Under The Rainbow (1981) – A Review
One hundred and fifty uncontrollable little people, some spy intrigue and popular stars Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher all come together in the same hotel for a chaotic comedy.
It’s 1938. The U.S. is still feeling the Great Depression and war is on the horizon. Little person Cork Hubbert wants to break into the movies. His timing couldn’t be better when he travels from Kansas to Hollywood and ends up getting caught in a dwarf invasion. One hundred and fifty midgets, dwarves and little people have been brought in by Culver City Studios to work on this film called The Wizard Of Oz. Hubbert has the small stature required for the work and lands being a pint-size extra.
Culver City Studios casting assistant Carrie Fisher is assigned to be ‘special talent coordinator’ for Oz and is tasked to take care of this pocket-sized mob. Rooms are booked for all the little people right across the street from the studio at the Culver City Hotel, which the hotel owners’ son (Adam Arkin) is assigned to take care of for his very first time.
And what do you know, the 150 reservations for the little people have been lost! Doh! Arkin and hotel detective Pat McCormick certainly have their hands full taking care of all their tiny guests!
Meanwhile, Chevy Chase is a U.S. Secret Service man assigned to protect the visiting Austrian Royal Duke and his near-sighted wife (Joseph Maher and Eve Arden). The Duke is very paranoid about possible assassins lurking about and wears lousy disguises to throw them off.
Which hasn’t tricked real assassin Robert Donnor who’s secretly been following the Duke, but has only encountered comic mishaps in trying to kill him. Chase escorts the Duke and his wife to the Culver Hotel having booked an entire floor for security purposes.
More parties arrive at the hotel! A little person Nazi secret agent (Billy Barty) is personally sent by Hitler to fly to Hollywood and contact a Japanese ally (Mako) at the very same hotel. He is only given a password and is told his ally will recognize him due to his height. I mean, afterall how many short statured people can be at this hotel?
Unfortunately, for the Japanese agent there are plenty of little people to sift through to find his comrade. Barty has his own problems finding his Japanese contact after a tour bus filled with Japanese tourists breaks down in front of the hotel and they all decide to book rooms!
Are you keeping track of all this?
Mass confusion and omedic mishaps build and collide. Little people, assassins, Japanese tourists, a frightened Duke, an angry Nazi Barty, a secret password ‘The pearl is in the river’ gets uttered over and over again to looks of confusion and Fisher loses her dress and we see her in her underwear.
I throw that last bit in since it’s the sole highlight of Under The Rainbow.
Will all these stories be resolved? Will the bad guys get caught? Will Chevy and Carrie hook up and will filming for this weird Wizard Of Oz movie ever get completed?
It doesn’t take long for you to realize that Under The Rainbow is not going to be a very good movie. The moment when Barty gives the heil salute and accidentally hits Hitler in the balls might be the huge red flag for you.
I watched this film constantly on HBO in the early 80’s. At the time it was on heavy rotation and I was much less discerning with my movie tastes. The allure of seeing Princess Leia in a new movie AND Mr. ‘I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not’ teaming up with her was too good to pass up. In fact, I remember venturing off to my local movie theater to see it.
There are a lot of characters, subplots and a ton of complicated setup to put all the pieces of this comedy in place. It’s goes a very long way to make this hotel the setting for a lot of madcap slapstick and comedy. And after all the work and strained effort to make that happen, none of it pays off with any good laughs or is the least bit interesting.
The humor ranges from pratfalls, peeing dog jokes, stereotypical Japanese gags, like them taking pictures of absolutely everything and bowing to everyone. There’s silly costumes being worn, bad accents being done and naturally a few gags about the wild small ensemble, although not as many as you’d think. The movie thinks just watching the little people walk around is enough for a laugh.
It is a very messy, unfunny movie.
For decades, there have been legendary tales of the alleged behind-the-scenes craziness that took place with all the Munchkin extras during the making of The Wizard Of Oz. The Culver City Hotel is where the little people stayed during the production of the film and where supposedly all hell broke loose. Under The Rainbow is filmed partially at the actual hotel.
Stories of the Munchkins doing a lot of hard drinking, raising hell, having orgies with hookers, all night gambling parties, some of them walking around armed with weapons, even brazenly groping star Judy Garland. Talk show host Jack Parr once asked Garland whether the Munchkins were little kids and she answered, “They were little drunks”.
This legend about the out of control Munchkin behavior is said can be traced back to Garland’s exaggerated tales in interviews years after making The Wizard Of Oz.
Since then there have been yarns of police being called in and having to catch the out of control little people with giant butterfly nets. The hotel having to station police on every floor of the hotel to try to control them. A little person falling into a toilet and needed rescuing. The studio hiring armed guards to escort showgirls around the lot for fear of the wild Munchkins attacking them. All this legend about the out of control
True or not, all of that sounds like a fun movie to watch! That short description of the mythical history of the Munchkins’ behavior is much more engaging and funny than anything that happens in Under The Rainbow.
Fans of The Wizard Of Oz looking for a fictional comical screwball dramatization of those scandalous legends will not be very satisfied. Although they’ll see the most famous real life Munchkin Jerry Maren walking out of a hotel room and telling the little people waiting in a line, “That’s the first time I ever went up on a broad!”
There are a few tasteless, crude jokes like that here and there, and seeing the Munchkins behave lewdly, which I’d say are the comedic highlights in the movie. Fans can also expect to see an appearance by some flying monkeys, the yellow brick road and the Munchkins disrupting the filming of Gone With The Wind.
