Summer’s end is celebrated around the rural United States with state fairs, where farmers gather for fun, food, and blue ribbons. This tradition was the setting for Phil Stong’s bestselling 1932 novel, simply called “State Fair.” It would inspire three film adaptations.
The story follows an Iowa farm family, the Frakes, as they go to the state fair. The father, Abel, is obsessed with seeing his prize Hampshire boar win the blue ribbon, while the mother hopes to take first place with her pickles and mincemeat.
Meanwhile, their grown children, Wayne and Margy, are going to the fair without their steady sweethearts, in search of a change and some fun. At the fair, the parents win their coveted prizes, but the young folks both find unexpected romance with worldlier people. Margy falls in love with an experienced newspaperman who is much more exciting than her fiancé back home, while Wayne falls for a sophisticated girl whom he thinks is as serious as he is. Both Frake children must decide what they really want out of life.
Twentieth Century Fox made the novel into a film in 1933. Starring Janet Gaynor as the daughter, Will Rogers as her father, and Lew Ayres as newspaperman Pat Gilbert, this movie earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
In 1945, 20th Century-Fox updated the story as a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, their only score originally written for a film. Starring Jeanne Crain as Margy, Dick Haymes as her brother, and Dana Andrews as Pat Gilbert, this film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score, with its ballad “It Might as Well Be Spring” winning Best Song. The musical version was remade in 1962 with Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Bobby Darin in the leading roles, but the story and setting were changed.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the first two film adaptations.
Two Films, One Story
As usual, the films included some changes from the novel’s original plot, although the storylines remained impressively similar. The biggest difference is the characterization of the girl Wayne meets at the fair. Her name remains Emily, and she meets Wayne at the ring toss stand.
The 1933 Emily’s characterization remains very close to the book. In the book, Emily is the loose daughter of a stock show manager, who spends her time betting, drinking, and having fun. In the 1933 film, she (Sally Eilers) is a trapeze artist at the fair.
In both the book and first film, Emily gives Wayne (Norman Foster) his first taste of alcohol—during Prohibition, mind you—and seduces him into an illicit affair. He eventually proposes, having assumed all along that they would marry, but she refuses since they come from different, incompatible worlds.
The most shocking scene in the earlier “State Fair” is not included in modern prints, since it was removed when the film was rereleased in 1935. In this scene, Wayne and Emily could be heard talking off-screen while the camera focused on her discarded negligee, depicting the affair blatantly. Even without that scene, one would have to be pretty young and naïve to not understand exactly what’s happening. The first scene in Emily’s apartment shows the lady taking her stockings off in a mirror reflection, coming out in nothing but a flimsy wrapper sans undergarments. Wayne’s lie to his parents that he has been staying with a male friend leads to some awkwardly suggestive lines.
The biggest change from the novel to the first film adaptation was the removal of Margy’s illicit affair with Pat Gilbert, although some believe it is still implied. She and Pat fall passionately in love, but she begins looking at reality when he alludes to past indiscretions. He asks her to marry him, but she doubts that she could fit into the cosmopolitan life he envisions for himself. As in the novel, they part ways at the end of the fair. However, while the book saw both Margy and Wayne marry their original sweethearts upon returning home, Margy flies to Pat’s arms in the 1933 film when he telephones and meets her the next day, having realized that she can’t live without him.
In the 1945 film, Emily (Vivian Blaine) was changed to the lead singer with the big band playing at the fair. The illicit affair was removed, and the much more sincere Emily turns down Wayne’s proposal because she is already unhappily married.
The Good Old Days?
Watching the 1933 “State Fair” destroys the theory that all movies were clean and decent in “the good old days.” Before the mid-1930s, the only rule about film content was that there were no rules. Although some silent films contained questionable content, it wasn’t until the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s that movies began to realize their full potential for prurience. These early talkies are called “Pre-Code” films.
In 1934, after around six years of mostly talkie shenanigans, the lawless fun ended. On July 15, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed, with former newspaperman Joseph I. Breen as its incorruptible leader.
This West Coast branch of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was not the organization’s first attempt at enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly called the Hays Code. It was more like its last attempt! After being unsuccessfully enforced by the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) since its in-name-only adoption in 1930, the Code looked like another impractical “noble experiment.”
However, the PCA succeeded because it had two things that the SRC had lacked: the authority to reject a film and a strong leader, Joseph Breen. With this system, filmmakers needed a PCA Seal of Approval to distribute their films in the United States, and they had to cooperate with Joe Breen to get a seal. It worked, resulting in 20 years of wonderfully decent films.
The 1933 “State Fair” is a great example of the darkness that characterized Pre-Code films. I’m not talking about cinematographic techniques. This movie’s undeniably dark aspect was equally oppressive on the restored Amazon Video recording as on the grainy YouTube upload I first watched. This darkness comes from the cynical views voiced by the characters. Pat declares that most pursuits in life are futile, depressingly quoting Schopenhauer’s writings that happiness is only a relief from pain.
Pat echoes the dour shopkeeper from the film’s opening. While the 1945 storekeeper (Percy Kilbride) is a comical “gloomy Gus,” his predecessor’s (Frank Craven) pessimistic prediction that something bad would happen at the fair if Abel won the blue ribbon ends up coming true, as in the book. This film leaves you with the depressing thought that love, happiness, and accomplishments are all basically futile, since they all end too soon.
Hope in Hard Times
The biggest difference between the Pre-Code film and its Code remake is not in the costumes, dialogue, or even the scenarios. It lies in the feeling and mood of the films. While the Technicolor and cheerful songs make the 1945 film bright and comforting, what had become integral to American films after 10 years of PCA self-regulation is the film’s uplifting, inspiring quality. Even if you can’t explain why, movies like the musical “State Fair” make you feel good.
You could say that the 1933 film presents a realistic view of Iowan farm folks, while the 1945 film presents an idealized view of rural Americana. I think the truth lies somewhere between the two. During the Code’s enforcement, movies focused on the good, upstanding elements of reality and human nature, depicting the opposite with delicacy for contrast in order to provide important lessons.
Films from basically every other cinematic era have exaggerated the bad by focusing on life’s grim, sordid elements. By depicting immoral behavior, Pre-Code films falsely implied that traditional morality was extinct. Choosing to highlight the brighter side of human nature in films makes them no less true but is certainly more beneficial to those who watch them.
True, the Great Depression was a very hard time for the United States. So, for that matter, was World War II. In 2021, we know what it’s like to live through a hard time. From your experience, do you feel better after being reminded that everything in life is hopeless or from seeing something beautiful and cheerful?
In honor of state fair season, why not attend both cinematic “state fairs” and decide whether you prefer a moodily “realistic” view of Depression Era farm people or a musical portrait of wartime Americana? Either way, don’t miss the “State Fair!”