Entry #5: Under the Rainbow
by Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
Animal House made a mint simultaneously exploiting and satirizing our dewy nostalgia for the fabled innocence of pre-LBJ USA. It offered a smartass, stoner National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live take on a cultural past that is generally depicted as a rose-colored utopia of freshly-scrubbed All-American wholesomeness.
1941 tried to do for the early 1940s what Animal House did for the Camelot era with much less satisfying results, creatively and commercially. But Steven Spielberg’s colossal waste of an amazing cast, an amazing crew (including screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who wrote one of film’s perfect screenplays in Back To The Future, and share a story credit on the film with no less than John Millius) and a brilliant premise towers as an unassailable apogee of the cinematic arts compared to 1981’s Under The Rainbow.
Like 1941 and Animal House before it, Under The Rainbow dirties up the past, or rather acknowledges that our real history is far messier, more sexual and profane than the movies of the time were able to acknowledge. It’s about the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood dream factory and the debauchery behind family entertainment but it’s really just one long, smutty little person joke with no punchline or point.
Chevy Chase sleepwalks through the almost perversely thankless role of a Secret Service agent in 1938 Hollywood tasked with protected an important dignitary and his short-sighted wife (Eve Arden). Meanwhile, a Nazi spy played by ubiquitous little person character actor Billy Barty is dispatched to rendezvous with a Japanese agent who will recognize him by a cryptic password, a process complicated by the meeting taking place in a hotel overrun by over one hundred little people extras partying the night away just before they’re due to appear in The Wizard of Oz as munchkins.
Carrie Fisher co-stars in the even more perversely thankless role of a studio employee tasked with looking after the vast army of little people actors. Barty’s character cuts off the straps of Fisher’s dress with a sword so that she spends much of the film wearing only her old-timey underwear. Now if I had seen Under The Rainbow when I was an eleven year old boy and my sole criteria for enjoying a movie involved whether or not boobs were involved, I would have seen this as an extremely promising, valid, even essential development. Thankfully, I am no longer an eleven year old boy and I have slightly more high-minded criteria these days so I mostly spent the film feeling bad for Fisher, a ferociously intelligent, funny and original woman fatally miscast in a role that calls only for her to be astonishingly dumb and frequently unclothed.
Under The Rainbow tells you exactly what kind of a movie it is in an early gag where Barty’s deranged spy gives the Hitler salute to Hitler himself and due to his height and the angle at which he’s saluting, he ends up hitting Hitler in the nut sack. In one fell swoop, we have a Hitler joke, a boldly offensive, proudly unfunny little person joke of dubious taste and a dude getting hit in the nuts. Somewhere a young Seth McFarlane was diligently scribbling notes, as this terrible joke anticipates his whole aesthetic.
The film broadcasts both the nature and awfulness of its gags like a waiter who doesn’t just tell diners that the soup of the day is tomato basil but also that the soup will be watery and lukewarm, and almost assuredly disappointing, as it’s merely re-heated in a microwave from an industrial-sized tin soup can. So when we’re told Arden’s character can barely see we know we’re in for jokes the writing staff of Mr. Magoo would dismiss as hopelessly hack. And when a drunken man does a double take upon seeing an invasion of little people (and I’m not talking about the kind that kick it with Darby O’ Gill) and takes a stiff drink in disbelief, we know we’ve got lots more labored drunk gags to look forward to.
Under The Rainbow doesn’t just take place in the late 1930s. The film’s ideas about race and its cultural sensitivity are a good half century behind the times as well. The movie is so boldly retrograde in its deployment of crude, anachronistic, racism-based humor that at times it feels like it was constructed by lazily stitching together unmade scripts for The Bigoted Follies of 1936 and Ziegfield's New Racist Revue and added “a bunch of drunken little people run around causing mischief” as the stage directions in every scene.
The film’s primary African-American character is a lazy bellboy who's also gullible and slow-witted, while the Japanese are represented both by the spy who Barty’s pint-sized saboteur angrily admonishes to shut his “Jap yap” and also by the camera-wielding gentleman of the Japanese Amateur Photography Society, the acronym of which is the screenwriter’s idea of naughty fun.
The little people in Under The Rainbow are creatures of pure id, drunken, dancing, frolicking, cavorting party animals who are like Gremlins, only with less dignity and less humanity. The film is predicated on the notion that if one little person is inherently funny (it’s not!), then a hundred and fifty little people is hilarious. The film doesn’t even feel the need to make little people jokes because it finds the mere existence of little people inherently funny, and God help you if you do not share this strange conviction.
As it lurches to a conclusion, this noisy, loud and infantile contraption devolves into a giant chase as Barty’s Nazi ne’er do well is pursued across a studio lot where Gone With The Wind is being filmed along with many less memorable projects. It’s a sequence that suggests what the studio chase in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure might have felt like if it was tedious and boring and a waste of everyone’s time and energy instead of the perfect, pure expression of cinematic joy.
Chase was one of the biggest movie stars in the world when he made Under The Rainbow and its hard to understand his participation here as anything other than a fierce expression of his hatred for both himself and people deluded enough to want to pay good money to see him in movies where he stops just short of napping onscreen to convey his profound creative apathy.
Chase and Fisher put on such low-energy performances that it’s almost as if they’re trying to back out of the movie slowly, that if they just don’t try at all they’ll somehow magically disappear from the dailies and the film itself. Chase made a lot of perverse creative choices at the height of his fame and popularity, and in Under The Rainbow he blends into the background to the extent he practically disappears into the scenery.
Under The Rainbow plays like an exhaustive moving encyclopedia of mothballed old gags begging to be retired. It’s a subpar vaudeville review cruelly repurposed as a lowbrow cinematic comedy. I admire that the film gave jobs to over a hundred little people actors who I imagine desperately appreciated the work. But that employment came at a steep cost. Under The Rainbow treats its little people as little more than a lazy sight gag, and seems to think it’s covering its bases by being racist and bigoted and hateful to all sorts of other minority groups as well.
True, Under The Rainbow probably employed more little people than any major Hollywood production since, well, The Wizard Of Oz, but it was such a disaster that in the subsequent thirty-five years not a single American studio has made a single movie with over a hundred little people in the cast. Under The Rainbow is intensely dated but it’s aged in a way that’s embarrassing rather than morbidly compelling. In seeking to imbue Hollywood lore of the past with the snarky, smutty, sneering attitude of today it just ended up combining the worst of the present with the worst of the past.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.