State Fair (1962) ***

Ann-Margret lights up this corny-as-they-come musical. A car-racing sub-plot is about the only attempt to update it from the previous version in 1945. But if you like a love story, you’ve got three, that is if you include Blueboy the pig’s amorous advances. The remake avoids the edginess that had been introduced to movie musicals by West Side Story (1961) and settles for family-friendly and lightweight.

But there is something very American about the Frakes, a family of farmers. They all want to be winners at the annual state fair, parents Abel (Tom Ewell) and Melissa (Alice Faye) desperate to come home with trophies, she for her mincemeat, he with his pig. Son Wayne (Pat Boone) is also intent on victory, in a car race. Daughter Margy (Pamela Tiffin) would be happy with a bit of romance.

Wayne is very taken by showgirl Emily (Ann-Margret) while commentator Jerry (Bobby Darin) has eyes for Margy. The romances are not quite as innocent as you’d expect. Emily makes it clear she’s had other men, making her in Wayne’s eyes “a bad girl,” and that anything that happens at a state fair stays at a state fair, while she goes merrily on her way to her next conquest. Jerry is considerably less open with Margy, happy to string her along until he gets his chance at the big time.

Blueboy, who snorts like billy-o on seeing a female pig in the next stall, has to do all his courting behind bars.

This is more of a musical than the original. Oscar Hammerstein II now deceased, Richard Rodgers adds four more songs on his own, so there’s a bit more mooning and prancing about.

Although “It Might as Well Be Spring” was viewed as the standout song, the standout performance belonged to Ann-Margret who adds spectacular zip, showing off her figure is a series of dance moves on stage leading a male ensemble.

Oddly enough, of all the prospective competition winners, Wayne is the only loser. But that’s out of choice as he rams into a rival to drive him off the track and prevent him winning. Equally oddly, in this context, that’s seen as something of a victory, putting a bully in his place. The racing sequence, and thankfully minus any song, is a highlight.

The humor, deriving mostly from the parents, is slightly labored. Blueboy is let down by the script which doesn’t permit him to build up enough personality to make the audience root for him. But the sequence where three judges taste the alcohol-enhanced mincemeat works well. While at the outset the parents appear merely there as filler, they eventually come into their own in a demonstration of mature love.

Ann-Margret brings a touch of Vegas to the state fair.

Quite what made director Jose Ferrer (Return to Peyton Place, 1961) – an Oscar-winning actor – think he was cut out for a musical is anybody’s guess since, in the first place, this would only be his seventh picture in 11 years and, in the second place, he had no experience in this line. There are too many scenes just of the fair, a souped-up job that was more like an outdoor exhibition than a mom-and-pop local affair. While he lacks the flair of the big time Hollywood directors of musicals, for most of the songs he just points the camera and lets the actor get on with it, the dramatic scenes working reasonably well.

But since only Ann-Margret is called upon to show any real angst he’s quite limited in opening up the movie’s emotional appeal.

Ann-Margret (The Swinger, 1966), changing from natural brunette to flame-haired, steals the picture by far, not just on stage but revealing the screen persona that would take her to the top. Pamela Tiffin (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964, where she played second fiddle to Ann-Margret) is left in the shadows by Ann-Margret’s sizzling performance. Pat Boone (The Main Attraction, 1962) and Bobby Darin were better known as crooners which tends to mean they’re better with songs than dialogue, as is the case here, though Darin was excellent in the non-musical Pressure Point (1962).

Former top Fox star Alice Faye (In Old Chicago, 1938), making a comeback after 17 years, has little to do but frown and Tom Ewell (Tender Is the Night, 1962) has little to do but gurn and moon over his pig.

But, hey, it’s a musical and different rules apply. Fairly passable entertainment with some decent songs and the added bonus of Ann-Margret.

Pressure Point (1962) ****

Central to this under-rated tale of psychopathy and racism is one extraordinary scene, possibly the most exceptional bar-room sequence ever filmed. In the annals of imaginative repulsion, it ranks alongside the rape committed by Alex and his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It begins with mere intimidation as an unnamed young man (Bobby Darin) begins to etch into a bar counter the lines and symbols of Tic-Tac-Toe (a.k.a. Knots & Crosses or Noughts and Crosses). Discovering tins of paint, the man and his gang proceed to cover the entire bar – floor, walls, ceiling, even tables – with the same symbols.

The humiliation is ratcheted up a notch when the gang leader forces tavern owner (Howard Caine)  to lie on the floor behind the counter where he cannot see the bar hostess (Mary Munday), rigid with fear, being tormented. Using lipstick rifled from her handbag, the man decorates her face in the same fashion before pulling down the back of her dress and doing the same there. Fortunately, the rest of the scene, presumably ending in rape, is left to our imagination.

