Nether Regions 02.16.10: State Fair (1933)
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor, and Lew Ayres
Wholesome, tender, and easy to digest, the 1933 original version of State Fair, based on the novel by Philip Strong, is the type of sweet-natured family entertainment that has become exceedingly rare in film, if not extinct. This was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, back when they had more than 5 nominees, and Best Writing-Adaptation. The novel was adapted again into a mediocre musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945, and then redone once more in 1962 into a truly horrendous musical experience. There was also a television pilot in 1976 that, well, isn’t really worthwhile either. All three of those can be found quite easily in one nifty DVD collection. The mystery lies in the fact that the superb original, sans lame music numbers, has never been released in any format.
The premise is essentially the same in each rendition. The Frake family is preparing to travel to the state fair. The father, Abel (Will Rogers), is readying his prize hog Blue Boy in hopes of winning the blue ribbon. The mother, Melissa (Louise Dresser), is busy making pickles and mincemeat, which she plans to enter into contests. They have two children, Wayne and Margy (Janet Gaynor), both of whom are caught up in relationships they are not thrilled with. Wayne spends time, mostly arguing it seems, with a girl named Eleanor. Margy is consistently bothered by the milkman Harry (Frank Melton), who is adored by her parents. Neither is ready to settle down with their local loves. Upon arriving at the fair, both become acquainted with new romances.
|The Frakes convene
by the hog pens.
Wayne (Norman Foster) is the first to explore the fair grounds. The year before, he was cheated by the man who runs the ring-toss game (Victory Jory in a priceless turn). He had won a nice pistol, but it ended up being junk. On top of that, the man made fun of him. Sadly, the fairs still get away with this tomfoolery decades later. He spent all year practicing and planning a dose of payback to the same guy. He quickly shows that he is a pro at ringtossing, but this angers the barker, and he threatens to notify the police. A young woman steps up and informs him that the police will do nothing because her father is the chief. Wayne receives his revenge, and hits it off with the girl, named Emily (Sally Eilers), who also happens to be a trapeze artist. Margy gets left behind waiting for Wayne, and eventually walks off alone. She meets a pleasant newspaper employee (Lew Ayres) while riding on the rollercoaster.
Other than that, the life of the Frakes is relatively uneventful, but observing this slice of life is heartwarming and fascinating nonetheless. This particular edition of State Fair also reinforces that the absence of a villain and a lack of suspense does not necessarily equate to flaws. This merely aims to convey the joys one family has every year by traveling to their state fair, during a time when fairs and carnivals meant more. One of the main problems with the subsequent musicals is that they expanded upon the characters and sub-plots in ways that allowed more glaring clichés and nonsensical traits just for a heightened dramatic conflict. It wasn’t needed. The benefit comes in watching honest and hardworking folks do what makes them feel happy, while the children continue to mature and blossom.
The difference in the performances is literally earth-shattering, but they are splendid regardless of whether or not one has seen the musicals. The most notable is that of Will Rogers, who was a famous vaudeville and silent film star, but the introduction of sound to the cinema changed everything for him. It was then that the public could hear that irreplaceable country accent, and it was that attribute which makes his portrayal of Abel Frake so endearing. Rogers fits Abel in every manner because he seems born to play a part such as this. Abel is a loving husband and father, but he wants more than anything for his humongous Blue Boy to take home the grand champion prize. Attending to him takes up most of his time. Unfortunately the hog becomes depressed when the family arrives at the fair. He only springs to life when the red-haired female hog Esmeralda is in sight.
Rogers does not have an enormous amount of lines, but he establishes such innate chemistry with the cast that it radiates from him like a disease with his fellow cast members. The family acts as if they have been living together their whole lives. Rogers possessed an undeniable charm that he instilled into Abel Frake. It is believable that Abel cares so much for this pig, yet is simultaneously a providing father because of how Rogers approaches the persona. He and Louise Dresser, who acts as his wife Melissa Frake, are the sort of bickering but ebullient veteran couple that everyone has met at sometime or another. The moments of old-fashioned humor they exchange make for satisfying interludes from the romance. Abel’s scene with his daughter as he tells her how beautiful she is will surely melt your heart. You’ve heard of the Will Rogers Institute. It was created after his death in 1935 from a tragic plane crash. He was someone who said “I never met a man I didn’t like.” All you have to do is watch this film to figure out why the American public loved him so much.
