Under the Rainbow (1981, Steve Rash)

There are a number of scenes in Under the Rainbow you probably wouldn’t have imagined had been put on film. Starting with Billy Barty playing a Nazi spy who accidentally hits Hitler in the balls because he’s a little person. When that scene began, I was thinking about how you don’t see a lot of Hitler sight gags anymore. When it ended with Barty hitting Hitler in the balls… I realized there has to be a good reason this movie is so forgotten bad as opposed to infamous bad.

I guess at the time it was the constant sight gags and jokes with drunk, carousing little people who are starring in The Wizard of Oz. But forty years on, I feel like the Japanese racism dates it the most. Rainbow, set in 1938, goes for very Old Hollywood racism. For a while it seems like they’re going to not be overtly racist about the one Black guy (elevator operator Freeman King), and they do avoid it instead doing a literal cartoon sequence with him, but they do a big racist bit with the Black cleaning lady. Even with the Japanese stuff, Rainbow at least humanizes those characters. They treat the Black woman like it’s a racist forties cartoon.

But, and it’s hard not think it’s intentional, when they crash the MGM lot during Gone With the Wind filming, turns out that movie is a lot more racist when you’re watching it be filmed.

Because there is some sincerity to Under the Rainbow, a slapstick comedy about a Japanese spy (Mako) not being able to find his Nazi pal (Barty) because the hotel is full of little people starring in Oz. Barty can’t find Mako because there’s a Japanese tour group in town and all the Japanese guys are dressed the same. You keep waiting for the movie to make an overt “can’t tell them apart” joke, but they seem to think it’s too broad a joke. The constant little person grabbing a boob gag… perfectly okay.

Every once in a while, there’s a not terrible moment or an actual good laugh—but for the most part, aghast is the only appropriate reaction.

Some of the acting is fine, if not better. Eve Arden’s closest to best. She’s a Duchess who’s in L.A. just because; Joseph Maher is her husband, the Duke, who’s convinced an assassin is after him. Chevy Chase is their Secret Service protection. He doesn’t believe there’s an assassin. Robert Donner’s the assassin.

Maher’s not bad. Donner’s bad.

Carrie Fisher is the special casting director for Oz, in charge of the Munchkin cast. She has no chemistry with Chase, but a little with Japanese tourist Bennett Ohta, who gives one of the best performances. Fisher and Chase are professional? I think professional’s a good adjective. And Rainbow traipses Fisher are in her underwear for five or six minutes for no reason other than they want Princess Leia scantily clad. There’s eventually a women’s dressing room scene too, which starts generally offensive and ends very specifically offensive.

Mako’s occasionally okay. At least he doesn’t like Nazis.

Barty’s… I mean, if Rainbow worked, Barty’s performance would be one of cinema’s great performances. However, Rainbow does not work and Barty’s bewildering. It’s impossible to imagine Under the Rainbow any different—certainly not any better, though definitely even more offensive.

Cork Hubbert’s the actual protagonist, but the movie dumps him for the various antics. He’s not bad. He’s not good. But he’s not bad. And he gets the Ben-Hur chariot homage, which is a handful of neat frames amid the chaos.

Adam Arkin’s the hotel manager. He could be worse.

Technically, Rainbow’s mostly fine. It’s not cinematographer Frank Stanley’s fault or David E. Blewitt’s editing. Nothing they—or even director Rash can do—is going to make a difference with the plot. Rash’s got no sense of comic timing, though Joe Renzetti’s disastrous cartoon score accompanying doesn’t help. Great production design from Peter Wooley.

Shame it’s wasted on this exceptionally weird and bad motion picture.

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