“Cinema Snacks” is an unwholesome nibble through the minor classics.
Warning: As snacks ruin your dinner, so too may spoilers ruin your watching experience. Graze with caution.
Today’s recommended snack: Anything on a stick, with a side of Vicks VapoRub
There’s a category of films I call “Sick Day Movies.” There are several highly specified filters one needs to employ when selecting a Sick Day Movie, and if I wasn’t such a lazy blogger, I’d make a flow chart for you. Who knows, maybe I still will. I was ill during many school days in my childhood. Sickness for me could generally be divided into two categories – the first, raging throat infections, and the second, the nauseous “sickness” that would arise in the morning any day I knew I had gym class. This second category of malaise is what most adults would classify as a “Mental Health Day.” There are no thematic restrictions for a Mental Health Day movie. You need to cry? Put on something that will make you cry (The Miracle Worker really does it for me). Want to laugh? That’s fine – just don’t let anyone hear you chuckling and force you back to work.
Catching an actual bacteria or virus-induced illness means you will need to engage in a selective narrowing of your Netflix categories. If you are experiencing stomach-related turmoil, any films featuring food are out of the question; even animated fare like Ratatouille is likely to elicit a bodily eviction of your crackers and ginger ale. When I was a kid my favourite pukey-time film series was Star Wars. The original trilogy is perfectly timed to fill your entire day, and since you’ve likely seen it a million times before, you won’t feel bad if you need to miss a scene in order to make the Toilet Run is less than twelve parsecs. Also, since your abdominal exhaustion will force you into a late-afternoon nap, you’ll get to miss the really shitty (pun intended) parts of Return of the Jedi.
Cold and flu season necessitates the kind of film that will both distract and soothe. Since your head will be full of mucous and your eyes bleary, you’ll need something with enough visual stimulation to keep you from getting body-obsessed and angrily forcing a pipe cleaner through your sinuses. You won’t want anything with too many explosions or loud noises. While you might think Aliens is the kind of movie that’s going to distract you from your snot-drowned misery, it won’t be long before you have a headache to contend with. I’ve also found that one should not watch anything too good when fighting the forces of congestion and the delirium of fever; remembering that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25 is only going to make you want to take more sips from the NyQuil bottle.
So what’s my entertainment suggestion for when you feel like a human water balloon? Something middling and vaguely pleasant. Something that’s not the best work of any of the people involved. The film can be in whatever genre you prefer, and since I love musicals and find they give me a boost, that tends to be what I go for. But like I said, nothing too good. I don’t need to be feeling like the ghost of Vincente Minnelli is going to haunt me because I was inspecting my snot-rags in the throes of some perfectly art-directed scene. And so, I bring you:
I’ve seen State Fair so many times that I’m no longer qualified (or even capable) of telling you whether or not it’s a good movie. I think the average viewer would be likely to find it the weakest film in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection DVD box-set. Actually, of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein properties that were turned into films, I personally find South Pacific the most grating (although I think the musical itself is brilliant), so I go easy on State Fair. And State Fair, unlike the other famous R&H film musicals, wasn’t a stage production initially. The Sound of Music, for all the treacly-ness viewers can find in it, actually ironed out a lot of wrinkles in the transition from stage to screen. State Fair never had the benefit of a Broadway run to, for example, let Twentieth Century Fox know that pigs should never be made major characters in a movie (Babe is exempted from this rule). A lot of the issues with State Fair may come from its source material, a 1933 non-musical film which is itself based on a book by Phil Stong. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never seen the original film (nor the 1962 musical remake with Ann-Margret and Pat Boone, which is reportedly a horror). At best, I can compare State Fair to the rest of the R&H catalogue and to other movie musicals. And how does it fare? I’ll let The King of Siam comment on that.
Song: Our State Fair
Lyric: It’s dollars to doughnuts that our state fair/Is the best state fair in our state.
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!”
At the beginning of State Fair we get a little musical montage of the local townspeople preparing for the eponymous event. We’re introduced to the matriarch and patriarch of the Frake family, Abel (Charles Winninger) and Melissa (Fay Bainter), their neighbour Dave Miller (Pa Kettle himself, Percy Kilbride), and the Frake family’s prize hog Blue Boy. If I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that this movie is going to lose some people (particularly the musical skeptics) in the first five minutes when Blue Boy snorts in rhythm with the opening song. Yes, the hog gets a solo. That’s just something you’re going to have to get over, and if you are watching this with a cold, you’ll probably be too lazy to reach for the remote and shut it off anyway. So there.
You’ll figure out right off the bat that this is not going to be a soul-altering R&H experience. Richard Rodgers didn’t know how to write a non-catchy tune, but as even as protege (and Hammerstein surrogate son) Stephen Sondheim is willing to admit, Oscar occasionally got a little wishy-washy in the lyrics department. I’ll forgive a multitude of sins, but even I have to concede that “Our state fair is a great state fair/Don’t miss it, don’t even be late!” is a pretty lame way to open a musical. It sort of defies the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing to say to the audience that something is great because, well, it’s great. Maybe Hammerstein is trying to indicate to us that these rural townsfolk aren’t the most eloquent of people? I don’t know.
