Believe it or not my parents are not fans of movies. They maybe see a movie a year and could care less about the art-form. But we did watch a lot of Disney animated films, which is probably why I love them, but I also remember watching musicals as a family. My parents both love music and particularly the musicals from the 40s-60s were favorites at our house. In that spirit, I thought it would be fun to pick a musical for this week’s Family Movie Night pick. This is my series where I pick a film that you can stream on Netflix and watch with your entire family. Today we are going to talk about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic State Fair.
State Fair was based on the 1933 film of the same name which starred Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor and it was the first and only musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for a film (Cinderella they later did for TV), not for the stage first. It was later remade in 1962 with Ann-Margaret and Pat Boone (a version I do not recommend) and was finally adapted to the Broadway stage in 1996 in a Tony nominated production. The 1945 version was directed by Walter Lang who also directed The King and I and starred Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews and Dick Haymes in the leads.
The story revolves around the Frake family consisting of Ma and Pa played with a lot of charm by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger, and their children Margy (Jeanne Crain) and Wayne (Dick Haymes). Margy is thoroughly bored with her life and current suitor and hopes to find some excitement at the fair. Wayne has been practicing his ring-tossing skills so he can outwit a carnival barker who outwitted him of a load of money the previous year. He is also disappointed because his girl can’t make it to the fair.
Ma is busy preparing pickles and mincemeat for the fair and there is a funny gag about her not wanting to put brandy in her mincemeat but then everyone sabotaging her and adding some, which the judges love! Meanwhile Pa focuses on his pig Blue Boy and he bets his neighbor that they will all have a good time at the fair (the neighbor is a forever pessimist!
Once they get to the fair each of the characters has a fair amount of screen time. It truly is about a family, which I enjoy. Margy meets Pat a reporter played by the charismatic Dana Andrews and Wayne meets Emily, a club singer played by the great Vivian Blaine who he becomes quite smitten with (Blaine is the only lead that does their own singing in State Fair)
State Fair is not the kind of musical that will win a lot of awards or be on a lot of top 10 greatest musical lists but it is extremely entertaining and engaging. Naturally a lot of that goes down to the songs and in this regard Rodgers and Hammerstein do not disappoint. The three best songs are:
Our State Fair– the opening number is bright and bubbly and introduces you to the State Fair and all that it will provide to entertain.
It Might as Well Be Spring– Margy sings about how bored she is with her life and how the Fair will at least be something new and different.
And then my favorite
Grand Night for Singing– A classic 1940s musical piece about love and music and the Fair.
In many ways State Fair is a lot like Meet Me in St Louis which is all about a family awaiting the World’s Fair. Meet Me came out the previous year to State Fair, so I’m not sure if it was a trend of those years or just chance(it makes sense when you think World War 2 was ending in 1945 and perhaps the movie-going public needed a little bit of fun and nostalgia). Meet Me is a better film than State Fair but they are both very innocent in the level of conflict the characters face and the problems in the world. In Meet Me the family is moving; whereas, in State Fair even the pig is feeling a little lovelorn that’s all.
If you think about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other films they all contain much darker themes. Oklahoma has a sad, quite somber undertone with Jud ruining Curly and Laurey’s big day and almost killing them. Carousel is about death and a man never overcoming his anger. South Pacific is about the perils of love in a time of war. So State Fair really stands apart as a completely joyous experience. It is a film you can watch with your family and not have to address weighty themes or challenging topics, which has its place but sometimes it is nice to just watch a pleasant film with your family.
Director Walter Lang and cinematographer Leon Shamroy do a good job making the fair feel real instead of on a studio back lot. You see the animals, burgers, cotton candy and amusement rides and it makes you want to attend the fair along with the Frake family. It also has a likable cast and like I said some good songs.
If I am going to dock the film a bit, the romantic entanglements are definitely on the corny side but I guess I don’t mind that in a film. It’s shot in technicolor and is bright and fun. I think it is important to show your kids films from the past and State Fair is one they should be able to enjoy. And hey you might find yourself humming ‘grand night for singing’ for weeks to come!
Let me know what you think if you get a chance to see it. Thanks!