Louise Dresser’s Melissa is a wife and mother that is guaranteed to run an organized and upstanding household because she is on top of everything and cares so intensely. She wants what’s best for her kids, but knows they are at a crucial time in their development. In one late scene, when both kids look down in the dumps, she has a great line that explains to both Wayne and Margy that they are at an age when everything seems so much more important than it really is. It is a wonderful scene, and it’s truthful. At another time, she and Abel have a dispute on the quality of her mincemeat. He says it needs a touch of brandy, and she refuses. When she isn’t looking, he pours some into the bowl. She returns and is worried about his comments, so she pours the rest while he isn’t watching. This sequence was repeated in both of the remakes, and was one of the few that was effective in each adaptation.
Janet Gaynor, who would win an Oscar 4 years later for A Star is Born, is delightful and innocent as Margy Frake, a young girl who could not wait to get away from the constraints of her hometown life. She meets Pat Gilbert, who is covering the fair for the newspaper, and the two form a bond. Pat and Margy admit right away that both have significant others back home. They agree to spend time at the fair as friends and “part like friends.” I appreciated this conversation because it made the romance between then unfold more naturally and without schmaltz. Lew Ayres depicts Pat, whose frivolous attitude is the precise medicine Margy required after Harry the pestering milkman. As a pair they are genuine and adorable. Pat quotes Emerson and Schopenhauer in some contemplative chats with her. Lew Ayres is famous because of his iconic role as Paul Baumer in the brilliant 1930 war film, All Quiet on the Western Front. He has a dynamic presence.
Norman Foster is Wayne Frake, whose bout of vengeance lands him an attractive and flexible blonde named Emily Joyce, played by Sally Eilers. Both performers are convincing and passionate, but if any storyline falters, it would be this one. Because Wayne is older than Margy, one could guess that he rounds more bases with Emily, but this is not seen of course. One must read between the lines, such as when Emily changes into “something more comfortable” and emerges with only a robe on. Even though these two are not given as much screen time as the others, it is competently managed until the end, which is a bit too abrupt. What separates Wayne and Margy’s respective loves is that one is fleeting and the other is lasting, but both help them grow.
featuring the cast names.
Director Henry King began his career making silent films, but made a successful transition into talkies without any trouble. He was nominated for two Oscars, but not for his exceptional work here regrettably. He would go on to direct 8 people to Oscar-nominated performances, one of whom was Gregory Peck, on the excellent Twelve ‘O Clock High. He also did a few pictures with Tyrone Power, including one of his finest, The Black Swan. King had a long tenure as a filmmaker, and his acute abilities transform State Fair into a special achievement. The story is certainly light and straightforward, but King infuses it with a homegrown visual aesthetic that faithfully captures the spirit of a fair, its environment, tastes, and smells.
King makes an effort to etch some exquisite and proficient shots. For instance, when Wayne returns from his first journeying through the fair too late, he and Margy have a minor argument in the tent the family has erected. All the viewer sees are the shadows inside, which may not seem inventive now, but King’s stroke has an irrefutable grace and refinement. Later, when Wayne heads back to the fair searching for Emily, he discovers her occupation as an acrobat. As she swings on a tall swinging contraption, we catch Wayne’s point of view looking directly skyward, which I welcomed because the audience feels like they are in the character’s shoes. Another clever point of view moment has Margy and Pat watching a horse race. She is too short to see over the tall people in front of her, so Pat hoists her up on his shoulder, and we then see what she sees.
