Oscar Vault Monday – State Fair, 1933 (dir. Henry King)
This is a film I saw for the first time last summer because I had fallen in love with Lew Ayres and tried to watch everything he had ever been in. Which reminders me, don’t forget to pre-order Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector on Amazon. I wrote the foreword and y’all are gonna love it. Anyways, I love this movie. I saw the musical version first and as much as I love Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine’s amazing Technicolor red hair, I prefer this early version. It’s directed by Henry King, who also directed the 1925 silent version of Stella Dallas, a film I recently saw at the SF Silent Film Festival and also find superior to the later version. I see a pattern forming. I would be lying if I didn’t say after the cut you are in for A LOT of screencaps of Lew Ayres. But like I said earlier, you’ll love it. State Fair was nominated for two Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were 42nd Street, A Farewell To Arms, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Lady For A Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through and winner Cavalcade.
Although Henry King was not nominated for Best Director for his work on this film, he was nominated twice in a career that spanned nearly five decades, for 1943’s The Song of Bernadette and 1944’s Wilson (both of which were Best Picture nominees). He also directed a remake of Seventh Heaven in 1937 starring Jimmy Stewart, as well as nearly 100 other films, including Best Picture nominees In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). He was also one of 100 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The film begins with this bittersweet prologue musing on the nature of both life and state fairs. One could argue, also, it’s a statement on the nature of films themselves. Actually, it reminds of that joke at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy recounts the joke about the old ladies at a Catskills resort who complain about the food and such small portions! Everything is over much too soon. This film clocks in at just about 97 minutes, an average film length, and yet it does indeed feel like it’s over much too soon.
Will Rogers gets top billing on the poster and although he plays patriarch Abel Frake, his storyline is one of the smaller ones in the film. That said, he is as magnificent as ever, whether it’s while making bets with the grocer, meddling in his children’s love lives, fussing over his prized pig Blue Boy (more on that later) or fixing his wife’s prized minced meat pie, Rogers’s Abel is a hoot and a half to watch. Sadly, Rogers would die in a plane crash in Alaska two years later.
Louise Dresser is also absolutely fabulous as Frake matriarch Melissa, who is just slightly more concerned about winning a blue ribbon for her famed minced meat pie than she is the love lives of her two children. Dresser appeared in more than forty films from 1922 to 1937 and was nominated for Best Actress for her role in 1928’s A Ship Comes In. Ironically, she lost the award to Janet Gaynor, who plays her daughter in this film.
Norman Foster acted in fifty films from 1929 to 1938 before switching to the director’s chair. As a director, he made nearly 60 films and episodes of television, including 1943’s Journey Into Fear, which was written by love of my life Joseph Cotten. In this film Foster plays Wayne Frake, who is basically an angsty high school grad. He’s listless because his lady love is going off to college and will probably find someone better than him (he wants to be a farmer). Also, he has trained for an entire year to get back at a carney (played by the incomparable Victor Jory) who humiliated him at the previous year’s fair.
While Victor Jory’s role in this film is small, it is one of the most memorable. Jory appeared in almost 200 films in a career that spanned 5 decades. His most memorable role is perhaps as field overseer-turned-carpet-bagger Jonas Wilkerson in Gone With The Wind.
In the 1930s Sally Eilers was quite popular, mostly playing fun-loving young women in comedies. In this film she plays a vivacious acrobat Emily Joyce, who helps out Wayne Frake early on, then seduces him in a pretty scandalous scene later in the film. This film was released in February of 1933, about a year and a half before Hollywood officially adopted the Hays Code, thus a scene like this that is so overtly sexual would be allowed. It’s things like this that make me love pre-codes.
I would be remiss, of course, if I did not discuss Blue Boy, as promised. When Blue Boy gets to the fair, much like Margy and Wayne, he is overwhelmed and depressed. Then he sees Esmeralda, a redheaded pig – even pigs like redheads, and perks up enough to win the blue ribbon. I just, I just can’t with this scene. It is so silly and wonderful.
Which brings us, finally, to Janet Gaynor. Like I said in my post about Seventh Heaven, I just really love Janet Gaynor. She is one of my all-time favorite actresses. This film proves that her sweet persona works just as well in sound as it did during the silent era. Gaynor won the very first Best Actress Oscar for her work in Seventh Heaven, as well as Street Angel and Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (this was the only year a performer could be nominated for multiple films in one category), she was also nominated for Best Actress for her work in 1937′s A Star Is Born.
When we first meet Gaynor’s Margy Frake she is looking forward to the state fair and bored stiff by her beau Harry Ware (played by Frank Melton, who appeared in 80 films in a twenty year period).
After her brother leaves her to go meet with Emily, Margy meets savvy newspaperman Pat Gilbert, played with oodles of charm by Lew Ayres. This was Ayres’s 16th film (including his breakthrough lead in 1930 Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front and 1931’s Iron Man opposite Jean Harlow). If you watch this film and you don’t fall head over heels for Ayres I think you need to check your pulse.
His chemistry with Gaynor is unbelievable. I’m not sure if they made any other films together (if they did, I haven’t seen it), but I wish they had. Ayres doesn’t show up for about 35 minutes into the film and when he does and this storyline starts it feels like a whole other film has started; a much better film, really. I may be biased, but he makes every film I have seen with him just that much better. Although Ayres’s career stretched into eight (yes, eight!) decades, he was only nominated for an Oscar once for Best Actor in 1948’s Johnny Belinda (which was also a Best Picture nominee).
I just really had to post this screencap. Look at their faces. LOOK AT THEM. Sigh.
So Pat and Margy decide that they only have three days and they should just attend the fair as friends. Besides, Margy has Harry (snooooze) waiting for her at home and Pat is a jaded newspaper man who has not time for love. Yes, this plan seems flawless. . .
Of course, later this plan fails and the two realize they are in love. This scene is so tender and passionate. Oh swooooooon.
But then because you need drama, Margy decides she’d be better off with Harry (snooooooze) and that Pat would not be able to adjust to life as a married man and leaves him. It is a heart-wrenching scene to watch.
But remember, kids, this is Hollywood and although it is pre-code Hollywood wherein sad endings sometimes happen, this is not one of those kinds of pre-code films. Well, it sort of is for Wayne who comes back alone and just as depressed as ever. But Henry King, that genius he was, gives us a rain-drenched reunion between Margy and Pat to rival any rain-drenched reunion in all of cinema’s 100-year history. Watch this scene and not cry tears of joy – I dare you!
Thus ends State Fair, which much like the roller coaster where Margy and Pat meet, has its ups and downs, but overall proves to be a thrilling ride that ends much too soon. Luckily for us, there’s always a chance for a second or third or fourth ride. And every time you do, it gets just that much better. Sadly, I’m not sure if this film is on DVD, though if you are savvy you can find a copy of it in one form or another on the internet and I highly recommend you do. Or, at least, keep an eye out for it on TCM. You will not regret it.
Posted on August 20, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1933, Frank Melton, Henry King, Janet Gaynor, Lew Ayres, Louise Dresser, Norman Foster, Sally Eilers, State Fair, Victor Jory, Will Rogers. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.