State Fair (1933)
Stong based his first hit novel on his own childhood growing up in Pittsburg, Iowa, where his father ran a general store. Fox quickly bought the rights for $15,000 and even offered him the chance to pen the film adaptation. Instead, it was written by Sonya Levien, who already had written such Janet Gaynor vehicles as Daddy Long Legs and Delicious (both 1931), and playwright Paul Green, known for such rural dramas as his Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham's Bosom and The House of Connelly. Their backgrounds came in handy when the studio cast their top female star, Gaynor (number two on the exhibitors' list of top box office stars for 1932), and homespun humorist Will Rogers, whose star at the studio had been steadily rising since the coming of sound. The writers crafted a tale perfectly suited for both, with daughter Gaynor falling for slick newspaperman Lew Ayres, while father Rogers hopes to lead his 900-pound hog to a blue ribbon. Rounding out the family are Louise Dresser as the mother who competes in the mincemeat competition with the help of a generous dose of apple brandy and Norman Foster as the son who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist (Sally Eilers).
Director Henry King, an expert at Americana behind such classics as Tol'able David (1921) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), attended the 1932 State Fair and Exposition in Des Moines, IA, to film background footage. That raised some problems when the company in charge of the carnival rides demanded $5,000 from Fox for the rights to use shots of the midway. Eventually, the studio paid them $3,500 and agreed to include two shots of the company's complete name and trademark. The Frake family farm was actually a farm in Corona, CA, where the crew shot exteriors to match interiors shot on the Fox lot. They left the owners all the improvements they made for the film, including fresh paint on the barn, a white picket fence and new chicken houses.
Blue Boy, Rogers's hog in the film, was played by the grand champion boar from the actual Iowa State Fair, Dike of Rosedale. King warned his star that the animal was temperamental, so he should steal clear of it whenever possible, but Rogers claimed "I've always been on friendly terms with hogs. Me and him'll get along all right." When King had Rogers called for his first scene with Blue Boy, they couldn't find the actor in his dressing room or his usual hang out - his car. They found him fast asleep in Blue Boy's pen, with his head resting against the hog's side. After filming ended, Rogers was offered the chance to buy the hog, presumably to slaughter. He demurred, saying, "I wouldn't feel right eatin' a fellow actor."
State Fair was the first Fox film to open at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall and brought in $1.5 million at the box office, a big figure at that time and enough to earn it a place among the year's box office top ten. It was warmly received by critics, who praised Rogers for playing a character different from his stage and screen image. In addition to its two Oscar® nominations (the year's Best Picture award went to Fox's Cavalcade, while Best Adapted Screenplay went to RKO's Little Women) the film made the National Board of Review and Film Daily ten-best lists and placed fourth on the New York Times's list. The year of its release, Rogers rose to number two box office star (he had been number nine the year before), behind Marie Dressler and just ahead of Gaynor. He would go on to star in more diverse roles until his death in a plane crash in 1935.
Ultimately, the film's popularity cost it a scene. State Fair had been made a year before the institution of strict Production Code enforcement in 1934. Although the writers had cut the novel's depiction of a sexual affair between the daughter and the reporter, they had kept the son's seduction by the trapeze artist. Moralists were particularly outraged by a scene in which Foster and Eiler's dialogue is heard off-screen while the camera reveals a rumpled bed and a negligee on the floor. Making the scene especially offensive was its inclusion in a film starring Will Rogers, whose star image usually guaranteed unobjectionable films. When Fox re-issued State Fair in 1935, the film industry's self-governing board insisted the scene be removed. The cut has never been restored.
Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, Paul Green
Based on the novel by Philip Stong Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Score: Louis De Francesco
Cast: Janet Gaynor (Margy Frake), Will Rogers (Abel Frake), Lew Ayres (Pat Gilbert), Sally Eilers (Emily Joyce), Norman Foster (Wayne Frake), Louise Dresser (Melissa Frake), Frank Craven (Storekeeper), Victor Jory (Hoop Toss Barker), Hobart Cavanaugh (Professor Fred Coin).
by Frank Miller
Will Rogers: His Life and Times, Richard M. Ketchum