Next we’re introduced to Melissa and Abel’s daughter, Margy (Jeanne Crain). She’s packing for the fair when a sudden feeling of melancholy washes over her. The source of this melancholy? If it were me I’d assume existential terror at the meaninglessness of the universe, but for Margy the source of her teenaged (or adult, since I cannot figure out for the life of me how old she’s supposed to be) sighs are due to the burden of a rather tepid fiance named Harry.
Song: It Might as Well Be Spring
Lyric: I’m as busy as a spider spinning daydreams/I’m as giddy as a baby on a swing.
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “You are very difficult woman!”
“It Might as Well Be Spring” is undoubtedly the musical high-point of State Fair. In the movie it is used to set up Margy’s discontendedness with her life, and her fantasies about “Hearing words that [she has] never heard, from a man [she’s] yet to meet.” The song has since become a minor standard (my favourite version is by Blossom Dearie), and I think it’s a lovely song worthy of continued life. For people who find the rules of musicals hard to follow, this song is also essentially the last number in the movie that’s integrated, meaning that Margy’s song in the windowsill functions to develop her character/story, without giving the audience a plot-based reason for why she’s singing at that exact moment. She’s just singing because she’s sad, folks. The rest of the songs are either a part of a stage show or rehearsal of some kind, meaning that all you literalists out there won’t be rolling your eyes and asking “why are they dancing/singing now?” I personally find the integrated technique more interesting and easier to connect with emotionally than the “backstage musical” technique, but hey, different strokes for different folks.
Remember earlier when I was careful to separate head cold movies from stomach virus movies? Well, here’s a great example of why that’s necessary. One of the major plot points in State Fair (and this will tell you what a low-stakes folksy lark it is) is Melissa’s prize-worthy mincemeat. For the mercifully uninitiated, mincemeat is an unholy mixture of shriveled dried fruit, Christmassy spices, alcohol, and sometimes meat. It is not natural and it is most definitely not food (take your disagreement to the comments section, if necessary). In my dream version of this movie, Melissa feeds the bowl of mincemeat to Blue Boy and calls it a day. Anyway, Abel doesn’t feel that Melissa’s hell-hash is boozy enough, so behind her back he soaks the mincemeat with brandy and, HO HO HO, wouldn’t you bet that this indiscretion is going to come back as a plot point later.
Finally we’re introduced to the other Frake child, Wayne (Dick Haymes, who at 27 is playing another of Hollywood’s seemingly infinite supply over-ripened college boys). Wayne is almost as crankypants as his sister Margy after learning that his girlfriend Eleanor won’t be able to go to the state fair with him. Dick Haymes has a lovely singing voice, but he’s pretty short on charisma. It’s just as well you not like him too much, because in about fifteen minutes screen time you’re going to find out this country boy can’t resist the lure of a big-city woman for even a few days at an amusement park. Eleanor had better watch out for this loser.
The Frakes are off to the fair, and on their first day Margy and Wayne split up to have a little fun on their own. Wayne is duped in a game of hoops by a crooked circus barker (Harry Morgan, who had a vast career before MASH). Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine), a passerby, rescues Wayne by pretending to be the daughter of the chief of police and getting Wayne’s money back from the barker. For most people this would be the part where you say “thanks” and go your separate ways. But Wayne’s a bit of a shithead who can’t get over the fact that his lady couldn’t come and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl with him, so he lets himself become enamored with the gorgeous, red-headed Emily. More like State Affair, amirite?
Margy, she of the “starry-eyed and vaguely discontented” song, finds herself in search of greater thrills. So, she gets on a roller-coaster where, like her brother, she meets cute with a stranger at the fair. Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews) is the man she’s been looking for. He’s a newspaper journalist, which means he’s exactly the kind of unstable and vaguely egotistical jerk that Harry will never be. Oh, young love – so fickle. For full disclosure, I have a longstanding and abiding love for Dana Andrews, so while he doesn’t have a juicy part here, it’s juicy enough for me just by virtue of his being there. Pat and Margy decide they want to enjoy a day of fun with each other (which means eating lots of breath-ravaging fair foods, but whatever), and oh, how cute it is. Getting candy apples with Dana Andrews is my new official dream date.
Song: That’s For Me
Lyric: I know what I like, and I liked what I saw/And I said to myself “That’s for me.”
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “A human male is pleased by many women/And all the rest you hear is fairy tale.”
Wayne, bumpkinish though he might be, soon discovers that Emily is not, in fact, the chief of police’s daughter. Instead, she’s a singer with the Tommy Thomas band (kind of a state fair, bargain bin version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra), and a lovely singer at that. She sings “That’s For Me,” a forgettable ballad that nevertheless speaks lyrically to Wayne’s desire to say “Eleanor? What Eleanor?” Fortunately for the movie, it’s highly believable that someone would fall in love with Vivian Blaine against their better judgement.
