The 1962 movie, State Fair, is a strange and painful trip to the Texas State Fair featuring racing cars, mincemeat pie, a thousand pound hog, and surprisingly sordid romantic affairs.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to watch the 1962 version of the movie musical, State Fair. The principal young stars were Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin. Since the internet is fully of babies who whine spoiler at the drop of a theater curtain, be forewarned. I know you have been dying to see this for 52 years.
I had always figured this would be a homey and cornball affair, so I never really made much of an effort to watch it. My main interest in it was seeing the Texas State Fair in Fair Park of Dallas way back then. So it was rather an accident that I happened to flip onto this movie and then watched it here and there several different times. What I found was quite different than what I had expected. This is a strange movie and in certain respects is quite adult, especially for that era.
What grabbed me right off the bat and made me watch it was the totally unexpected opening. Here we have country boy, Pat Boone, playing Wayne Frake, a happy go lucky sort, who you will later find is so high on life that he breaks out in song whenever he feels like it, heading back to his farm home in what looks like a hot Italian racing car. Just blasting down a dirt country back road in the middle of Texas practicing for the Targa Florio. Gotta hurry, you see, the hogs need slopping. And this is supposed to be normal, I guess. Just tooling down the the dirt road in my tractor, I mean my racing car. It is almost like the prop department forgot to acquire a tractor or a combine or a flat bed truck so the director said, “Oh, what the heck, use a race car.” Like I said, this move is a tad bit strange.
The when we get back to the farm, of course, his sister is a very plain farm girl who doesn’t even know how to put on lipstick. Right. Of course. This is a farm in the middle of Texas. Nope, his sister is would class beauty and New York model, Pamela Tiffin, playing Margy Frake. Have you ever heard of her? She didn’t do that many Hollywood movies, but she was in some big ones. You might recognize her. Trust me, you will be going to the internet to find out who that is. And there she is, perfection personified, right next to the 1,000 pound blue ribbon hog, Blue Boy, all grunting and mudding and slopping and hogging. Well, that’s Blue Boy. Pamela just stands there looking pretty, like Vogue magazine just air-dropped her onto the farm for the 1962 Country Girl shoot.
Later on we have some truly painful scenes at the State Fair which were more like what I expected. There are whole silos full of corn in these. First we are horrified that Blue Boy is underperforming by high hog standards at the fair. You see, Blue Boy just doesn’t want to even stand up and certainly doesn’t want to walk around. About all he can do is belch and grunt. It is the human equivalent of moaning and groaning. Blue Boy needs a napkin. Blue Boy needs a bath. Blue Boy needs a new life. This is a crisis because Blue Boy wins every year and Frake family pride dictates that he wins again this year. The fact of the matter is, Blue Boy is just not feeling the whole Texas State Fair thing this year. Finally, Abel Frake, played by Tom Ewell, the patriarch of the Frake family, desperate at the intransigence of Blue Boy, resorts to literally grovelling on the ground with Blue Boy, whispering, cooing, cajoling Blue Boy, please, please, please. It seems like some promises are made to Blue Boy by Abel and then he practically makes-out with Blue Boy. After what seems like painful hours, Blue Boy finally rouses to his feet, and the prideful and proud porker parades and prances his way in front of the judges to their overwhelming delight. Blue Boy is the champion hog at the Texas State Fair. I have to admit I have something of a thing for 1,000 pound hogs and Blue Boy is one fine looking swine, but I’m not going to be asking him on a date any time soon. For crying out loud. But I’m not Abel Frake, either. Abel is over the moon, but is mainly just relieved. He has held up his end of the Frake family bargain. As you will see, everyone in the Frake family has to hold up their end of the family pride at the Texas State Fair by being a champion of one thing or another year after year. Abel is a Texas State Fair champion. A champion by proxy by Blue Boy. And what is Blue Boy if not a family member? And he is a champion family member. And he is bacon and a ham and a side of pork, too. But they would never eat Blue Boy, would they? Would they? Anyway, the entire episode of Blue Boy at the State Fair, the expectations, the pressures, the refusals, the ultimate rise to glory is a metaphor for the psychological and social mores of rural Texas in the late 50s and early 60s. As such, it is on a grand scale worthy of, lets say, Federico Fellini’s Roma in the scope of its social and political satire and sharp insights into the ways of the world. Or maybe its just a 1,000 pound side of bacon. I don’t know. Like I said, this is a weird movie.
Next, mother Melissa Frake, played by Alice Faye, enters the mincemeat pie contest. Of course, hers is the best in all of Texas year after year. But the judges must be convinced. After all, Frake family pride is at stake. If you can watch the mincemeat pie contest, and pie judge Hipplewaite, played by Wally Cox, without feeling copious amounts of pain, I envy you. You are one tough cookie. Oh, wait, I mean I feel sorry for you. Either way, he is a tough judge to convince, but once he is in the grip of momma’s mincemeat pie, well, the thing is done and its all over. He can’t get enough of momma’s mincemeat pie and eats the whole thing. Momma wins and Frake family pride is upheld on a yearly basis once again as with Blue Boy. This scene and the Blue Boy scene illustrate just how much things have changed in the world in general and in specific. In State Fair you are looking at another era and another definition of comedy and entertainment. It has been a long and tortured arc to go from the cornball yuks of State Fair to, lets say, The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco. Then again, I bet Lenny Bruce could have worked wonders with the State Fair script. I’d like to see that version. In his best days, David Letterman would have barfed up the mincemeat pie or at least dropped it off a building and Blue Boy could have been an icon of the stature of, say, a Larry “Bud” Melman or at least “The Guy Under the Stairs.” If State Fair is comedy, subversive comedy it is not.