Under The Rainbow might have been much more entertaining had they stuck with the wild partying Munchkins and kept the focus on the studio and filmmakers trying to wrangle this army of little people and get their picture made amidst all the minuscule pandemonium they create.
Perhaps had it been more like The Disaster Artist or Tropic Thunder. Just do a full blown fictionalized ‘making of’ movie of The Wizard Of Oz with the Munchkins as the stars! They could even have tossed in that supposed suicidal Munchkin who you can see hanging in the film! Just go all in on it!
Unfortunately, the filming of Oz is mainly background to the boring spy story and Chase, Fisher and their co-stars attempting desperate, lazy humor to get to the finish of the movie. Had Fisher not agreed to get down to her bra and slip I’m not sure what else there would be to hold my attention.
All the stories and characters inevitably collide. Chase must stop Barty and Mako with this all important ‘invasion map’ in their possession, and to save Fisher. Hubbert jumps in to save the day with his army of Munchkins decked out in their Oz wardrobe get into a chase through the streets and into the studio for a madcap ending.
It’s just a bunch of mistaken identities, the bad guys accidentally killing the wrong people, McCormick hiding their bodies, the map landing in Fisher’s possession and Chase humorlessly replacing a series of dead dogs for the Duke. There’s nothing in it that is entertaining.
Rewatching it I started pondering why Chase and Fisher agreed to do this movie. They were both enjoying career highs and were incredibly popular stars at the time. Chase just having recently been in the hit Caddyshack and audiences just saw Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back and her supporting role in The Blues Brothers. I’m sure they were getting plenty of film offers, what made them say ‘yes’ to Under The Rainbow?
I mean, using the wild Munchkin story as inspiration for a comedy I understand. That’s a pretty amusing hook and it certainly sounds like it could be a funny premise for an outrageous comedy. Almost like a potential miniature version of Animal House if done right.
Perhaps it looked like it would be a fun, outlandish farce reading the script, but it ends up quite a middling haul looking for laughs. Chase doesn’t get to do anything funny. He doesn’t do any of his trademark pratfalls, or has any funny lines, he just walks around sulkily with the Duke carrying dogs. Fisher has an even more thankless part to play. She pretty much plays a den mother to the little people, doesn’t have any sparks with Chase and loses her clothes.
Had Fisher not agreed to get down to her skivvies I’m not sure what else there would be to hold my attention. And the film milks her lack of dress as much of it can. That was very notable at the time to my friends and I. We had not seen Princess Leia like this before! It was a few years before she wowed everyone in her gold bikini in Return of The Jedi, so this was a nice appetizer for that, but Fisher was better than this part.
Chase has really had some head scratchers in his career. He had so many cinematic misfires, Under The Rainbow is almost no surprise to see him doing. It’s just another terrible movie he starred in, sitting in the pile alongside Modern Problems, Oh Heavenly Dog and Deal of the Century.
It’s also quite a drop off from director Steve Rash’s previous film The Buddy Holly Story. What the heck happened there? That’s another element from Under The Rainbow that’s perplexing.
It is notable to point out that Under The Rainbow had the largest cast of little people since The Wizard Of Oz. I’m sure all of them were excited to be a part of a movie. At least they got some work out of this.
Along with being very unfunny, some added frustration is the ending to all this nonsense. I usually don’t like spoiling films for others, but with Under The Rainbow I don’t think it would be any great loss.
So, at the very start we meet Hubbert at a refuge for the poor. He has his dreams of Hollywood, climbs up a roof to fix a radio antenna and falls to the ground. Cut to Hitler giving orders to Billy Barty and the story begins.
Well, it turns out the whole movie ends up being a dream Hubbert has while he’s been knocked out from his fall ala Dorothy in Oz. Unlike in Oz though, the ending feels like a cheap, unsatisfying way to end this stupid story on. I remember being eight watching this and feeling cheated by that ending!
I’m sure most folks have better, more creative dreams than Under The Rainbow.
I suspect a lot of people haven’t seen Under The Rainbow. Most probably don’t even know it exists! Not that it deserves much recognition. Considering it stars Chase and Fisher at the time when they were at their most popular, it says a lot about the quality of the film how Under The Rainbow has just fallen into the deepest embarrassing cracks of cinema. I haven’t seen it aired anywhere in decades! Warner Brothers might’ve buried it.
Chase and Fisher had both expressed regret doing Under The Rainbow. Chase supposedly described the film as one of the worst movies ever made. He has said it was the first film he made two million dollars for and claimed the original script was actually funny, but it eventually changed leading it to become a “fiasco”.
Fisher said it was one of the worst movies she ever starred in. In a 2000 interview she was talking about her past and revealed while filming Under The Rainbow she “was completely crazy…I was on drugs, I started losing a lot of weight…I was not sleeping. I had a seizure on set.” It was reported that production had to be shut down several times due to Fisher’s drug problem.
Even Maren, you know that famous Lollipop Guild Munchkin from The Wizard Of Oz who appeared in this, regretted being part of the film because it was so tasteless and far removed from what actually occurred during filming The Wizard Of Oz. I wouldn’t have minded if they fabricated the story for comedic effect, but at least make it funny! That’s the cardinal rule for a comedy – make it funny! Under The Rainbow is not.
Maybe fans of Chase and Fisher would want to take a peak at this, but don’t expect much from it. There’s really nothing here folks.
Other than Fisher in her skivvies.
Here’s the trailer
Here’s Siskel and Ebert reviewing Under The Rainbow on Sneak Previews – they weren’t fans of it