The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

State Fair

April 10, 1962   Fox   118 minutes
August 29, 1945   Fox   100 minutes
Oscar Hammerstein's death in 1960 wasn't about to halt Richard Rodgers or the R&H brand from continued cultural domination--at least for awhile. And in 1962 he was King of the Hill. In March, with Sound of Music still ensconsed on Bway, he scored another hit (writing his own lyrics) with the bespoke Diahann Carroll vehicle, No Strings. In Hlwd, Fox, having dropped the ball on Flower Drum Song (now filling the coffers at Universal) took a look in their vault and lured Rodgers to flesh out his hugely successful original screen musical from 1945. Meanwhile MGM was dusting off an old Rodgers & Hart property for a Doris Day tuner. And, if that wasn't enuf, Alan Jay Lerner (now sans Loewe) recruited him to collaborate on a new show called I Picked a Daisy, for verging star personality, Barbara Harris. This new partnership, which could potentially have begun a third great reign for Rodgers, alas, quickly disintegrated from Lerner's procrastinating work habits. Rodgers lived to work. Lerner worked to live. With Burton Lane instead, the show was finished 3 years later and retitled, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

R&H's State Fair was itself a remake of a Fox movie--an Oscar nominee for Best Picture in 1933. A rural valentine starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor, the film was a Depression era balm to audiences in need of comfort. The end of WWII was a similarly ripe time for such bucolic escapism, and R&H, fresh from creating Oklahoma!, saw a comparable feel in this heartland romance, and an opportunity to develop their brand of new American folklore. In some ways State Fair is the true beginning of this survey. Tho it follows the general template of '40s musicals it presages the rest of the R&H canon and demonstrates the undetecable complexity of pure narrative songwriting. It was a rather modest affair--the story simple enuf: a farm family heads for the fair, full of hopes and dreams that are all realized. R&H wrote but six songs--but they're so well placed and oft reprised that no one is shortchanged. For starters, "It Might As Well Be Spring" is arguably among the best songs R&H ever wrote; an instant classic and perennial favorite with vocalists; it also deservedly won an Oscar. Its twitchy melodic line on "jumpy as a puppet on a string" shows off Rodgers' peerless melodic instinct. "A Grand Night for Singing" could have won the Oscar as well; a front-porch waltz that feels like something from grandma's day that's no less contagious to mid-century youngsters. "Our State Fair" is more jingle than song, and as effective as any commercial; like the many American signposts given song by Irving Berlin, Rodgers had his share of contributing musical definition to much American culture. Do you know another state fair song?

"That's for Me," is a lovely, lesser known R&H tune given a long instrumental lead-in before a vocal that starts with attention-getting dissonance: "Right between the eyes. . ." The verse is almost tranquilizing before the declarative refrain. A flirty duet, "Isn't it Kinda Fun?" answers its own question with a jaunty clip. Tho both songs are expressions of the character's feelings, they're introduced in the context of performance--keeping with studio tradition. (The R&H forumla wasn't yet a proven film draw--Oklahoma! wouldn't be filmed for another ten years.) "All I Owe Ioway" is also introduced as part of the dance-band's set, but quickly is taken into, and picked up by, the audience; resulting in a rousing chorale (and the movie's single dance, by the woefully underused Hermes Pan) that feels a worthy bookend to that other state song the duo had made into a national hit. Watching the film now, it's astounding how simply these half dozen songs are performed. Filmed with minimal editing and a stationary camera; so much the antithesis of today's flashy style that it feels almost prehistoric. Yet under the Technicolor August sky, the fair sparks a remembrance of happy times--real or imagined--and "Grand Night for Singing" is an expression of joy in such old-fashioned, yet unsentimental, glee.
The story could scarcely be less taxing; with stakes as high as blue ribbons and summer romance there's nary a conflict in sight--Oklahoma! has the weight of Eugene O'Neill in comparison. It must've been corny even at conception--and yet, it works by sheer charm and unabashed sincerity. It's surely not from star power. 19 year old Jeanne Crain is pretty but lacking musical chops. "It Might as Well Be Spring" is similar to the longing for "The Boy Next Door" in Meet Me in St. Louis, and the movie was a huge boost to her career, but Crain lacks the magic of Garland. As her roguish suitor, Dana Andrews is wartime adequate, not much more. But band-singer Dick Haymes makes an unconvincing farm boy and has very little sexual charisma. As the jaded chanteuse (intended for Alice Faye), a copper-tressed Vivian Blaine sings a lovely contralto but betrays little sign of the future role that would forever define her: Adelaide. I confess I find her more appealing here (with her natural red tresses) than later. The elders are better; Charles Winninger, the original Cap'n Andy, happily makes a fool of himself over a sow--stepping into a role first played by Will Rogers, and making it his own. As his spouse, Fay Bainter is delightful and Percy Kilbride, still a few years before Kettle was his calling, is around to set the film in action: the story is framed around a $5 bet: can the Frake family attend the fair without any mishaps or disappointments?

