#371) State Fair (1933)

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#371) State Fair (1933)

OR “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm?”

Directed by Henry King

Written by Sonya Levien and Paul Green. Based on the novel by Philip Stong.

Class of 2014

No trailer, but here’s a clip

The Plot: The Frake family travel to the Iowa State Fair for a few days of fun. Father Abel (Will Rogers) believes his hog Blue Boy can take home the blue ribbon, while mother Melissa (Louise Dresser) feels the same about her pickles and mincemeat. Daughter Margy (Janet Gaynor) has a whirlwind romance with reporter Pat Gilbert (Lew Ayres), while son Wayne (Norman Foster) has an affair with experienced acrobat Emily Joyce (Sally Eilers). Will these blossoming young adults heed the siren call of a more exciting life? Or return to the security of the country?

Why It Matters: The NFR’s write-up focuses primarily on Will Rogers, and gives shout-outs to Henry King’s direction and the film’s “diverse storylines rich with Americana and romance”. There’s also an essay by Fox expert Aubrey Solomon.

But Does It Really?: I…don’t know. The NFR definitely makes a case for “State Fair” on the basis of Will Rogers, but I’ll argue there are better Rogers vehicles that could have been chosen (“Laughing Bill Hyde” and “A Connecticut Yankee”, just to name two). “State Fair” is by no means a bad movie, but it lacks the overall emotional and/or cultural impact I’m looking for in an NFR entry. I can give “State Fair” a pass for Will Rogers, but the second another one of his movies makes the list this one’s getting a reevaluation.

Everybody Gets One: Will Rogers’ performance career started in the early 1900s as a rope twirler on the Vaudeville circuit, and over the next 30 years he became a celebrated humorist, radio personality, newspaper columnist, and movie star. Rogers’ homespun demeanor and witty topicality made him popular with both urban and rural America. Like many of his films, “State Fair” was tailored to fit Rogers’ established persona, with some of his own one-liners sneaking into the final cut.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the concept of state fairs as an event that brought rural America together. Now it’s a showcase for shoddy carnival rides and concerts by one-hit wonders.

Seriously, Oscars?: “State Fair” was the hit Fox Studios needed to get out of their financial slump, and received two nominations at the 6th Academy Awards. The film lost Adapted Screenplay to the umpteenth remake of “Little Women”, and Best Picture to the long-forgotten “Cavalcade”.

Other notes

  • Reminder: “State Fair” is now legally a Disney movie. Will the Janet Gaynor filmography be a sub-category on Disney+?
  • Will Rogers is either the most professional amateur actor I’ve ever seen, or the most amateur professional actor. He’s so natural I can’t tell.
  • The opening scenes on the farm play out like if “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t have a twister. Enough set-up; let’s go to the fair, Frakes!
  • Director Henry King traveled to the 1932 Iowa State Fair with author Philip Stong to observe the action, as well as to film various events and locations for background plates. In addition, the fair’s blue ribbon hog, Dike of Roseland, was cast as Blue Boy.
  • Today’s Inflation Adjustment: the three dollars Wayne wins at ring toss would be about $60 today.
  • Not a lot of meet-cutes happen on a roller coaster. Gaynor and Ayres are charming in their scenes together, proving that love is, in fact, like a roller coaster baby baby.
  • “State Fair” is seemingly on this list to represent Will Rogers, yet Abel is a supporting character. On top of that, most of his scenes are with the hog! Rogers did, however, manage a good one-liner out of the situation during an interview: “A hog’s at his best when he’s on a plate between a couple of eggs.”
  • Hearing this film’s underscore, I completely understand why you would want to musicalize this material.
  • I’m glad I picked a summer evening to watch “State Fair”; it helps set the mood. Weirdly enough, the film was shot at Fox in the winter of 1932.
  • The affair between Wayne and Emily was originally much more implicit. One scene in particular featuring a shot of Emily’s negligee on the floor caused uproar among moviegoers expecting something more family-friendly. When “State Fair” was re-released in 1936, the Hays Code was in full swing, and the aforementioned scene was deleted, never to be seen again.
  • Abel tells Margy that she’s “a lot prettier than them movin’ picture actresses that just get paid for being pretty.” Should Janet Gaynor be insulted?
  • “And if you think next year don’t roll around quick, you just wait ‘til you’re old enough to pay taxes.” There’s your Will Rogers wit in action!
  • The only major difference between the novel and the film is the happy ending tacked onto the movie. That being said, that’s a beautiful closing shot.

Legacy

  • “State Fair” was a critical and commercial hit, and was re-released in 1936 to commemorate the sudden passing of Will Rogers.
  • Phillip Stong was always bugged by the altered “Hollywood ending” his story received, and eventually wrote a sequel, 1953’s “Return in August”, in which Margy and Pat reunite at the fair 20 years later.
  • “State Fair” has been remade for film twice, both times as musicals. The 1945 version features second-tier Rodgers and Hammerstein, while the 1962 update stars Ann-Margret! The remakes inspired a stage production that came and went on Broadway in 1996.
  • “State Fair” was also loosely adapted as a TV pilot in 1976, with Vera Miles as the family matriarch. The pilot aired once on CBS, and never went to series.
  • As for the original film, “State Fair” disappeared after the 1930s, partially to avoid confusion with its remakes, and partially due to quality prints being destroyed in the 1937 Fox fire. A useable print was finally discovered in the 1960s, and the original “State Fair” started making the classic movie cable rounds in the 1990s.

Listen to This: During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover asked Will Rogers to join him on a radio program to promote his unemployment relief campaign. Rogers’ speech, later dubbed “Bacon, Beans and Limousines”, was simultaneously a pep talk to downtrodden Americans and a mild condemnation of Hoover’s presidential missteps. The speech solidified Rogers’ standing as the voice of the everyman, and the broadcast made the National Recording Registry in 2012. An essay by Will Rogers expert Ben Yagoda and an NPR piece by Kurt Andersen provide more historical context.

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