I’ve never attended a state fair, but I wouldn’t mind going to one, especially after watching “State Fair” (1945), which a friend of mine, a veteran of many state fairs, says is pretty accurate. Minus the singing of course.
What he was referring to was the hog contests, the food competitions, horseracing, carnival rides and shady barkers.
Plus the food. In “State Fair” there’s a close-up of a hamburger in Technicolor that I think even PETA would find mouth-watering.
”State Fair” is probably best known today as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only original Hollywood musical. The team had scored a massive hit in the theater with “Oklahoma” and when 20th Century Fox elected to remake “State Fair”, originally filmed in 1933 with Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor, it was decided to hire the famed songwriting team to write songs for this wonderful piece of Americana. (I’ve never seen the 1933 version, but would love to. I have seen the 1962 remake with Alice Faye and wish I could unsee it).
Anyone with an ounce of cynicism would do well to stay away from “State Fair.” But for me, it’s a real treat, with a clever screenplay that gives each member of the Frake family, and several supporting characters, a chance to each enjoy a big scene, either in song, comedy or drama.
The Frake family – Father Abel (Charles Winninger), Mother Melissa (Fay Bainter), Daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) and Son Wayne (Dick Haymes) prepare to go to the Iowa state fair. Abel is anxious to enter his prize hog Blue Boy, while Melissa anxiously enters her pickles and mincemeat in the food competition. Daughter Margy is as “restless as a wind storm and as jumpy as a puppet on a string” and son Wayne is despondent his girlfriend won’t be going with him to the fair.
The film helped make Jeanne Crain a star. No wonder, what with those very generous close-ups of her singing. While her voice was dubbed, she does a very good job of acting the songs, especially the song that introduces her and her indecisive character “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Jeanne Crain was very popular with audiences and could have made more movies if she wasn’t always getting pregnant, to the everlasting dismay of Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.
(Later on during this segment, she imagines the voices of Charles Boyer, Ronald Colman and Bing Crosby wooing her. I’ve always wondered if those were the actual voices or done by impersonators. Does anybody know? They sound like the real thing to me.)
Margy falls in love with reporter Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews), covering the fair for the Des Moines paper. Andrews is very charming in the role even if it is fairly one dimensional.
I’ve always liked Dana Andrews and like him more after watching the DVD’s special features. Apparently he had a very good singing voice but the studio didn’t know that. He learned that his singing would be dubbed, and because he didn’t want the guy doing his dubbing to be out of a job, he kept silent and never told his Fox bosses about his musical talent.
Admittedly, Dana Andrews doesn’t get a “big” scene, but everyone else does. Wayne falls in love with singer Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine) and they share a charming duet together, “Isn’t It Kind of Fun” but is heartbroken when he learns a secret about her. Abel gets his scene when he enters Blue Boy in the blue ribbon contest, and Melissa sweats out her pickles and mincemeat competition.
This could be my favorite scene in the movie because one of the judges is Mr. Hippenstahl, played by the great Donald Meek, who steals the show from everyone. Melissa is unaware that Abel has spiked the mincemeat with copious amounts of brandy. She adds her own dose of brandy as well and the expression on Mr. Hippenstahl when he tastes the well-laced mincemeat is classic. He keeps digging into the mincemeat with unconcealed glee.
Harry Morgan also enjoys a memorable scene as a crooked carny worker who gets outed by a revenge-seeking Wayne, who got rooked the year before. Morgan’s slow-burn as he realizes the tables are turning on him make this one of my favorite scenes of his in a long and distinguished career.
In addition to the splendid Technicolor photography, I’ve always enjoyed the treatment the music gets. When Alfred Newman is music director on a show, one is in for a treat. Just listen to those yearning, shimmering strings in the “It Might As Well Be Spring” number. It’s a perfect accompaniment to a song that introduces Margy’s character as well as any amount of dialogue could.
The film’s best known song “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” gets a wonderful treatment, starting in the beer garden where Wayne surprises Emily with his crooning, and continues on to the rest of the carnival, including a singing Margy and Pat in a flying carnival ride. It’s a glorious sequence.
The only dance number comes at the end with “All I Owe I Owe Iowa”, a jubilant number with Emily dancing with Abel (Charles Winninger obviously using a few steps he learned in vaudeville). I love Hammerstein’s lyric for this song. He turns Iowa into Io-way to rhyme with Hooray. Great stuff.
Everybody in “Stare Fair” is good and decent. Those that aren’t get put in their place, like Harry Morgan’s barker character and arrogant bandleader Tommy Thomas (William Marshall).
Errol Flynn fans know Marshall as director of two of the legendary star’s most ignoble efforts. “Adventures of Captain Fabian” (1951) for Republic and the never-seen “Hello God” (1951) for which no prints have been known to survive. Marshall also appeared alongside Flynn in “Santa Fe Trail” (1940) as George Pickett. (Even in a blog on “State Fair” I can find a way to mention of the Mighty Flynn.)
Director Walter Lang will never make the auteur books, but looking at his filmography I realized how many of his films are great favorites of mine, including my favorite Betty Grable movies: “Moon Over Miami” (1941), “Coney Island” (1943) and “Mother Wore Tights” (1947). Clifton Webb enjoyed two of his greatest successes with Lang, with “Sitting Pretty” (1948) and “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950). Lang also directed my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation, “The King and I” (1956). In a lot of these movies, scenes of sadness or unhappiness are acknowledged as part of life, but not something to be lingered over.
I’ve seen “State Fair” several times and each time my fondness for it grows. The music is great, the photography impeccable, I like everyone in the cast, those Jeanne Crain close-ups are marvelous to behold and the ending sends everyone out happy. There’s a feeling of good cheer that permeates the movie from beginning to end.
I can’t wait to watch it again.