For all its bucolic simplicity the film is very much a Hlwd product of its time. The Hays office necessitated a taming even from the pre-code '33 Fox version, let alone the novel, which was rather racy and unapologetic about two farm kids losing their virginity and romantic innocence at the fair, returning home sadder but wiser. And as a Technicolor investment there's no stinting on the art direction; the candy-colored carnival midway, the farmhouse on the verge of a gingham breakdown--Crain has ruffles on her bedpost canopy, her curtains, her dresses and aprons. The costumes are absurdly elaborate for such country folk; to say nothing of their quantity --who knew yokels had such wardrobes? Crain has an endless supply of implausible organza dresses with puffed sleeves. Instead of dungarees and plaid shirts, Haymes struts about in tapered suits fit for Wall St. There's nary a sartorial difference between them and the sophistated entertainers passing thru--a glaring flaw in character differentiation. You sure can't accuse them for stereotyping the rural bumpkin. Surely Haymes was better suited to either Andrews's journalist role, or as the band singer to Blaine's outfit. But Fox thought otherwise. That's Hlwd for you.
I have never been to a State Fair (California's was too far away from LA) nor was I really drawn to one; my impression being a hayseed midway of homemade foods and livestock displays. But apparently it's quite a bit more. The Iowa State Fair, which is the setting for Philip Stong's original novel, and the first two films, is an elaborate affair with dozens of carnival rides--including a roller coaster. While the crowds are lacking in diversity by today's standards it occurred to me watching it now how "inclusive" it was--in a way--for 1945; with America proud of itself for the mingling of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Turks and Jews--not quite all-inclusive, but a melting pot nonetheless. A segregated reality then; a long-gone and unrealistic fantasy for many now. Yet it isn't the whiteness that feels so elegaic now but the high-spirited innocence. The sincerity with which all are out to enjoy themselves cannot be tainted by time or the culture of cynicism. Corny, if you will, but honest to the core. Even the story's darkest secret, Blaine's faltering marriage kept from Haymes, has barely any consequences. He sulks on the ride home, but immediately picks up with his girl friend the instant he's back. Crain is soon bound for Chicago with Andrews (and in five years a recepiant of A Letter to Three Wives), and Winninger wins his $5 from Kilbride.
The movie opened at the Roxy in late August 1945, mere days after America obliterated two cities in Japan and the Great War was finally declared over. While the still new Carousel was providing Bway audiences a communal grieving, State Fair was inviting them to forget all that happened. A return to homespun American values, untainted by the horrors of war; the film was a huge success. But how would all this go over a generation later? In '61 the Cold War was in full swing; Khruschev built a wall around Berlin; visions of mushroom clouds danced in our heads. Yet, remarkably, we still remained mostly unjaded, clinging to the last vestiges of innocence in American society; when grown straight men could still openly enjoy the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein. In such light, a remake of such diversionary froth seemed a natural goldmine. To produce the film Fox assigned Charles Brackett, the former partner of Billy Wilder (from the '30s thru Sunset Blvd), who had produced The King and I pic. It was his final film, as well as Jose Ferrer's as director--a position the actor sometimes took with far less success than his thespian efforts. Usually a writer as well as producer, Brackett left his latter partner scribe, Richard Breen, on his own for this one. Breen began his film career as co-writer with Wilder & Brackett on A Foreign Affair--and got an Oscar nom in the bargain. But his contributions here are poorly chosen. First off, relocating the story from Iowa to Texas serves no purpose other than to expand the regional portfolio of R&H, and exploit the cliche that "everything is bigger" in the Lone Star state. Thus the Frakes don't live on a farm, but a ranch. Their modest trailer campsite is now a mobile home. The Texas state fair--and the real one--is built as permanent exposition with concrete pavilions and enuf rides to compete with Disneyland
The stage entertainment plays a huge amphitheater not a beer-garden. Wayne is now a race car driver as well, and Melissa's mincemeat pie competes not with the snooty society matron, but an actual corporation. It  doesn't help that the dirt flat Texas landscape (some of it filmed in Oklahoma as well) looks singularly uninviting. The change also renders "All I Owe Ioway" to the dustbin. Rodgers wrote a would-be substitute "It's the Little Things in Texas," that's no rousing production number, but a lazy duet for the parents, with a chorus of kiddies on a carousel--ugh. To his own lyrics Rodgers wrote five new songs for the remake; none of which enriched his catalog. One was a lullaby to a hog; another offered motherly advice the likes of "Never Say No to a Man." Presumably he was saving his creative edge for No Strings.

