Wednesday 27 September 2017

On DVD - Catching up with the 1945 version of STATE FAIR (Walter Lang)

Evening viewing.

Somehow or other a question was raised as to what was the greatest musical of the twentieth century. My vote went to West Side Story, though not the film version. Ian Judge’s stage production with Marina Prior as Maria still sticks in my mind as the greatest piece of musical theatre I’ve seen, though it just beats out Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spiderwoman on Broadway back in the 90s and Wayne Harrison's production of Into the Woods at the STC. 

This segued into a decision to at last watch State Fair and there it was in a six-pack of Rogers & Hammerstein film musicals, two of which I was yet to see. 

State Fair was made in 1945 at Twentieth Century Fox by Walter Lang and is the only work that the song-writing duo worked on as an original film and not something based on one of their Broadway successes. Why wait so long to see it? Well R&H did do some wonderful things. “Kansas City” from Oklahoma, “You’ll never walk alone” from Carousel, immediately spring to mind. But in between are stories of mawkish amours, sentimentality laid on with a trowel. overblown production values. Have you ever seen South Pacific? I rest my case. But there is also the astonishing ballet “The small house of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I that knocks everything else in the film for six and redeems a lot.

Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, State Fair
Then there was the star presence of Dana Andrews. Over the years I was astonished at the admiration expressed for his performances. He never, however, produced in me the antagonism towards the actor who could put bricks to sleep, Glenn Ford. Around 1945, when Andrews starred in and sang small pieces of a number or two in State Fair, he was at his peak and much in demand. In one short period between 1944 and 1947 he was in Laura followed by State Fair, Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun, Canyon Passage, The Best Years of Our Lives, Boomerang, Night Song  and Daisy Kenyon.

Vivian Blaine, Dick Haymes, State Fair
Under Walter Lang State Fair is lively enough,  though it's lacking much in the way of decent choreography or any smart dance scenes or indeed much ensemble work at all. All those opportunities for the kind of vigorous hoedown stuff that livens up Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are foregone. At one moment Lang or his editor totally muff capturing a tremendous through the air somersault by one of the dancers, preferring to keep the camera trained on Vivian Blaine and Dick Haymes in the foreground as the dancer does his thing right behind them. You cant quite believe it when you barely see it.

Andrews sings a little and star Jeanne Crain sings a lot, most notably the endlessly repeated “It might as well be spring” which you can find here on YouTube. It’s all over in a brisk 96 minutes with all heartbreak avoided. The best joke is about the prize pig Blue Boy who is tired and wants to lie down at all the wrong moments but is always roused by some snorts from across the barn by the prize sow Esmeralda. Aroused may be better. Donald Meek contributes some droll moments as a drunken raging roue as well.

"...needs brandy..." Will Rogers, Louise Dresser, State Fair (1933)
The greater treasure of the disc lies in a thirty minute extra in which a number of mostly blokes discuss the film and how it came to be made. What is revealed is that State Fair (1945, 1962) was based on a Fox movie from 1933 starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor, directed by Henry King, something I didn’t know. I imagine only the hardcore have seen the 1933 film, the Fox product from that era being very hard to come by unless made by one of the major directors who worked there in what must have been a workplace of enormous vitality and creativity. William Fox seemed to preside over a place where Murnau, Ford, Borzage, Walsh and more all did some remarkable movies. It doesn't seem to have been the same after  Fox amalgamated with Twentieth Century and Darryl F Zanuck started pulling the strings. But I'm no expert on studio histories or politics so I may be wrong.

The talking heads include people from the Rogers & Hammerstein organisation and a writer who actually got permission for and eventually produced, in the 90s, a stage version of State Fair that apparently plays in community theatres and places where they revive musicals round the world to this day. The knowledge on display is mind-bending. All the detailed talk has convinced me to check out the Pat Boone 1962 version which I learn also features the then gorgeous young juvenile Ann-Margret. Among the info imparted are the names of the singers who dubbed the stars and the fact that Dana Andrews originally came out to the West Coast as an opera singer. Nobody knew he could sing when they cast him in State Fair. He decided against telling the studio because it would deprive the singer hired to dub him of a job! He has gone up immensely in my estimation just for that alone.

It took me 72 years to see State Fair. By this count I should be ready by 2037 to watch the final disc on the six pack, The Sound of Music.

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