Judge Bryan Pope once pondered writing a musical about his adventures at his hometown's Pinto Bean Festival. Those were some crazy days.
Our review of The Rodgers And Hammerstein Collection, published January 15th, 2007, is also available.
It's a grand night for singing.
Twentieth Century Fox, with ample support from The Rogers & Hammerstein Organization, has indeed given fans of this minor musical effort a reason for falling in love.
Facts of the Case
The Frake family is packing up and heading to "the best state fair in the state," and not a moment too soon. While Ma Frake frets over her pickles and mincemeat, and Pa Frake dotes obsessively over his potentially prize-winning hog, Blueboy, restless daughter Margy suffers from a severe case of spring fever (unusual for the month of September). Meanwhile, son Wayne is having love troubles of his own.
Can the bright lights of the Ferris wheel work enough magic to help the kids find romance, or will the Frakes leave the fair with nothing more than a few fond memories and maybe a blue ribbon or two?
It stands to reason that at least one Rogers & Hammerstein show would center around the goings-on at a state fair. After all, popcorn, pie contests, and merry-go-rounds are as uniquely all-American as musical theater and Rogers & Hammerstein themselves. Based on a novel by Philip Strong and previously filmed as a nonmusical vehicle for Janet Gaynor, State Fair is the least substantial Rogers & Hammerstein (R&H from here on, shall we?) to hit the big screen. It lacks the visual majesty of The Sound of Music, the historical weight of South Pacific and The King and I, and the theatrical innovation of Oklahoma! How can a story about a family's visit to their state fair possibly compete with that lineup?
It can't. But what 1945's State Fair does have in its favor is buckets of pastoral charm, a slight but pleasant score, R&H's patented gooey romanticism, and that gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. State Fair is like a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life.
Nowhere is this more apparent than during the jaunty opener, "Our State Fair," where we see the Frakes engaged in various rituals of pre-fair merriment (you know…slopping the hogs, spiking grandma's mincemeat with a gallon of brandy). The farm is so picturesque, the house so cozy and overflowing with blue-gingham hominess, it's like watching an ad for Hickory Farms, only with songs—and without the delicious smoked cheese spread that compliments their sesame crackers so nicely. But I digress.
As tuneful as the R&H score is (it's dollars to doughnuts that at least one song will stick in your head for weeks), it's strictly second-tier stuff. Even "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "It's a Grand Night for Singing," which have become standards in the R&H songbook, could be plucked from the fair and inserted neatly in almost any other show. The one ditty that is most at home here, "All I Owe Ioway" (did I mention that the Frakes hail from Iowa?), is spunky and fun, but, unlike the title song from a certain other hit R&H movie, it's a clunky attempt at branding a state.
But when you have an attractive cast that knows how to sell it, all is well. And that's exactly what State Fair has in Jeanne Craine (an enchanting Margy), Dana Andrews (her suave suitor, journalist Pat Gilbert), Dick Haymes (playing Wayne as, well, Dick Haymes), and, finally, Vivian Blaine (smoldering as singer Emily Edwards). Charles Winninger and Fay Bainter make a loveable pair as the head of the Frake clan, and don't forget to look for a very young Harry Morgan (here listed as Henry Morgan) as a rascally carny.
For hardcore R&H aficionados wishing to scrutinize over what went wrong in the much maligned 1962 remake, that version is included here as well. Directed by Jose Ferrer and starring a very young Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, this State Fair is not entirely the cinematic travesty critics make it out to be. At the very least, it's a harmless curiosity that does nothing to diminish its source material. By the same token, it does nothing to enrich it either. Ferrer's film may be an unmemorable, wholly unnecessary enterprise, but it serves as a peculiar time capsule of '60s kitsch.
This time around, the action takes place at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, and some characters have been tweaked, but only just (Wayne is now a stockcar driver, chanteuse Emily is a hotsy-totsy showgirl). On the whole, they're essentially the same. The casting is a mixed bag. Alice Faye brings a dry wit and tart tongue to her Melissa Frake, but weeping willow Pamela Tiffin gets upstaged at every turn (by Bobby Darin, bunches of balloons, a corndog…believe me, it doesn't take much). Then there's Boone and Ann-Margret, who inject some unexpected sexual energy. Alright, so perhaps a little sexual energy is to be expected with Ann-Margret on board, but Pat Boone? Strange but true, the squeaky clean crooner's country-fried approach to Wayne as he lusts after Emily adds a little spice to an otherwise bland dish.
