Wednesday, May 9, 2018

State Fair (20th Century-Fox, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles joined me at 9 p.m. and I ran us the 1945 musical film State Fair, which I’d been interested in since we’d just seen a stage adaptation by the amateur Looking Glass Theatre at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in San Diego and wanted to go back to the source … sort of. I wrote some of the background information about State Fair in my journal for May 5, the day after Charles and I saw the stage version, so I’ll quote it here: State Fair was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein show that was actually first written as a movie and only later adapted for the stage. It began life as a 1932 novel by an author named Phil Stong which critic Thomas Leslie describes as “a surprisingly dark coming-of-age story that took as its major plot device the effects of the ‘worldly temptations’ of the Iowa State Fair on a local farming family,” and whose climax is an automobile race which Wayne Frake, the son of a farming family who have come up from rural Iowa to Des Moines to see and compete in the Iowa State Fair, and also features both Wayne and his sister Margy having sex with people they’ve met at the fair: Wayne with a woman entertainer who turns down his marriage proposal because she doesn’t want the life of a farmer’s wife, and Margy with a reporter who’s there to cover the fair. Stong’s novel was a best-seller and the Fox Film Corporation bought the movie rights, and in 1933 they filmed State Fair as a non-musical with Janet Gaynor as Margy, Will Rogers as her father Abel, Louise Dresser as her mom Melissa, Lew Ayres as the reporter Pat, Norman Foster as Wayne and Sally Eilers (a talented actress who should have had a bigger career than she did) as Emily, the entertainer Wayne falls for, though the film had a considerably happier ending than the book. (Margy returns to the farm and her dull rural boyfriend Harry in the novel; she leaves rural Iowa and marries Pat in the 1933 film and virtually all the subsequent adaptations.) It would probably be an interesting movie, especially since the director was Henry King and he was especially noted for getting understated performances from his casts, but what made the story enduringly popular was the second film, which I have seen. By then Fox had merged with Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures and the combined studio was noted for big, splashy musicals in Technicolor. Noting the box-office success of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show, Oklahoma!, Zanuck and his lieutenants decided to hire them to turn State Fair into a similarly themed agricultural musical, with Hammerstein writing the script as well as the song lyrics.

They cast Jeanne Crain as Margy, Dana Andrews as reporter Pat (and Hammerstein had them pair up at the end instead of letting Margy go back to her farm life and the hayseed boyfriend who wants to keep her rural), Dick Haymes as Wayne, Charles Winninger taking over Will Rogers’ role as the father (later Winninger would play a former Rogers character again in The Sun Shines Bright, a 1953 sequel made by John Ford to his 1934 Rogers vehicle Judge Priest) and some glorious songs like “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and “It Might As Well Be Spring,” sung early on by Margy to lament her staid life as a farm girl and her “wishing I were somewhere else” — in other words, it’s her “Over the Rainbow.” Obviously 20th Century-Fox hired Rodgers and Hammerstein to “musicalize” State Fair after the smash success of their first professional collaboration, 1943’s stage musical Oklahoma! and also MGM’s 1944 blockbuster Meet Me in St. Louis, and what was most surprising about the 1945 film was how closely the later stage adaptation tracks it. The 1945 State Fair featured Oscar Hammerstein II as screenwriter as well as lyricist, though the credits list Sonya Levien and Paul Green as “adapting” Phil Stong’s original novel because they wrote the script for the 1933 film, including its altered and much less bittersweet ending. (Frankly, I think Stong’s original ending makes more dramatic sense: the piece would be a lot more powerful if both the Frake children returned to the farm and their romantic pair-ups at the State Fair remained only bittersweet memories.) I was a bit surprised that I’d misremembered at least one key detail of the 1945 film: I had thought the beautiful romantic ballad “That’s for Me” was sung by Dick Haymes. It wasn’t; instead it was sung by Vivian Blaine in her role as Emily, who in this version was not a free-lance entertainer but a band singer with a group led by “Tommy Thomas” (the actor’s name isn’t listed on even though other players with more miniscule roles are), and Haymes’ big vocal feature is a duet with Blaine on a song called “Isn’t It Kind of Fun?” that a song-plugger tricks Wayne into placing with Thomas’s band. Blaine sings “That’s for Me” acceptably but with the sort of disinterested air of most female band singers both in movies and in real life — to hear this song done right, one has to go to the record Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars made in 1950. Armstrong may not be the first person you’d think of for a romantic ballad, but his vocal musicianship and especially his phrasing are superb and unbeatable. (That’s what comes from being a genius instrumentalist as well as a singer.)