State Fair would have a handful of scenes that were censored due to the Production Code that took effect in 1934. One could wager a guess as to where those are located in the story, but it does not tarnish the film harshly. Henry King enforces the idea that the state fair is a microcosm of life, a miniature glimpse at Americana, and he has a firm grip on this message throughout the picture. This is a gentle and sincere film that can be recommended to anyone because it hits all the right notes without every going overboard. The Frakes are a rural family that embody the norm as proud but imperfect. Many sequences reaffirm that moral, but it is one of the peaceful moments that registers most, when the Frakes are sitting in the car heading to the fair, admiring how quiet the road is that passes them by.
Final Rating = 9.0/10.0
The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
Homicide – Now Available
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
The Stepfather 3 – Still Out of Print
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – Both Available on 3/30/10
America, America – Still Out of Print
Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
Latin Lovers – Still Out of Print
Well, my Oscar columns have begun, and next week I will continue that theme with one of the best out of print films to date. I will leave you in suspense, although it isn’t hard to figure it out. I got a chance to hear Nirvana – Live at Reading, based on reviews that praised it highly. The quality of live music to me depends on the type of music, how good the band is in concert, and what the venue is. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was stellar, but the environment is different than this new release. Punk music live is never that great to me. I love Nirvana (and punk for that matter), and this album is ok, but if I had to choose, I would still pop in the studio CD’s.
I also had the chance to see Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I have to say, is decidedly worse than his remake of Pyscho. That film was definitely bad for sure, but it did stem from Hitchcock in the end. The former did not, and it follows a girl with overly large thumbs (portrayed by Uma Thurman), who spends her life hitchhiking. No, that is not a joke. Please, see this. Experience the pain that I did.
Last week I promised you all my list of Academy Award Best Picture Predictions for 2011. I do this every year, and I found the short list I compiled was not short at all, which made my final 10 harder than I thought. Without further ado, here they are in particular order:
1. The Way Back – This one is from Director Peter Weir, and carries with it an all-star cast featuring Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, and Mark Strong. It’s about soldiers in 1940. This has to get in somehow.
2. Inception – This is a long shot yes, but do not discount the fact that Christopher Nolan was robbed with The Dark Knight. Add to that how much sci-fi was nominated this year, and a cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine (among others) and you have a contender.
3. Hereafter – This is Clint Eastwood’s directorial effort of the year, and he is always a possibility. This stars Matt Damon, and is a supernatural thriller, but that should not hurt its chances. Jay Mohr being involved on the other hand, might do that.
4. The Tree of Life – Never discount my homeboy Terrence Malick. He has been developing this project for years, and we should finally see it in 2010. I can’t wait. This is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. I mean, come on now, it has Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. How can this not be a nominee?
5. The Beaver – Mel Gibson plays a guy who walks around with a beaver puppet on his hand and treats it like a living creature. It is directed by Jodie Foster. I might be crazy here, but I have a strong feeling about it.
6. The Conspirator – This is directed by Robert Redford. He has a good Oscar track record, and I bet he is aiming for the golden statues once again after the disaster that was Lions for Lambs. Plus, it is about a woman conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincon. Abe=Oscars. I’m not sure why, but I say it should be a rule.
7. The Debt – From director John Madden comes this film about Israeli Mossad agents trying to hunt and kill a Nazi war criminal. Once again we have Helen Mirren, but along side her are Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson.
8. True Grit – The Coen brothers are always strong competition when they throw their hats into the ring. This new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel includes Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Jeff Bridges. The original landed John Wayne an Oscar, so one never knows.
9. The American – This is about an assassin who is hiding out in Italy for one last assignment. It is directed by Anton Corbijn and stars George Clooney. This is another one that could go either way, but my instinct is driving me.
10. Toy Story 3 – I realize that the odds of this third installment sneaking into the Best Picture race are not good, but hey, it’s Pixar, and it’s Tom Hanks.
—The Next Three Days
—Never Let Me Go
—The King’s Speech
Stay tuned for next week when I have a list of added films coming out in 2010 that I am looking forward to!
-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.
“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount