I was going through some DVDs recently and ran across a favorite old movie of mine, one that triggered some fond memories. The movie was the 1945 version of State Fair, starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, and Dick Haymes. It was actually the second of four movies made from the original book, but was the first musical version and in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
The first State Fair, made in 1933 and starring Will Rogers, was actually a little darker and filled with symbolism. The third version, 1962’s limp Pat Boone vehicle, is best known for Pat losing his innocence to a sultry Ann-Margret. (“You mean…you’re a bad girl?”) And there was also a 1976 TV movie/pilot which disappeared quickly.
When the decision was made to redo the film during World War II, the producers followed the same blueprint as that of many other wartime movies — they made it light and uplifting, and completely transformed by gorgeous Technicolor. Hollywood saw their mission during this period as cheering up a war-weary public, while at the same time keeping an eye on box-office figures. This film did just fine on both counts.
It’s a familiar story, even if you haven’t seen the movie. Farm family works hard and makes a good life, then goes to the fair to showcase the fruits of their labor (hogs, pickles, whatever) and possibly learn a little about life outside the farm. That latter description applied especially to the kids, who had the opportunity to pitch a little woo.
We all know that real life wasn’t as perfect as that shown in the film (or farm girls as well made-up and coiffed as Jeanne Crain) but the movie did have elements that were very familiar to me. I was never able to go to a state fair while growing up, but I certainly had some good times at numerous county fairs. Unfortunately no romances, but I can clearly remember the look, feel and smell of the midway…as well as that of the farm-animal pens. That was all part of middle America at that time, and I suppose it still is.
Some Hollywood musicals are slapdash affairs, with mediocre songs pasted into phony situations within the movie, but this one did it right. The Rogers and Hammerstein songs were memorable and fit sensibly into the scenes of the film. Of course, Jeanne Crain’s voice was dubbed, as was that of Dana Andrews – who actually was a trained singer – but the full glory of Dick Haymes’ rich baritone was on display, and when he sang in the movie I would imagine that he curled the toes of 1940’s bobby-soxers.
Haymes had a life that differed somewhat from most crooners. For one thing, unlike those I described in an earlier article, he wasn’t of Italian descent. He was born in Argentina (to British parents) and was brought to the US as a baby. His mother was a singer and voice teacher, so he naturally grew up singing, and eventually began appearing as a band singer in the 1930’s. Along the way sang with the bands of Harry James, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, eventually reaching star status. Before his success as a singer, he’d bounced around Hollywood as an extra, but now he began to be offered bigger movie roles and ended up appearing in quite a few, although he wasn’t much of an actor. Of course, most of his parts were in musicals and he always had that wonderful voice.
By all reports he was a nice enough guy but he did go through a lot of turmoil in his life and career, including alcoholism, debt, and six marriages. (Famous wives included actresses Joanne Dru and Rita Hayworth.) Since he wasn’t a US citizen, he also had intermittent immigration difficulties and even moved to Ireland for a while. In the latter stages of his life, Haymes was often scrambling to maintain his failing career, performing where possible and trying to recover from his debts. Tragically he died of lung cancer in 1980 at age 64, not as well remembered as some of the other crooners, but no less talented.