At least the casting must have looked more promising. Pat Boone & Bobby Darin were both pop recording artists; Ann-Margret was a fresh breakout star; and Alice Faye was coaxed out of a 16-year retirement to play Ma. And for Pa: Tom Ewell (the man with The Seven Year Itch) was as different a choice as Winninger was from Will Rogers. (Of the three, Winninger is most winning, not least for his unabashed waterworks upon his hog's winning Best in Show.) As daughter Margy, the ingenue was Pamela Tiffin, coming off her first major role in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. A non-singing actress, like Crain, she's also a dark brunette against Faye & Boone's familial blondeness. One wonders why they didn't go with Darin's new bride, the very blonde, very popular Sandra Dee. (She was #6 Box Office Star in America that year, behind Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, John Wayne and Cary Grant.) Dee would've been perfect, giving fans of the newlyweds something to celebrate. Instead, Tiffin registers meekly as Margy. Faye gets no chance for comeback impact and no song worthy of her talent. (You'd never guess she was a huge musical star at Fox in the '40s.) And Ewell is given to seranading a sow. Darin's casting as a brash TV reporter feels okay, tho Breen's script (unintentionally?) makes the character a creep. A wolf with shoddy manners (look how he callously shucks a date upon spotting Margy again), he's not much of a smooth talker either with lines like, "You don't have to file a brief on it," or "Let's go at it before people go outta style." Or in plying the underage teen with liquor, bragging of a stripper he knew in Paris, or "You get wet and I'll tell you about a geisha party. . ." He's supposed to be redeemed by his sudden true love for this girl, but it's utterly unconvicning. Maybe if Elvis had played the role. Darin was relatively new to movies and was pushing for an acting career. He did score one Oscar nom (for a supporting role in Captain Newman M.D. in '64) but his life was cut short by fragile health and he died ten years later, a young man of 37. State Fair would seem to be a great launching pad for this pop singing star, but aside from warbling on part of "A Grand Night for Singing," he had but one solo, a new Rodgers ballad, "This Isn't Heaven" (reportedly written for the movie of Flower Drum Song.)  But he's a surprisingly unpleasant personality, and I can't determine if that's solely the fault of the screenplay.

