"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, February 3, 2014

1962 "State Fair" movie puts us right there

The 1962 movie "State Fair" is more than the sum of its parts. It's sort of a guilty pleasure to watch it and enjoy. We see Ann-Margret in her breakthrough role. We see the maligned Pat Boone who in the '50s was enlisted to sing covers of R&B hits.
Critics were most impressed by Ann-Margret and Pat Boone in this movie. On the whole, critics didn't rave about the movie. It didn't meet box office goals. It cost $4.4 million and grossed just $3.5 million. Today it projects the rarefied air of an earlier time. It shows up on cable TV with fair frequency. That's probably why I'm writing about it today.
I'm also reminded of "State Fair" by an event that was held at my First Lutheran Church, Morris, recently. The church presented a "cookie bake." We could see some cookie masters actually prepare their recipes. Better yet, we could sample the warm cookies later.
One of these masters was Sharon Ehlers. She explained that her recipe that day included rum extract. This prompted a little humor of course. I was reminded of the Alice Faye character in "State Fair," the mother, who prepared her mincemeat entry for competition. The father, played by Tom Ewell, felt the mincemeat was a little flat.
The movie was made in the 1960s when we as a society found considerable humor in alcohol consumption. The Ewell character sneaked some brandy into the mincemeat. Alice Faye later returned to the kitchen, unaware of this little adulteration, and decided to add her own brandy. The judges at the fair were enamored. Wally Cox played the chief judge. (My generation remembers Wally mainly for being on "Hollywood Squares.")
Faye's character took the top prize. I had more than one of Sharon's cookies at the church. I'm sure the rum extract was a negligible ingredient, hardly like emptying a bottle of brandy into the mix. It made for some fun joking.
Who doesn't feel charmed by fair judging? Especially at the state fair which is the most prestigious level for judging.
Indeed, the movie appeals to our love for our own state fair and the county fairs that are down the ladder.
Who doesn't love the fair? It's a great leveler of our culture, drawing people across all lines that might otherwise divide us. At my stage of life, and my mother's, it's most fun to just sit in front of the rest cottage at the Stevens County Fair and watch all the people. Some stop to visit. Everyone enjoys the open air.
The 1962 movie "State Fair" captures the atmosphere in an authentic way.
The fair is about 4-H and farm demonstrations, the carnival, the family atmosphere and the introduction of young people in domestic and farming activities. Getting first place at the state fair is a really big deal. Tom Ewell's character wins with his beloved huge hog named "Blue Boy," remember? Perhaps the most charming song in this musical is when "Abel Frake" serenades his pig.
Serious ag professionals might not like this, because hogs are not intended to be companion animals. I would hope they could suspend such judgment for the sake of enjoying a movie.
The 1962 "State Fair" projects authenticity largely because it was actually filmed at a state fair. The scene is Texas. That's a shift from earlier versions of the story. The previous versions - the stage musical and the 1933 and 1945 movies - were set in Iowa.
 
Filming in shadow of "Cleopatra" 
Filming at a real state fair was a stroke of good fortune. And it came about due to economic circumstances. The 1962 "State Fair" was filmed in the aftermath of the Hollywood disaster "Cleopatra." Elizabeth Taylor starred in "Cleopatra" in a monumental and expensive flop.
Hollywood, being the business machine it is, had to deal with the consequences of bad judgment. Moviemakers were forced to be highly cost-conscious for a time. I wrote a post about "The Lost World" in which I reported that special effects had to be cheapened to deal with the "Cleopatra cash drain." The sci-fi "Lost World" took the risky route of using real contemporary lizards, putting horns on them and then filming them in such a way as to make them seem giant. No "stop-motion" (Ray Harryhausen).
"The Lost World" came off as something other than laughable, and today it shows up periodically on TV just like "State Fair."
In the case of "State Fair," filming at a real state fair eliminated set and staging costs. It was a boon for the film, as it turned out.
One of the songs from the original had to be removed: "All I Owe Ioway" (about Iowa of course). The song was replaced by "The Little Things in Texas."
 