If the film suffers from anything, it's R&H's old-fashioned score, which is hopelessly at odds with the film's mid-'60s trappings (would a character whose lexicon includes "groovy" and "hip" really be caught with "It's a Grand Night for Singing" on his lips?). A few numbers have been dropped, and a few added (Faye's "Never Say No to a Man," taken out of context, is not exactly prudent advice) or reimagined (Ann-Margret's ensemble number, "Isn't it Kinda Fun," now seems spun out of another dimension). Of course, without the songs, there's little point to this film's existence.
Be that as it may, I'm ever so grateful for having it included here as part of Fox's tribute to the original State Fair. And what a stellar tribute it is. State Fair may be one of the least regarded of R&H's works, but, with this two-disc set, it receives the same royal treatment as the crown jewels in their canon.
The first disc features the 1945 version in its original full-frame format, and it's a joy to watch. The vibrant colors of the fairgrounds pop off the screen, and the clarity is remarkably strong for such an old picture. The Dolby 4.0 Surround doesn't make much use of the rear speakers, but it provides robust sound all the same. Dialogue and music are nicely balanced. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Fox has sprung for a couple of extras that should have R&H roaring with thunderous applause. A commentary featuring film historian Richard Barrios and playwright Tom Briggs (he wrote the book for the inevitable Broadway version of State Fair). Do these two ever know their musical theater history. Engaging and bursting with information, these two make for a good listen. No doubt the serious R&H fan will have heard many of the stories (one of the best being about Dana Andrews, who didn't tell anyone involved with State Fair that he was a trained vocalist for fear that it might put the man hired to record his voiceover out of a job), but everyone else will find it enlightening.
Another fine inclusion is the featurette "From Book to Screen to Stage," which recounts the making of both versions of the film. The program runs a brisk 30 minutes and doesn't waste a moment. Various members of The Rogers & Hammerstein Organization discuss the history of the 1945 film (the studio originally wanted Oklahoma!, but it was still playing on stage), and they pay special attention to casting for both versions. Finally, it touches on the largely ignored 1997 Broadway production (starring John Davidson, of all people), which those involved now admit was upstaged by more contemporary works, such as Rent.
Rounding out the disc-one features is the original theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and a sing-along option.
The second disc presents the 1962 version in its original 2.35:1 format with an anamorphic transfer. Like the first film, the transfer is strong, although the image was softer than I would have preferred, and the colors not as bold as they should have been. Audio is again in Dolby 4.0 Surround, but I couldn't detect any action in the rear speakers this time. English and Spanish subtitles are again included.
In stark contrast to the bountiful, high-quality extras provided for the 1945 film, the extras provided for the remake are abundant but disappointing. This disc boasts a scene-specific commentary track by Boone, who is sunny and cheerful as always, but whose remarks are sparse and insubstantial ("Look at how young I was!"). Long stretches flew by with nary a word. In fact, I occasionally forgot I was listening to a commentary track.
More interesting is the inclusion of the pilot episode from the (presumably) short-lived 1976 series State Fair. This little curiosity stars Vera Miles as the matriarch of the Frake family. Actually, make that the Bryant clan. Apparently, their names were changed to protect the innocent, and for good reason. The show, about life in a contemporary farming family, is reminiscent of the kind of hour-long family dramas that were so popular in the '70s (Eight is Enough, Family, The Waltons), and it is cringe inducing. The dated hair and fashions are bad enough, but the handful of songs (none remotely related to anything R&H has ever written) are hideous. Still, a young Linda Purl as a Tanya Tucker wannabe sure is a cutie.
Finally, we get the 1962 film's original theatrical trailer and footage of the legendary R&H favorite Mary Martin performing "It Might as Well Be Spring" on a 1954 televised Broadway celebration. The footage is, as expected, in grainy black and white, and the sound is tinny, but it's a classy inclusion.
The extras for the 1962 film may not be worth a second look, but I'm pleased as punch that Fox took time to round up any bonus material at all. That has to be worth something.
This 60th Anniversary edition is more fun than cotton candy and a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Rogers & Hammerstein enthusiasts will have a grand old time at this State Fair.
Fox has made this film lover feel as jumpy as a puppet on a string. All charges are dropped.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, State Fair
Perp Profile, State Fair
Distinguishing Marks, State Fair
• Commentary by Richard Barrios and Tom Briggs
Scales of Justice, State Fair
Perp Profile, State Fair
Distinguishing Marks, State Fair
• Commentary by Pat Boone
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