rich because they now have it, go on a massive spending spree, unaware the bills will come due. (Fittingly, Astaire sings about what happens “when the idle poor become the idle rich.”)
Because it’s a romantic musical, before your popcorn is half gone Sharon has fallen in love with Woody, the leader of the co-op. But all is not going smoothly. At Sharon and Woody’s wedding, local officials arrest her for witchcraft, for turning the senator into a black man. The senator, at the wedding to sing with his quartet, objects. But his former henchmen tell him it doesn’t matter what he says because he’s black and no one will listen to him. Finian negotiates for Sharon to have until dawn to change the senator back to white. He goes to where the gold is buried to make that wish, but the gold is gone.
When it’s almost dawn, one of the officials throws a lit cigarette and sets fire to the barn where they’ve locked up Sharon and Woody. Meanwhile, Og finds the gold and unselfishly uses the last wish it will grant to change the senator back and save Sharon.
You don’t have to look far for a biblical correlation in this movie. When Jesus gave us the Golden Rule, He didn’t mean, as someone has quipped, “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Although that’s often what the world thinks. Jesus said, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Mt. 7:12 NLT). The rule goes beyond what we “do” and includes how we think of others and how we treat them. It reminds us to empathize with others and treat them as we would want to be treated.
In the film Finian, Sharon, and the sharecroppers have a love for people that pervades their lives and blocks prejudice. Even Og decides it won’t be so bad being a mortal as he falls in love with Woody’s sister, Susan. Senator Rawkins learns this lesson the hard way. He becomes someone he would have denigrated and sent his dog after if he had come on his property. The senator comes to understand the unfairness of racial and class prejudice only after he becomes the object of it. But he learns the lesson well and becomes one of the folks at the end.
The singing and dancing are great, but this is one of those movies, as Frederick Buechner says, that reminds us of some basic human truths that would not seem as true without it. We are all humans together and we need to treat each other as such.