Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
STATE FAIR (1945)
State Fair is a corn-fed all-American musical extravaganza centered around the second most exciting event in rural Iowa after the Riverside Trek Fest: the Iowa State Fair. Rodgers and Hammerstein attempt to capture the excitement of rides, junk food, agricultural competitions, and romantic encounters that coalesce into group singalongs, but does it end up being more fun than barfing behind the Italian sausage stand?
My goal today is to avoid using the phrase “state fair” too many times, but guess what? This is a movie about the Frake family going to a state fair, in which we see what happens to each of them at that state fair. Will Abel Frake (Charles Winninger) win first prize for his hog at the state fair? Will his wife Melissa (Fay Bainter) win first prize for her pickles and mincemeat pie at the state fair? Will their daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) have a good time at the state fair? Will her brother Wayne (Dick Haymes) also have a good time at the state fair? How hard can everyone state fair at the state fair?
State fair. State fair. State fair.
No one plot line is particularly captivating in State Fair, nor do any of them intersect in a clever or surprising way. Still, it’s pretty effective as a state fair simulator. (“Like going to a state fair without any of the smells!” I’d put on the poster if I were an ad exec in 1945.) We hop around from rides to shows to contests to games to looove and, while some scenes are better than others and all of them seem pretty bland on paper, they flow together just fine. I feel like I’m there. State fairing it up.
Why eat a candy apple when I can watch Jeanne Crain eat a candy apple?
State fair state fair state fair. State fair. State fair state fair.
State fair. St ate fair. State fAir.
Okay, so it’s a little flat in the story department (seriously, how goddamn quaint is it that judging Ma’s mincemeat pie is an entire scene?), but does State Fair make up for that shortcoming in other areas? Thankfully, yes. Jeanne Crain is sweet as hell as young Margy Frake, and she has great chemistry with the charming if slightly sleazy Pat Gilbert, played by Dana Andrews. They click together without being too cutesy, and still with plenty of drama. She’s not looking forward to marrying her current beau, he’s not exactly the commitment type, wind them up and watch them go (on carnival rides).
Pardon my immature giggling at this one frame of their romance.
I’m guessing the pitch for this movie said, “one of the parents enters a competition and one of the kids falls in love,” and then somebody hit copy and paste, because Margy’s brother Wayne Frake also has a fling at the fair. He swoons for a singer named Emily Edwards, played by Vivian Blaine. Their chemistry is alright, though I find it a little harder to buy because Dick Haymes plays Wayne as a bit of a doof, but I suppose that’s intentional to contrast how bold and breathtaking Emily is.
In fairness, most of the guys at the fair are milquetoast square types. It’s Iowa.
Charles Winninger and Fay Bainter make fine heads of the Frake household. They’re not around much but they’re okay in small doses, just like my real parents.
Whoa, that got personal. Hi, Mom and Pop!
Other standout bit parts include Phil Brown as Margy’s painfully dweeby neat freak fiancé, Harry Morgan as the swindling owner of the ring toss booth, and these three hilarious motherfuckers judging the otherwise insanely boring pickle contest.
Pickle comedy is all in the face.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
Further reducing my disdain for such a thin plot is the great music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. What’s interesting about State Fair is that many of the songs don’t feel like self-contained “one and done” numbers. Somebody might only sing a couple of lines, have a few exchanges of dialogue, then the score echoes the chorus, and then ten minutes later they’re singing more lyrics. Rather than my usual outlook on musicals, being “like a normal movie, but every so often, a song,” the music sort of flows in and out naturally. Also, edits! It’s exciting to see one character finish a lyric and another way over on the other side of the scenery pick up the next lyric with a simple cut. You’re doing it, movie musicals! You’re not on a stage anymore!
Three cheers for embracing the advantages of your medium!
Our first song out of the gate is “Our State Fair,” a podunky ode to the state fair that reuses the words “state” and “fair” so many times you’d think the Black Eyed Peas wrote it. Many characters join in but the only one that matters is Blue Boy the hog, oinking in time and key thanks to the magic of audio technology.
Again, not unlike the Black Eyed Peas.
Later, we meet Margy, who sings a bummer of a song about being unhappy with the path her life is on and itching for a change. She compares the feeling to spring fever, hence the title “It Might as Well Be Spring.” Being a Non-Musical-Watcher who’s mostly familiar with Disney cartoons, I instantly recognized this melancholy tune as State Fair‘s equivalent of “Part of Your World.”
Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they eat fried dough in the sun…
At the fair, songstress Emily gets on the microphone and performs a wonderful song called “That’s for Me,” which is basically about meeting someone and just knowing they’re what you like and it’s so confident and sexy and I kinda think Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the pulse of some ahead-of-their-time sex positivity or maybe movies about state fairs give me a boner? That got weird, forget I said anything.
Think about this nice Technicolor print instead.
Later on, Wayne and Emily dance while singing “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” which is clearly contagious as couples everywhere begin belting it out. It’s a gigantic (and well-edited) fair-wide explosion of love, love, love.
If dancing is musical code for sex, here’s the orgy.
The great love songs keep coming when somebody slips a demo to Wayne that he duets with Emily at a party. It’s entitled “Isn’t It Kinda Fun?” and it is the moment when I just gave myself up entirely to the songwriting talents of ol’ Rod ‘n’ Ham. This tune has multiple layers; first it’s about how romance is sappy garbage, then it’s about how said sappy garbage can enhance the hotness so let’s pretend we’re in love just for tonight, and then it swings around to the possibility that, hey, shit, we could actually be in love, who knows? It deconstructs every cheesy aspect of attraction and does it in a way that still ultimately lacks cynicism. At this point, I bow to the musical mastery of R & H.
Or am I only pretending to love them?
The last original number, not counting reprises, instantly makes me rethink my glowing praise for Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s another fair show song called “All I Owe Ioway.” This tribute to the great state of Iowa is mostly forgettable, but it’s got a few slick dance moves and is notable for topping Road to Singapore‘s triple ocarina solo with a MOTHERFUCKIN’ QUADRUPLE OCARINA SOLO.
“WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?”
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
While “All I Owe Ioway” attempts to capture the experience of being a proud Iowan, it deserves a raised eyebrow for devolving from a sincere appreciation of the Hawkeye State to a list of its chief exports…
“I owe Ioway for her ham and her beef and her lamb
and her strawberry jam and her pie…”
I’m finding it really hard to put how I feel about State Fair into words. The story is pretty weak, the acting is enjoyable, and the songs are spectacular. So, do I recommend it? Well, imagine if an aunt went to the state fair without you and told you absolutely everything that happened there. You had zero interest in going yourself and you don’t know or care about any of the people she’s gossiping about, but she tells stories really well. If that seems worth your time, State Fair is kinda like that. With Jeanne Crain in, like, fifty different dresses.
On the Town (1949)