Now it is up to the two kids to uphold the Frake family pride. And all while learning about life in the big city at the Texas State Fair. Fresh off the farm they are about to get their taste of romance, heartbreak and hard knocks.
Pamela Tiffin doesn’t need to enter any contest. Putting her in the beauty contest and having her wear the sash of Miss Goat’s Milk Cheese Dip would be only too easy, redundant and anticlimactic. No, she glides about the Texas State Fairgrounds with a sublime beauty that doesn’t even need an announcement. It just is. She is as anonymous and unnoticed as Big Tex and the Texas Star Ferris Wheel. Thus, the Frake family wins again, of course. She is going to attract wanted and unwanted attention in spades. And she does in spades in the form of Bobby Darin’s too old for her TV creep, Jerry Dundee, who unctuously creeps on her from the “Oh My God” instant he sees her. He is all over her like a twelve dollar suit. This is another strange and painful aspect of the film, as Dundee’s advances are so urgent, driven, forthright, greasy and sleazy, that you have to root for Pamela to stay out and then get out of his clutches. What does she see in this creeper? Get away from him! She should have gone with her initial impressions, but she learns her lessons slowly. Ick! This whole little State Fair romance made me queasy. And after watching Farmer Joe romance Blue Boy, I can take a lot. Here we simply have the age old damsel in distress in the guise of a fairy princess kissing a toad who remains a toad forever after. But Pamela Tiffin’s presence in this film is its own reward. And not least, her squeaky clean and blast white image serves as an effective counterpoint to the film’s bad girl, Ann-Margret.
That leaves us with Pat Boone’s Wayne Frake and yet another bizarre auto racing anomaly in this film. Boone’s forte is racing and his red hot race car. In unprecedented style, he races the sports car on the State Fair’s dirt circle-track bullring against other European and American sports racing machines of the late 50s and early 60s. I would hazard that this is the only such race in the history of racing. And it was all caught on film. Amazing! Of course, he wins. Then he breaks into song right on the winners podium in a Juan Manuel Fangio meets Evita moment that is strange and uncomfortable. Yet all this strangeness is alluring to our bad girl, Emily Porter, played by Ann-Margret, who has set her cap for the yodeling racer boy. And she really is a bad girl. I mean a very bad, bad girl. Maybe the worst you have ever seen. This is one of the great things in the movie. This is a great character, great costuming, great casting, and a great performance. It is so great that I ended up feeling sorry for her. She is a shameless little hussy. She is cheap and trashy. She has a hard promiscuous look that yodel boy can’t resist. It turns out that farm fresh Wayne Frake is wise neither to the ways of the world nor fast and cheap women. He is new meat in town and the big city is gonna gobble him up fast. He is a rube for romance fresh off the turnip truck and Emily Porter knows a mark when she sees one. She is a gold digger and a you know what. Even though mom and pop have been on the farm long enough to curdle cheese they know a thing or two about a thing or two. The daggers are out for our bad girl. They hate her. Farm fresh yodel boy gets eaten whole by his desire for her and is head over heels out of his mind. In the end, his parents are actually pretty intelligent about matters of the heart and the ways of fast women in the big city. And they are pretty mean to our bad girl, too. Wayne and Emily both get hurt. I can hear it now. Sing along with me, “The farm boy and the bad girl both get hurt.” Hey, its Rogers and Hammerstein! And, thus, the Frake family is visited by real failure for the first time on their trip to Dallas. However, I can truly say that it is the bad girl, Emily Porter, that I ended up feeling sad and bad and awful for. The Frake parents are so mean to her it is painful. They basically say right to her face that she is a low rent, gold digging, trashy, tramp, and they don’t even say it that nice. They hit hard and they hit low. And it is very sad when this is basically said right to our bad girl’s face and you can literally see the realization cross her tight little face that, yes, this is true and, yes, I have lost and, yes, I am a cheap, trashy, little Jezebel. And with that, mom and pop Frake take home their trophies and blue ribbons, and the somewhat wiser to the world innocents, son and daughter, beaten and bruised by some not so subtle and self-interested romantic flirtations, back to the safe and not so threatening confines of the farm. Those city folk are not like us. They are fast and slick, they know what they want, and they will try anything to get it. Its safer on the farm. And its safer back in the early 60s, too.
Who knew State Fair would be such a sordid affair? Well, Blue Boy knew. Yes, Blue Boy knew. Like I said before, Blue Boy was just not feeling that whole Texas State Fair thing that year.