Today’s movie is a lively musical about a middle-American family and how they grow into full-fledged adults under the bright lights of a fair. If you’re expecting another review of Meet Me in St. Louis, you’ve come to the wrong place. Yep, the plot of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical in this collection (and the final review of the series) is Meet Me in St. Louis if the Smiths spent the film’s entirety at the actual fair.
The Frakes are a small-town family excited for the Iowa State Fair with various motives for going. The family patriarch (Charles Winninger) plans on entering his prize hog, Blue Boy in the hopes of making some money, while his wife (Fay Bainter) plans on beating her rival for the best pickles. The Frakes’ two children, Margy (Jeanne Crain) and Wayne (Dick Haymes) end up meeting the loves of their lives.
The shadow of Meet Me in St. Louis, released one year prior to State Fair, looms large from the minute the first song, sung by all the cast and entitled “Our State Fair” is sung. You can easily substitute “Our State Fair” for “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Not only are both songs lyrically upbeat, setting the tone for the excitement and adventure found in the fair, but the song hops from character to character just like Minnelli’s classic. It is interesting, watching this after Oklahoma!, to realize this, the latter, and The Sound of Music are the only three in the Rodgers and Hammerstein set to start with a song; Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific started with dialogue.
In lieu of Judy Garland’s Esther Smith, a wide-eyed girl on the threshold of adolescence and adulthood, we get Jeanne Crain’s Margy Frakes. In Margy’s opening song she describes herself as “starry-eyed and vaguely disenchanted.” You could see the former in Garland’s Esther, but neither one comes off as particularly disenchanted. Crain is a wonderful addition to the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, particularly for her wholesome, girl next door qualities. Her relationship with Dana Andrews’ reporter, Pat Gilbert, is chaste and equally starry-eyed. In her song, Margy dreams of a man with elements culled from Ronald Colman, Charles Boyer, and Bing Crosby, with each actor providing a brief auditory cameo. The idea of a young girl exaggerating men only to find the flesh and blood embodiment is interesting, particularly since Andrews doesn’t embody any of the men’s characteristics to me.
Andrews, a classically trained singer, is the only one who fails to sing in this movie! Allegedly, he refused to put the person dubbing his voice out of a job. Either way, Andrews is a highlight in this piece. His Pat Gilbert is a cynical reporter bored by the whizz-bang of the fair. I’ve always appreciated Andrews’ ability to deliver bizarre pick-up lines and Margy’s given a whopper; he was drawn to her because of the way her hair bounced. Yep, I’m sure that’s what he was looking at! Of course, their relationship isn’t perceived in less than virginal terms and it works for this movie as it did between Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St. Louis. There’s a brief subplot between Margy and her suitor Harry (Phil Brown) wherein the two are battling between a modern home and an older one. Once Pat arrives Harry disappears, but the song emphasizes this movie as a slice of old-home Americana. People don’t want tile floors! They want floors carved from an oak tree.
The subplot with Charles Winninger and the pig is okay, but it’s far too hokey for me. These characters aren’t hip to the latest technology, but there’s a Ma and Pa Kettle feel everytime Winninger and Blue Boy arrive. I almost wondered if we’d see dueling banjos when the pig is finally judged. You’re meant to enjoy the humor of Blue Boy himself, a pig called “son” like Abel Frake’s own children, falling in love at the fair, but it’s too silly to take seriously. Furthermore, there’s absolutely nothing special in the presentation of this movie. The muted Technicolor is passable, but this is the only movie in the set without a widescreen presentation, compressed for a TV.
State Fair is a harmless kissing cousin to Meet Me in St. Louis, but the comparisons are strikingly apparent. Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain work well together, and Vivian Blaine as torch singer Emily Edwards is saucy in a pre-Guys and Dolls character. If this is your first time with Rodgers and Hammerstein, remember this is an earlier effort. It’s a solid effort, but feels like they’re trying to find their footing before making the important pictures in the 1950s.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.