The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Under the Rainbow

When it was released in 1981, Under the Rainbow was a critical and commercial bomb. It garnered some of the worst reviews of the year, while also racking up a couple of Razzie awards. The movie quickly became a staple of cable TV. I remember watching it frequently on HBO as an adolescent. While no one (even a 13 year-old) would mistake it for a good movie, I remember thinking that the premise was actually pretty cool, even if the execution wasn't entirely successful. When I found out Under the Rainbow had been released on DVD from Warner Archive – after years of being unavailable – I decided to reassess it, almost three decades after last watching it.

Set in 1938, the movie follows the exploits of several different characters, all of whom converge upon a Los Angeles hotel. Chevy Chase plays U.S. Secret Service agent Bruce Thorpe, who is attempting to protect an Austrian royal duke (Joseph Maher) and duchess (Eve Arden) from an assassin. Billy Barty portrays Otto Kriegling, a Nazi agent who has come to Hollywood to pass along American military secrets to a Japanese spy. Then there's Carrie Fisher, who plays Annie Clark, a movie studio “gopher” assigned to corral the hundreds of little people hired to work on a new picture called The Wizard of Oz. One of the people she's charged with minding is Rollo Sweet (Cork Hubbert), a little person with dreams of stardom. As Kriegling and the assassin attempt to carry out their respective goals, the other characters all end up bouncing off one another in various combinations, foiling the bad guys in the process.

Under the Rainbow is a farce, and farces are notoriously difficult to execute on-screen. Timing is everything. The movie, which has five credited screenwriters, gets the mayhem right, but never quite nails that timing. There are so many characters – including the hotel's hapless assistant manager (Adam Arkin) – that the audience never gets time to cozy up to any of them. Like a pinball, the story bounces almost randomly from one thing to another, which throws off the comic rhythm. Only in the last half hour do things improve. Suddenly, the film starts to tie everything together, capping off with a wild chase through a studio backlot. Sure, that's been done many a time before, but it's always kind of fun, right?

In its day, Under the Rainbow was supposed to be a comedy hit; when people saw that it didn't quite work, they wrote it off as a complete failure. Seen again thirty years later, I maintain that, while it may be a failure, it's an ambitious failure – one that has its fair share of pleasures. Some of the throwaway lines are rather funny, as are several of the sight gags, such as a recurring bit in which the Duke keeps accidentally killing his wife's dog, then replacing it with one that looks nothing like the previous one. I also like the way the movie pays tribute to The Wizard of Oz by co-opting its structure (the events shown turn out to be Rollo's dream after sustaining an injury; the other characters are actually his friends and loved ones). Even if it doesn't ultimately hit the comedic heights it's aiming for, the film nevertheless works in a few areas. I think that's why it has developed a cult following over the years.

Those cult fans will love Warner Archive's DVD, which presents the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio. The picture quality is quite good too. If, like me, you've always had a soft spot for Under the Rainbow in spite of its undeniable flaws, now's your chance to own it, at long last.

To order a copy of Under the Rainbow, visit the Warner Archive website.

( 1/2 out of four)

Under the Rainbow is rated PG for some language and innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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