On the other hand, Pat Boone comes across a great deal more appealing than expected. In his faded levis and tight white shirt he gives off a Patrick Wilson vibe, and his voice goes down as smoothly as his idol: Bing Crosby. He sings "That's for Me" as an interior monologue, an illustration of how the musical ethos had shifted in Hlwd since the original movie--when Emily performed it with the band. Boone got a new ballad as well from Rodgers, "Willing and Eager" that he croons barechested, in the Josh Logan manner, with Ann-Margret clawing at his pecs. A natural performer since childhood, A-M was playing Vegas before she was twenty--where George Burns first took her under his wing. Fox soon signed her to a film contract, but loaned her out to United Artists for her debut as Bette Davis's daughter in Frank Capra's final film, Pocketful of Miracles--which took little notice of her personality or talent. Fox originally tested her for daughter Margy, but thought better to capitalize on her wild stage energy, turning "Isn't It Kinda Fun?" into a showpiece production number shifting from schoolgirl trilling to Beelzebub belting on a scorched red Hades set. (Interesting how they "change" the set by moving her shed housecoat into the camera lens, then boom we're on another set--in front of a live audience, you betcha.) "Are you a (pause) bad girl?" asks Boone's Wayne of trouper Emily. No, but she's been around the block, and tho she was only 20, A-M was a convincing veteran. Concurrent with the film's release she made national impact performing on the '62 Academy Awards, a Henry Mancini & Mack David tune, "Bachelor in Paradise," in her tribal abandon. Her natural brunette hair dyed a flaming red, her voluptuous figure squeezed into capri pants and heels, A-M burst ahead of the pack to define the '60s sexpot: the kitten. State Fair doesn't seal the deal, but it points the way--another musical, a Bway sleeper would soon do the trick.

Was it for brevity's sake that Hammerstein, in his '45 screenplay, chose a third party to tell Wayne that Emily is married, swiftly concluding their romance without tears or goodbyes? We don't even see her again. Here's where Breen's re-write goes deeper. Tho it's rather superfluous to make Wayne an amateur racing car driver as well as farmboy, we get an event that draws both his family and Emily: the Big Race. Unknown to each other, Emily conveniently passes the Frakes in a crowd and overhears Wayne's mother call her (sight unseen) "trash." Dad defends him, "Why would Wayne want to be with trash?" But Mom's response: "Maybe she doesn't know she's trash" cuts Emily to the bone. Arriving at her room, Wayne meets a cool brush off (she isn't married here, just in show business--an apparent incompatibility, or "trash"). It should be said that both Boone and Ann-Margret acquit themselves well in the acting department here; one of the few places where Jose Ferrer's direction rises above the uninspired. Afterwards, Wayne returns to camp drunk and despondent; and in a striking scene is lovingly stripped to his boxers by Dad and tucked into bed. Still by morning he's completely recovered (even faster than Haymes in '45, who at least sulked on the ride home) and is all smiles, ready to rush back to his Betty Jean: who we met and loathed in the opening reel for being as affected as Gloria Upson in Auntie Mame.  This is the right girl for Wayne?--not that bad "show business" Ann-Margret. On the other hand Margy ditches her hick fiancee for a vagabond jerk and a creep. Note that the parents never meet their kids' fair flings right thru the movie's end. Hard to imagine they'd like Darin, let alone allow him to steal their daughter away.  Hooray for Hlwd.
With the Roxy (Fox's predominate NY venue) demolished, the remake premiered at the Paramount in Times Square on April 10, 1962, and played but six weeks before going wide. It was a commercial disappointment, grossing only $3,250,000 in total, far short of the $4,050,000 made by the original--a far more impressive sum in 1945. While the film played out the "nabes" that summer, the Penn's of Canoga Park were busy with other matters: Baba's first visit in five years; a weekend in Palm Springs that blew my mind, a vacation trip to San Francisco that topped even that; and in September the first new TV season I followed with obsessive scrutiny. I'd seen the movie, and played the soundtrack endlessly to Flower Drum Song, and there was soon another musical on my radar I had to wait many months to see. Thus State Fair '62, went by the wayside and was unknown to me for three more decades. Despite my affection for R&H, I didn't get to their original film either until a 1992 VHS release made it available. Its simple charms took me by surprise--I was enchanted. The following year I got to the remake, and promptly forgot it. Or to put it another way, the original makes me want to visit Iowa; the remake shows me why I'll never go to Texas.

