One of Hollywood’s most persistent legends is the tale of the trashing of the Culver Hotel at the hands of the Munchkins. Rumor has it that during the production of “The Wizard of Oz,” the Munchkins would spend their nights at the hotel engaged in wild drunken parties. Some versions of the legend replace the word “parties” with “orgies.” Supposedly, the hotel was torn apart in a way that would make Led Zeppelin proud. The legend was helped along by none other than Judy Garland, who even went as far as to tell these stories during television appearances. Of course, Garland, herself, had a drinking problem that probably would’ve rivaled anything she accused her co-stars of. To be fair, the Munchkins have always insisted that the stories are fiction, but the legend has only grown over the years. In 1981, fuel was added to the fire in the form of a film starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, “Under the Rainbow.”
There are several stories that come together to make this mess of a movie. Fisher plays a studio casting director given the task of gathering the pint-sized performers who will send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road. She and her assistant arrange for them to stay at the down-on-it’s-luck Culver Hotel, just down the road from the studio. Adam Arkin, plays the hotel manager, filling in for his uncle who has run off for the weekend with the hotel receptionist. At the same time, secret service agent Bruce Thorpe, played by Chase, arrives at the hotel. He is guarding an Austrian Duke and Duchess, played by Joseph Maher and Eve Arden, who are visiting the United States. The Duke is sure that he is the target of an assassination plot, but everyone thinks he’s paranoid. Turns out the Duke really is being chased by an assassin, played by Robert Donner (Exidor from “Mork and Mindy,” remember him?).
Got all that? Good, there’s more. Also arriving at the hotel is a Nazi agent played by one of the all-time great little people performers, Billy Barty. So you can see where this is going. He’s supposed to rendezvous at the hotel with a Japanese agent and hand off an important map. The Japanese agent, played by Mako, knows to look for a man of Barty’s stature…but with hundreds of little people at the hotel, that proves difficult. Barty, on the other hand, knows to look for a Japanese man, but it just so happens that a bus carrying a Japanese photography club has broken down in front of the hotel, so he has no easy time himself.
As the stories all begin to intersect with each other, the Munchkins, for no apparent reason, start to tear the hotel apart. They smash everything in the kitchen…they literally swing from the rafters…why? We have no idea. Many scenes of this movie seem to resemble sequences from “Gremlins,” with immense havoc being carried out by characters that seemed cute at the beginning of the film. I guess little people must just be evil. Deep down, pure evil.
Now, before I get in trouble…I don’t really believe little people are evil. Without them we’d have no Jawas, Ewoks or Oompa Loompa’s, and would you want to live in a world like that? I wouldn’t. But this movie sure does cast them in a negative light. The philosophy seems to be that they are the size of children, so let’s have them behave like children…unable to control their destructive tendencies. What’s strange is that the Munchkins really have very little role to play in the film’s other stories. They simply serve as background noise while Chevy Chase hunts for maps and Carrie Fisher runs around in her underwear.
Even if you can get past the very un-PC content (which also includes Japanese stereotypes and a canine body count sure to upset any PETA member), there’s still not much to enjoy. Chevy Chase turns in one of his stiffest performances ever. Even though he’s paired with Carrie Fisher, at the peak of her Princess Leia cuteness, the couple have zero chemistry. According to the Internet Movie Database, both have called this one of the worst movies they ever made. One of the few bright spots for me was Barty, even though his performance earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actor. I guess he’s one of those performers I always seem to enjoy, though seeing him in a Hitler moustache is a bit disturbing.
There are no laughs to be had in “Under the Rainbow,” not even a fun sense of nostalgia at seeing Billy Barty wield a sword while wearing one of the Lollipop Guild costumes. The only thing I was left with watching this film was two thoughts: 1. “They could never get away with a film like this today,” and 2. “Thank God!”