There were some obvious differences between what a theatre company (especially an amateur one) could do with this story and what major-studio filmmakers could (albeit with a weak director like Walter Lang, 20th Century-Fox’s go-to guy for a lot of their big musicals in the 1940’s and 1950’s; his work is acceptable but one really misses the beauty and style Vincente Minnelli brought to a similar story in Meet Me in St. Louis): we actually get some vertiginous shots of the roller-coaster and other thrill rides reporter Pat (played by Dana Andrews with a sort of bored hauteur as if he were thinking, “I’ve proved I can act in The Ox-Bow Incident and Laura — why are they still giving me shit like this?”) takes farm-girl Margy on, as if his way of seducing her is literally agitating her, and we also get to see as on-screen characters the Frakes’ prize-winning hog, Blue Boy, as well as his chief competitor Whirlwind and his girlfriend Esmeralda, a brown Duroc pig (I remembered “Durocs” as the nom de groupe of Ron Nagle and his songwriting partner Scott Matthews — the liner notes of the LP explained that the band name came from a sort of pig, and the cover was a cartoon of a big-assed pig, but I’d never heard of a Duroc in context before) whose mere presence lightens up the nervous Blue Boy and enables him to win the hog-raising contest. State Fair suffers from one lead who couldn’t sing and one who wasn’t allowed to; Dana Andrews had a professional-quality baritone voice but no one told the “suits” at 20th Century-Fox that, so they hired Ben Gage (briefly the husband of Esther Williams) to dub him; and Jeanne Crain really couldn’t sing, so her vocals — including the best song from this score, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which won the Academy Award for Best Song — were dubbed by Louanne Hogan, who performs the great song credibly even though she’s no match for Sarah Vaughan, who recorded it at least twice (1946 with John Kirby and 1950 with Miles Davis) and sang it better than anyone else.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but wish Fox could have got Judy Garland to play Margy — not only because she could sing but also she was a far credible actress who could have made Margy’s mixed-up emotions more believable — and Doris Day as Emily, but Garland would have required an expensive loan-out deal with MGM and Day was still toiling in the vineyards of Les Brown’s band and wouldn’t make her first movie for another three years. I also wish they would have got W. C. Fields to play the crooked carnival barker whose rigged ring-toss game Wayne is determined to beat — in 1945 Fields had only a year left to live and was too sick to do anything more than short roles, but the character only appears in one scene and Fields could have handled it magnificently. Instead the part went to the young Henry Morgan — referencing his long run on the TV series M*A*S*H, I joked, “Now we know what he did before he went to Korea!” (“And also,” I added, “before he became Glenn Miller’s piano player,” the role he played in the biopic The Glenn Miller Story.) All in all, the 1945 State Fair is a quite enjoyable movie — though it might have come off better if Charles and I hadn’t just seen the stage version, which copied much of Hammerstein’s script almost word for word — maybe not the film it could have been (and suffering from two pairs of leads who look an awful lot like each other — at times the only way you can tell Jeanne Crain and Vivian Blaine apart is Crain’s hair is black and Blaine’s is red, and Dana Andrews and Dick Haymes likewise look enough alike that if the script said they were brothers, you’d believe it) but a glorious Technicolor showcase for some fine Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and probably far better than the ill-reviewed 1962 remake, which I’ve never seen mainly because I’ve been scared off by the cast: Tom Ewell and Alice Faye (coming out of retirement) as the Frake parents, Bobby Darin and Pat Boone as the male leads and Ann-Margret turning up the heat as Emily.