At the end of his rainbow

Star's performance as good as gold

Published: Mar 08 2016, 01:01:am

Wednesday, March 28, 1973.
THE RAINBOW BOYS. Music by Howard Blake. Written and directed by Gerald Potterton. Running time: 91 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: Coarse language.
TUESDAY NIGHT [MARCH 27, 1973] an estimated 250 million people in 24 countries were tuned in to the Academy Awards broadcast. Missing from the Oscars audience were a handful of first-nighters who preferred a premiere to the presentations, and gathered at West Vancouver's 760-seat Park Royal I Cinema.
    The occasion was the world premiere of Gerald Potterton's The Rainbow Boys, a rough-and-tumble comedy shot this past summer in the Fraser Canyon. Their choice was a wise one. The first-nighters were treated to a prize-worthy performance from British actor Donald Pleasence, as fine a bit of acting as any honoured by the American Academy.
    Pleasence's achievement was all the more striking because The Rainbow Boys is essentially a weak property, a casually contrived tale that desperately needed a strong central focus. Pleasence, fresh from a starring role in Bill Fruet's Wedding in White (1972), provided it with bravura style.
    Potterton's story is set in the B.C. Rockies, and revolves around a cantankerous old prospector named Ralph Logan (Pleasence), who pans a meagre existence out of a river. One afternoon, as Logan is bargaining for supplies in a local grocery store, he is spotted by a Greenwich Village drop-out named Mazella (Don Calfa), a young man who has crossed the country clutching a copy of Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest.
    At first, Logan resists the newcomer's attentions, but finally he relents. The two of them then pay a visit to Logan's sometimes girl friend, Gladys (Kate Reid), the long-abandoned wife of the local schoolteacher.
     In conversation, it emerges that Logan is heir to a long-lost goldmine, but that he's never been able to get together the resources to seek it out.
    Reluctantly, Logan provides his map. Grudgingly, Gladys provides moral support, and enthusiastically Mazella provides transport. Together they set off on his three-wheeled motorcycle after the gold, a 300-pound cache that Logan claims his father left sitting in the high country.
    The Rainbow Boys is the first live-action feature project for Gerald Potterton, a former animation director for the National Film Board. Originally from England, Potterton has been in Canada since 1954, and counts among his NFB accomplishments two Academy Award nominations.
    He met Pleasence in 1968 when the actor was providing voices for Pinter People, an animated television special based on the works of playwright Harold Pinter.
    In developing The Rainbow Boys, Potterton sought out an international cast. Don Calfa, a New Yorker, was part of the stock company that has grown up around independent film-maker Robert Downey, and has played in the underground director's three most recent movies, 1972's Greaser's Palace, Pound (1970) and Putney Swope (1969).
    The Canadian member of his acting trio is Kate Reid, a veteran of Broadway, Stratford and London West End stages who was most recently seen in the CBC's ambitious but ill-fated The Whiteoaks of Jalna series (1972). Neither Calfa nor Miss Reid manage to be particularly impressive in the outback.
    Calfa, clad for no good reason in an oil-rigger's hard hat,  Mickey Mouse T-shirt and button-fly bell-bottoms, struggles unconvincingly with shallow lines like "I've paid my dues — Leavenworth and Fort Dix!" Like the elements of his costume, Mazella's character never gels.
    For her part, Kate Reid's Gladys is gelled solid, ironed out and mounted on the wall. Dowdy and disillusioned, she is a one-dimensional parody of Barbara Hamilton, played for volume rather than tone.
    No matter, though. Pleasence is here, and Pleasence does it all. The slightness of their characters is as irrelevant to the final result as the director's carefully calculated attempts to hide the fact that the film was made in Canada.
    Pleasence is magnificent, and credit is due Potterton for knowing that he would be. Until recently, the 53-year-old actor was the victim of the American movie industry's penchant for typecasting. A featured player in major international films for the past 10 years, Pleasence is almost always cast as a heavy, a Blofeld to Sean Connery's James Bond.
    Roman Polanski recognized his potential for star billing seven years ago [1966] in a bizarre little black comedy called Cul de Sac, but it was Canada's Bill Fruet that first sat down and wrote a straight dramatic role with Pleasence in mind. That character was "Big" Jim, the father in Wedding in White.
    Now, in his second Canadian film, Pleasence is again the star. Again he takes total command of his role, polishing its every facet and convincing filmgoers of its complete, complex reality.
    Logan is an aging dreamer, living more in the past than the present. Parading about in the remnants of an officer's uniform, puttees tightly wrapped around his legs, his cap on a cord safety-pinned to his sweat-stained shirt, he balances unfulfillable hopes against unreasonable resentments.
    His vocabulary reflects his character. When Logan explodes into one of his flash-flood rages, the word "bahstids, BAHSTIDS!" tumbles from him like a series of uncontrollable sneezes. More often, though, he is as vulnerable and innocent as a little boy, fascinated with the world and wanting to be liked.
    "Gee whiz," he's likely to whistle, with an answering chorus of "golly." Pleasence makes it work.
    His performance is a masterpiece of insight, timing, gesture and look, creating in Logan a character as real and alive as any that has ever appeared on a screen. His performance gives shape and style to a film that otherwise would have neither. As it is, he has made The Rainbow Boys a must-see film for anyone interested in acting at its finest.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Born in London, Gerald Potterton shared with Rainbow Boys star Donald Pleasence memories of service in the Royal Air Force. When he mustered out in 1951, he found a job with Halas and Batchelor, working as an assistant animator on the British studio's cartoon feature Animal Farm (1954). Arriving in Canada, he joined the National Film Board's Montreal-based animation team. Honours followed, including Oscar nominations for his direction of the NFB cartoon shorts My Financial Career (1962) and Christmas Cracker (1963). In 1967, he founded his own independent Gerald Potterton Productions and received a third Oscar nomination for 1971's The Selfish Giant. In between, he took time to return to London, where he reconnected with former NFB colleague George Dunning, working as an animator on director Dunning's Beatles feature, Yellow Submarine (1968). In 1971, Potterton released the largely forgottenTiki Tiki, establishing himself as the director of the first English-Canadian animated feature. Although he'd made successful live-action short films — he's best remembered for directing Buster Keaton in The Railrodder, one of the comedian's last films — Potterton saw his feature debut The Rainbow Boys fail at the box office. Returning to animation, he went on to direct a major hit, the 1981 anthology feature Heavy Metal. Currently living on a 200-acre farm in Quebec's eastern townships, Gerald Potterton turns 85 today (March 8).

See also:  Following the 1973 premiere of The Rainbow Boys, I sat down for an interview with Donald Pleasence in which we discussed his preference for live theatre, the disappointments of film production, Canadian cinema and life as a major movie villain.