Fifty years on from the original pic, the R&H Organization sought to retrofit the show for the stage--and hopefully to expand the active R&H catalog for production. It had something of a trial run back in 1969, when the St. Louis MUNY theater tried a summer-stock version starring Ozzie & Harriet Nelson--well, why not? Hammerstein's son, James, oversaw the production, which had the distinction of being choreographed by Tommy Tune, who also played a minor role. (He was then still a chorus boy, having just filmed Hello, Dolly!) The two-week run inspired no further passage. But a quarter of a century later a consortium of interested parties, including The Theatre Guild (which produced the first few R&H musicals) and the once ubiquitous David Merrick (whose final hurrah this would be) mounted a full-scale Bway production. It was, by good measure, a successful effort--a decent book was given sharper definition, tho wisely set back in the halcyon glow of 1946; and the score, buffeted with tunes harvested from other R&H shows, was lovingly cosseted to stand front and center. On the basis of my love for the movie, I dragged myself solo to see it in tryout in SF, expecting an embarrassment. To my surprise it was anything but. Margy was played by the grown-up Annie, Andrea McArdle; Emily by the weathered Donna McKechnie (whose age made her romance with Ben Wright's young-pup, Wayne, all the more impossible and heartbreaking. Scott Wise played reporter Pat with a good deal more charm and flair than Bobby Darin. As the senior Frakes, John Davidson & Kathryn Crosby were as good as their roles required, which wasn't that much. The cultural significance of Bway had fallen to such a nadir in the 1980s, it seemed hellbent on extinction. But by the mid-'90s there were signs of life --tho a good portion of that was looking backward. Revivals of Golden Age classics bounded in with new regularity and much longer runs; Encores! at City Center began its legendary concert revivals in '94; a Hal Prince Show Boat; a Nicholas Hytner Carousel--introducing us to Audra McDonald--kept the R or H name in currency. And as State Fair reached Bway in March '96, Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel, unveiled his own post-modern musical as American folklore: Floyd Collins. Timing is everything, and if there might have been a moment to bring back the pure simplicity of R&H's summertime lark, the spring of '96 was not it. Within a month two forward-feeling musicals would take Bway by storm: the terpsichordean Bring in 'da noise, Bring in 'da funk, and the zeitgeist bullseye, complete with tragic backstory, the once in a generation game-changer: Rent. In the shade of such glare, State Fair quickly wilted. It leaves behind a lovely CD of the score; beautifully sung and orchestrated. And the unanswerable question is if time will ever be right again for this benign musical.

Fox smartly combined both movies in a single CD package, which includes an excellent mini-doc on the various versions of the story (including the stage); and a commentary track by Tom Briggs (co-author of the stage book) and historian Richard Barrios, on the '45 pic. The '62 film has "commentary" by Pat Boone that's as worthless as it is sporadic. Aside from sounding like some overly pious Christian grandpa, he provides little insight into the material or production; mostly trivial reflections on his own scenes, needlessly reassuring us with astounding prudishness how chaste he kept his work with Ann-Margret, or swearing he'd never had a drink by age 27--as if that's an accomplishment. Could this man be any more boring? What is fascinating, however, is how his latter-day sanctimonious purity contrasts so much with what's up on screen: a young man very much aware of his sexuality. The bottom line is whatever heat the film gives off comes strictly from Pat Boone and Ann-Margret. Or as Rodgers wrote in one of his few lyrics here, It's the little things in Texas I love.

Next Up: The Music Man

Report Card:    State Fair    1945
Overall Film:    A-
New Songs:     6
Standout Numbers: "All I Owe Ioway"
               “It's a Grand Night for Singing”
Casting:    From Fox's B-list
Standout Cast: Charles Winninger,
               Faye Bainter, Vivian Blaine
Sourthumb Cast: Dick Haymes,
     Frank McHugh (as extraneous song plugger)
Direction:  Brisk, efficient
Choreography: Once only in "All I Owe Ioway"
Ballet:   None
Scenic Design: Simple, colorful
Costumes:  Country couture
Titles: '40s Technicolor poster sheets
Oscar Nominations: Score & Song:
               "It Might As Well Be Spring" (won)

Report Card:    State Fair    1962
Overall Film:    C
New Songs:     5
Songs Cut from Original Film:  1
Standout Number: “That's for Me”
Casting:  New & Old Hlwd pop stars
Standout Cast: Ann-Margret, Pat Boone
Sorethumb Cast: Bobby Darin
Direction:  Dull, uninspired
Choreography: Negligible
Scenic Design: Flat Texas/Okla locations            
Costumes:  Texas casual
Titles:  Over establishing rural landscapes
Oscar Nominations: None
Camp Hall of Fame: "Isn't it Kinda Fun"

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