Roles had to reflect our mores
The 1962 "State Fair" gives us the old-fashioned notions about love and gender roles. Love is this ethereal quality that just sweeps us off our feet. Sometimes in real life this happens, but we realize deep down it's mostly mythology.
We see Bobby Darin as "Jerry Dundee," a brash TV interviewer. We see him dismissing a woman with whom he has promised to have a beer. It comes off as rude. "Jerry" has just become smitten by the Frakes' daughter. Pamela Tiffin plays "Margie" who of course seems pure as the driven snow. She comes to the fair with no apparent special talents. She's the wholesome farm girl.
We know that the Hollywood minds would have someone like the Darin character, street-wise as it were, become fixated on Margie. We're not supposed to sympathize with the woman who wanted to share the beer, because that's not wholesome. Today we would consider "Jerry's" behavior rude nevertheless. Sharing a beer is innocuous.
Hollywood promotes firm stereotypes, or at least it did then. Gender stereotypes could be very firm. Women more than men were guided by emotions. Women were vulnerable. They couldn't engage in the same vices as men, lest they be perceived as having low character.
Pamela Tiffin represented the ideal. Her desirability in the eyes of men was built on intangibles. She's the only Frake family member not seeking awards for her endeavors at the fair. She's quite receptive to finding love. Thanks to her fleeting interview with Bobby Darin on the fairgrounds, the dye is cast.
We fear toward the end of the movie that the two are separated for good. "Jerry" is climbing his professional ladder. Then we see the triumphant reunion because, after all, we can't go home realizing a girl like "Margie" got abandoned. The two reunite dramatically at the outskirts of the little rural town.
"Margie" is the sister to the Pat Boone character, "Wayne Frake," whose skill at the fair is sports car racing. OK, so Pat Boone falls in love with Ann-Margret. Critics agree that Ann-Margret (as "Emily Porter") absolutely sizzles on the screen.
I had to watch the movie more than once to realize there's no triumphant reunion at the end, with Wayne and Emily, like the Darin/Tiffin reunion. The moral of the story? Ann-Margret despite her appeal was, after all, a "showgirl." For crying out loud, it's not like she was an exotic dancer. She was a true dance artist, but I guess by the standards of the time, we weren't supposed to be totally approving.
One review states that Ann-Margret is a "sexy showgirl." If by "sexy" you mean attractive, well then Ann-Margret fits the bill. Her kind of dancing requires hard work. Maybe that was the problem: Women as full-fledged professionals or artists weren't in the mainstream, culturally, then.
Again, the Pamela Tiffin character seemed the ideal. The Pat Boone character arrives home and decides to contact his old girlfriend. Presumably this girlfriend is more in the mold of the Pamela Tiffin type. Earlier, we saw Ann-Margret withdraw from Boone because of her fears about being considered a "tramp." "Tramp" itself is a dated term. We're reminded of that girl whom Darin dissed, who expected to "share a beer." No-no.
We want "Margie" (sans any talents but wholesome) to win out.
As a musical, "State Fair" of course has music as a prime selling point, such as "It's a Grand Night for Singing."
It's easy for critics to take potshots at the 1962 "State Fair." I find some plot elements to be stupid. Who would make a bet with a friend ($5) on whether they'd have a good time at the fair? This is like the old worthless practice of giving someone a dollar to bet for them in Las Vegas.
Having the mincemeat judge be so bumbling, empty and susceptible to the allure of alcohol, seemed stupid. Wally Cox played the judge named "Hipplewaite."
  
The glory of mincemeat
Mincemeat is a very obscure product. This movie represents the only contact I've ever had with it.
We learn that mincemeat includes, as a standard ingredient, distilled spirits. Mincemeat is a mixture of chopped dried fruit, spices, those spirits, and sometimes beef suet, beef or venison. It was a popular pie filling from the 15th through 17th Centuries.
Brandy would fit right in but within reasonable limits.
Sharon Ehlers' rum extract in her cookies was within reasonable limits. Of course it was negligible but it's good for prompting a few laughs. Gosh, I hope she can bake up a few more for us sometime (LOL).
The 1962 "State Fair" came out in the same year when my late father Ralph took the University of Minnesota-Morris men's chorus to the Seattle World's Fair. I was seven years old.
Eventually our family would take in our Minnesota State Fair. We attended the auto racing one year. I could visualize Pat Boone out there.
I stayed in the 4-H dormitory one year, not as an exhibitor but as an observing media person. I'll never forget that.
  
Minnesota State Fair memories
I saw grandstand shows through the years, including Lawrence Welk and his ensemble (with the African-American tap dancer), Bob Hope (at his misogynist best), Emmylou Harris (with her "hot band") and Rodney Dangerfield at the apex of his post-"Caddyshack" fame.
I saw ol' Rodney in the early 1980s, and what sticks in my memory is the out-of-control and silly behavior of the audience which was dominated by boomer-age young people. What I won't forget, is that Rodney finally got tired of it. He made remarks indicating as much. Our society was hung over from the cynical '70s. We hadn't righted the ship yet.
I saw Linda Ronstadt at the State Fair giving a performance that I later learned she had to apologize for. I didn't attend such shows very often so I wouldn't have known the difference, really. She wore grubby clothes, kept reaching up to her ear to adjust some sort of device, and seemed to abbreviate the whole thing.
Bob Hope told his famous "grasshopper" joke. A bartender looks down and sees a grasshopper in his bar. He says "I'll bet you didn't know we have a drink named after you." And the grasshopper looks up and says: "You mean you have a drink named Thorndike?"
Ah, the state fair. A critic said of the 1962 movie that despite its thin storyline and other flaws, "there's something about the hominess and wonderful music."
Critics back in 1962 were sticks in the mud with their negative views. They must never have been in 4-H, or tasted anything like that mincemeat, or Sharon Ehlers' cookies!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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