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State Fair is pleasingly uncomplicated musical romance set in an idealized version of the midwest, from the creative team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote its music and lyrics directly for the screen. The film had been done before in 1933 as a non-musical with Will Rogers. This Technicolor version became a hit in 1945.
Seventeen years later the property was trotted out again, fitted with CinemaScope and set up as a vehicle for new talent. Changed considerably, the 1962 movie misses the story's original charm and drowns whatever qualities it might have had in garish 'improvements.' The contrast is pretty strong - the 1945 State Fair is a modest success, and its remake one of the worst eyesores ever to call itself an American musical!
State Fair '45 doesn't begin with a great deal of promise but its actors quickly win us over. Jeanne Crain is nothing short of adorable as the farm girl yearning for something better out of life than the all-plastic house offered by her dull fiancée. Louanne Hogan provides her with a perfect singing voice and apparently kept on doing the job whenever Crain took a singing role. Dick Haymes is pleasant enough as her brother; he was already a top big-band singer. Vivian Blaine had band singing experience as well. Dana Andrews reportedly came to Los Angeles to become an opera singer but the studio was unaware of this and assigned him a singing voice as well. It sounds like his voice. In Technicolor Andrews looks like he's wearing lipstick, but otherwise he's the same likeable star.
The story is essentially American Graffiti completely supervised by adults. Margy and Wayne walk to the fairgrounds together and at all times behave properly. Almost all, depending on how one interprets Wayne coming back to Emily's hotel room after the party breaks up, or a fade up that reveals that Margy and Pat have spent most of the night laying on a grassy hillside. The romantic angles are so elemental that we can't help but react positively. The fair is a mating ground for farm people, the only chance one might have to meet someone different or special -- there's an expectant desperation about the whole process that makes us care about Margy and Wayne's personal problems. Blue Boy the hog has the same feelings about a babe he meets in the "Swine Pavillion", which makes the show a mating game for everything with a pulse. Even Melissa and Abel feel rejuvenated after winning their categories in the big shows. The State Fair is a crucial affirmation of success on several levels.
The best thing about the movie is its refusal to make fun of the farmers. Some of the songs are corny but a huge section of the country in 1945 was still agriculture-oriented. Nobody points fingers to laugh, not even Dana Andrews' slightly worldly reporter (big dude in Des Moines, new face for Chicago). Jeanne Crain wears a sucession of quaint 'farmy' dresses and manages to make them all look good. Her role in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives seems a covert extension of this part - the bit about having one bucolic dress to wear to a party. Wayne doesn't know what payola is when he gets involved with a kindly song pusher (Frank McHugh), and we still don't judge him as a rube.
Even though it sticks to conventional values, State Fair seems right and balanced for its time. The boy settles for the right girl back home instead of the glamorous star he can't have. The girl finds her guy and goes after him, even if she has to swipe a neighbor's truck to do so.
The show is a little light on music, but only in terms of later Rodgers & Hammerstein stage-originated hits. It Might as Well Be Spring and Grand Night each get several reprises, so it's good that they're superior tunes. Other songs are pleasant but not as memorable (this at first listen, so forgive these dull ears).
The 1962 version on disc 2 is going to have camp value and not much else., yet we're grateful to Fox for being so thorough as to include it. This time around it's Tom Ewell and an out-of-retirement Alice Faye as the old folks. The role does Faye no favors and Ewell's hang-dog leers make Abel Frake come off as a swine pervert. The parallel between palpitatin' porkers and the young lovers in this version is vulgar, bordering on the obscene.
We like Pamela Tiffin but she doesn't convince as a farm girl; this version raises the stakes so that there's very little rural blood in anyone. Bobby Darin is slick and charmless as Tiffin's supposed dreamboat boyfriend, and the movie warps into a different dimension when Ann-Margret materializes as the hot-pants entertainer who catches Pat Boone's eye. He's the only potential country type in the bunch, and Ann-Margret is her typically hyper-real explosive self. Her fans might think the show a must-get, as it was reportedly her first big musical exposure.
Everything relevant or about the original is lost, starting with the connection to the American Heartland, even on a fantasy level. The son is now a crazed sports car racer, the reporter becomes a big-time TV correspondent and the band singer is now ... sex bomb Ann-Margret. It's like consumer madness has taken over and anything resembling values has become extinct. The original State Fair made us think of a real life people might have lived, whereas the remake has the soul of a TV commercial. In between the two films America overdosed on Ma & Pa Kettle-style 'hick movies' and then tuned out on them almost altogether. Judy Canova, were art thou? When stix pix returned it would be as TV shows like The Bevery Hillbillies, Hee Haw and Petticoat Junction, some of the most condescending stuff ever to hit the tube.
It's fun to do other comparisons with the two pictures. Donald Meek has a field day hamming it up as a tipsy foodstuffs judge in the first film, a role taken over by an amusing Wally Cox in the second. There's little or no fun to be had snooping for familiar faces in the supporting cast of the second picture, whereas sharp-eyed viewers of the first may spot John Dehner (Man of the West, Cathy Downs (My Darling Clementine), Francis Ford and Colleen Gray (The Killing).
Fox's 60th Anniversary Edition of State Fair has excellent encodings of both films. The Technicolor 1945 film is practically flawless, which is either excellent luck or good film husbandry. The '62 picture looks good as well - we at least get to appreciate the garish overkill production design for Ann-Margret's gyrating musical numbers ("Quick Martha, call the sheriff while I get my shotgun!").
The first film comes with a commentary by film historian Richard Barrios and Tom Briggs, one of the adapters of the film musical when it later went to Broadway. From Page to Screen to Stage" is a well researched docu on the State Fair story that puts all the facts and stories into perspective. There are the expected galleries of stills and ad artwork, and an original theatrical trailer that's quick to say that State Fair is the new offering from the makers of Oklahoma!
Disc two comes with a commentary by Pat Boone, who's cheerful enough. I was never offended by Boone, mainly through good memories of Journey to the Center of the Earth. An excerpt from a 1954 TV special on Rodger and Hammerstein has Mary Martin singing It Might as Well be Spring, as well as an anemic 1976 State Fair television pilot with Vera Miles that apparently didn't fly.
In keeping with their other Anniversary releases, Fox has decked out the menu system out snatches of music from the movie that serve only as spoilers. That and the grating anti-piracy threat announcement put us in a bad mood for the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein fans will put their discs in the the ol' Dee vee dee machines, and the first thing they will hear is a blast of grunge rock music.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
State Fair rates: