There is a scene in Henry King’s State Fair (1933) that ranks among the most poetic moments in all of 1930s American cinema. There is not much to it, just a family driving through the dusk in their rattling pickup truck. What could have been a forgettable bit of connective tissue becomes the heart of the movie, evoking a nameless mood of anticipation mingled with regret, a kind of nostalgia for the here and now.
Up to this point, the film has been an ambling, sharp-witted rural comedy. It has introduced a family in the midst of their bustling preparations for an annual trip to the Iowa State Fair: farmer Abel Frake (Will Rogers) fussing over his prize pig, his wife Melissa (Louise Dresser) furtively spiking her competition mincemeat with apple brandy, their grown children Wayne and Margy (Norman Foster and Janet Gaynor) restless on the farm. But the mood shifts as they drive through the summer twilight: the four seem spellbound, alone together. Dark countryside skims by, the sun sunk behind a tangle of trees. Gaynor’s face in the dim, lingering afterglow is suffused with a muted yearning that no dialogue could articulate. There is a lovely ache about this scene, which in its simplicity captures an elusive awareness you sometimes get of the present becoming the past before your eyes, even though—as with the light dissolving into darkness—you can never quite see the line between them.
State Fair was the first film I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, as part of a retrospective devoted to the director Henry King. It is a perfect introduction to his overlooked talents. King suffers from having made too many films—116 in a career lasting from 1915 to 1962—and most of them for a single studio, 20th Century Fox, suggesting a workhorse if not a studio hack. His name conjures unfashionable genres and themes: Americana, “Great Man” historical dramas, westerns, and religious piety. But the best of his films are uncommonly delicate, unsentimental, ambiguous, deeply shadowed treatments of these forms. State Fair, based on the same source as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, seems like it should be the purest corn on the cob. King’s version preserves a tenderness toward this world at its most innocent and comical—Melissa’s hilarious pantomime of suspense, astonishment, and ecstasy as her pickles and mincemeat are judged, her sweet ride on a carousel with Abel, and the slyly edited porcine romance between the Frakes’ boar Blue Boy and a champion sow—but also has a healthy appreciation for the limits of innocence. The fair, with its sideshow banners and barkers and shimmying cooch dancers, is pleasantly seedy, and the treatment of Wayne’s affair with a worldly trapeze artist (Sally Eilers) is distinctly pre-Code, down to a subversive flipping of expectations in their attitudes toward sex and marriage.
What gives the story its deeper shading is the brevity of the fair. It is not the aging parents who are keenly conscious of time slipping away, but the children, for whom fairground flings become dangerously deep attachments. When city reporter Pat (Lew Ayres) tells Margy that they can celebrate their last night together by going on all the rides and doing all the things they did the first night they met, she replies wisely, “No, there can only be one first time.” Afraid to trust his overnight conversion from casual flirt to faithful lover, she turns down his marriage proposal. As she prepares to leave his apartment, he switches out the lamp so she is suddenly framed in a shaft of light from the door against a black background. The melancholy infusing moments like this goes to the heart of King’s vision of failure and disappointment as a shadow cast by American confidence and optimism.
“It is entirely possible to yearn for past times—in our own lives or long before we were born—without viewing them through rose-tinted glasses.”
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