Italian poster showing image from the Tic-Tac-Toe scene. A variation of this was shown in the main image which removed the domineering man and concentrated on the humiliated woman.

Other potent scenes show how the man arrived at his crazed state, smothered with affection by a weak mother (Anne Barton) who has taken to bed in order to escape his drunken, raucous father (James Anderson) who taunts his ineffective wife by flaunting in her face his casual pick-ups and making love to them in the same room. Indicative of the lonely child’s disturbed personality is that when he invents an imaginary playmate, it is to have someone to subjugate, making his fictional friend lick his boots.

Imprisoned during the Second World War for sedition, the man, suffering from blackouts and nightmares – in which he imagines himself clinging to the edge of a giant plughole before being swept away by a torrent of water from the taps – becomes a patient of a young, also unnamed, doctor (Sidney Poitier) whom he subjects to racial abuse.  The doctor, physically bigger and more imposing than the patient, would like to simply give him a good thumping, but his profession necessitates that he treats this objectionable person as just another patient. And eventually they come to enough of a concord that the patient accepts treatment although the doctor suspects that his core personality has not changed.

The U.S. poster was different to that used in Italy. This is pretty much a straight rip-off of “The Defiant Ones” (1958).

The movie is layered with themes other than psychopathy and psychiatry. While the racist element is to the fore, including the doctor’s need to prove himself in a white man’s world, and the lack of diversity in this particular medical field at that time, director Hubert Cornfield also explores the growth of right-wing extremism among the disaffected who see no contradiction in still espousing traditional American values, for example giving the Nazi salute while singing in all sincerity the national anthem. The African American doctor has to come to terms with lack of objectiveness when dealing with such an abhorrent person.

The movie flits between scenes between the two protagonists staged in a stagey manner and  expressionistic almost dreamlike sequences representing the patient’s upbringing such as being menaced by his butcher father among the swinging carcasses of the store. The patient flashbacks are shown without dialogue, explanation given in voice-over by either the patient or the doctor.

The father torments the mother by bringing a casual pick-up to their bedroom.

Reliance on visual dexterity, however, detracts from the tension and director Hubert Cornfield (The 3rd Voice, 1960) is also hampered by an unnecessary framing device which results in the story being told in flashback – leading to a conflation of flashbacks: the older Poitier explaining his earlier problems dealing with a difficult patent and listening in turn to the patient’s own life story. So the pressure indicated by the title is often undercut and does not build as much as you might expect. Critical reaction in those days pivoted on the racism elements, but a contemporary audience is almost certainly going to be as influenced by sequences involving the patient, so the picture automatically becomes more involved and Cornfield’s visual mastery more appreciated.

You can detect the influence of producer Stanley Kramer. In his capacity as director he had explored psychiatric therapy and anti-semitism in Home of the Brave (1949) and racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) also with Poitier. As producer he was responsible not only for selection of the original material, based on a short story The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert M. Lindner, but also imposed the framing device, which Kramer wrote. Those scenes relate to another psychiatrist (Peter Falk) coming to a much older and experienced Poitier for advice after hitting a brick wall with a similarly repugnant patient, Poitier telling the story of his treatment of the Bobby Darin patient as a way of showing that even the worst patients are treatable.

This is quite a different Sidney Poitier than you might be used to. Wearing suit and tie, and spectacles, this is a more restrained, measured performance. Poitier’s taboo-busting Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones had not progressed his career that much, still restricted to starring roles in low-budget pictures. But Kramer broke another taboo in Poitier’s favor with this one, casting him a role not initially written as an African American.

Bobby Darin (Come September, 1961) had parlayed his status as hit recording artist into a burgeoning movie career but does not quite display the menace necessary for a fully-fledged psycho. The likes of Richard Widmark would have been a more convincing adversary. Peter Falk (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) has a small one-tone role. The jazz-nuanced music by Ernest Gold (Exodus, 1961) is worth a listen. And if someone can tell me who designed the striking credit sequence I would be very pleased.

Incidentally, the title of Lindner’s short story is ironic. Patients pay for one hour of a psychiatrist’s time but in reality only receive 50 minutes in order for the professional to achieve a swift turnaround and keep his/her appointment timetable scheduled to the hour. Tic-Tac-Toe, in case you are unfamiliar with this two-person childhood game, consists of drawing lines to create nine squares and filling those with either a zero or a cross. The object of the exercise is to create a complete line of either symbols.

Catch-Up: Sidney Poitier films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966).

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