Song: It’s a Grand Night for Singing
Lyric: It’s a grand night for singing/The stars are bright above./The earth is a-glow/And, to add to the show/I think I am falling in love!
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “Oh, sometimes I think that people going mad/Ah, sometimes I think that people not so bad.”
The inclusion of the singer Emily and the Tommy Thomas band in the film is a great device for working in pleasant, if generic, tunes. I get the feeling that most of the lyrics were written without specific characters in mind. You could switch around the order of the songs, and who sings them, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference to the story. That’s the real difference between this and a great musical like Gypsy, where the lyrics are completely specific and integral to the progression of the characters’ journeys. I’m gonna give “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” my runner-up prize for Best Song in State Fair, simply because it’s so damned catchy that you’ll be singing it long after the movie is over. I have a very high tolerance for corniness, though, so don’t blame me if this earworm haunts and disturbs you. The other purpose of this song at this point in the film is to give Dick Haymes a chance to sing. His syrupy-smooth voice impresses Emily. At this point I start to wonder if Wayne went to the fair with the sole purpose of networking.
Melissa and Abel, unaware of their childrens’ search for sexytimes at the fair, focus on their personal goals of winning big in the cooking and livestock competitions. As mentioned, the over-sauced mincemeat rolls (or should I say oozes?) back into the plot and leads Melissa to bake-off victory. Abel has more difficulty in his venture to bring Blue Boy to all the hoggy glory he deserves. The Blue Boy sections of the film I find so annoying and dull that now, as an adult, I fast-forward through them. Even Blue Boy gets a love interest in State Fair. A pig love interest. I can barely even write about this because my eyes are rolling so far back in my head that I can’t see the screen anymore. Anyway, it’s dumb (again, take it to the comments if you must). One of the reasons I refuse to watch the 1962 remake is there’s an additional song (with lyrics and music written by Rodgers, as Hammerstein had died by that time) called “More Than Just a Friend,” which Abel sings to Blue Boy. Example lyric: Warm and soft affection lies/In your teeny weeny eyes. I think country folk have enough animal-love jokes made at their expense, thank you very much. Actually, I just realized I’m not even talking about the Blue Boy portion of the film in its proper chronological place. That’s how little I care about that porker.
Song: Isn’t It Kind of Fun?
Lyric: Maybe you’re not a girl to have and to hold,/Maybe I’m not a boy who would stay./But isn’t it kind of fun carousing around the town/Dancing the night away?
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “Is a danger to be trusting one another/One will seldom want to do what other wishes.”
The song “Isn’t It Kind of Fun?” does have some utility in the plot of State Fair, since it essentially foreshadows the temporary nature of Emily and Wayne’s relationship. Basically it’s a love song for the non-committal. Richard Rodgers probably could have written this tune in his sleep. Like Blue Boy, I’m not particularly invested in this relationship. It takes up too much Dana Andrews screen time as far as I’m concerned. Like Romeo and Juliet, Emily and Wayne are doomed. Doomed to a life of being boring and all-American, but with other people. Such is the low-grade turmoil and drama of social gatherings where all the food is on a stick.
Song: All I Owe Ioway
Lyric: I owe Ioway for her ham and her beef and her lamb,/And her strawberry jam, and her pie!
The King of Siam’s Assessment: “You will say no more!”
The final song introduced in State Fair is “All I Owe Ioway.” As a Canadian, this song is still the basis of all I know about Iowa. For this, I am truly repentant and apologetic. I don’t know what Oscar Hammerstein had against the state of Iowa. Poor Iowans must look at Oklahoma and think “You got that song, and we got saddled with this?” It’s undoubtedly a lowpoint in the R&H songbook – in fact, there’s no excuse for it. I think they just needed a big number, everyone was tired, and this popped out. We all have things we’re not proud of. Still, I’d rather listen to this song three times in a row than spend another second with Blue Boy.
State Fair is a middling movie because it only builds enough steam to get you to care about two of the characters. Sure, you’ve got your pies and pigs and pickles, but this is Margy’s story. Will she get over her spring fever? Or will she be saddled with the sexless Harry for the rest of her life? If you don’t already know the answer to this question, then you haven’t seen enough movie musicals. Pat is offered a better job that takes him away from the state fair. His unexpected absence leaves Margy wondering if she’s eaten too many corn dogs and if Pat doesn’t love her anymore. Ok, I made that part up. Jeanne Crain gets to cry beautifully in Technicolor – the ultimate sick-day movie treat. When you’re not feeling well, don’t you just want to live in a world where people only cry from their eyeballs and not their noses too? It’s a more civilized universe.
Alright, flu victims. Are you going to feel better after watching State Fair? To be honest, I doubt it. In fact, you may feel worse. Unfortunately the formula for the perfect Sick Day Movie needs to be tailored to your own tastes and experiences. State Fair works for me because I saw it first when I was a kid, and so, like a family member that one finds irritating, I’ve learned to forgive it and love it for what it is and for what works. Except the damned pig. I’d take a re-cut of the film without the pig.