Did you hear the one about the big-city reporter and the farmer’s daughter?
It was called “State Fair,” as a novel, a Broadway hit, a movie, a stage musical and two more movies.
On the radio, the whole theatrical Lockhart family was unleashed on this New Year’s Eve show from 1950 by Screen Guild on the Air. Daughter June and parents Kathleen and Gene play the Iowa farm family en route to the State Fair with Pa’s pig and Ma’s pickles.
The reporter waiting at the fair is Van Heflin, who had one of his first stage hits as a journalist character in “The Philadelphia Story,” the role that went to Jimmy Stewart in the film adaptation. As newsman Pat Gilbert in “State Fair,” Heflin sounds a bit old and worldly for the sweet young June Lockhart as farmer’s daughter Margie — which is just what the script calls for.
Audiences who saw the 1945 movie musical by the same name may have been disappointed that this radio adaptation is not the singing and dancing Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It’s closer to the pre-musical play and 1933 movie with Will Rogers as the father figure and Lew Ayres as the reporter.
In this broadcast, 18-year-old Margie and the reporter she meets at the State Fair are the heart of the story, and who better for a model of worldliness than a newspaperman? He’s worked in New York and Chicago. He’s been to Paris. He’s been to Rome. He’s even been to her home town once — when a plane crashed there.
The farmer’s daughter in this telling could not be any sweeter (or wiser for her years) than June Lockhart — in 1950 not yet known to the world as the mother from the “Lassie” TV series or the silver-clad mother from “Lost in Space.” She had, however, already won a Tony on Broadway in 1948.
Van Heflin plays Pat, the “Just for fun, baby; just for laughs…” reporter, as world-travelled, well-educated, a bit sad, and not entirely a cad.
“Pat, what kind of a person are you, really?” Margie asks at one point. And, at another, “Your life hasn’t been very dull, has it, Pat?”
He knows literature and music as well as news, and hopes to return to Paris someday to write a book. He knows art and architecture, too, although not enough to have become an architect on that trip to Rome. He has a way with words, and Margie inspires him to eloquence. And after a couple of evenings in the moonlight with her, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t know his heart as well as he thought.
(However, for all the risks to 1950 Midwestern morality, and thanks to Margie’s level-headed principles, the reporter’s main ethical failing involves her mother’s pickles… which leads to a press photographer’s request for the kind of cheesecake they don’t give ribbons for at the fair.)
For 21st century listeners, this all may be a bit corny and sentimental, but I enjoyed it almost as much as the live studio audience — which must have had fun watching the voice actors who played the parts of the chickens and that prize hog, who has the happiest ending of anyone.
When former journalist Phil Strong’s novel “State Fair” came out in 1932, times were different, as is clear in the blurbs on the University of Iowa Press page:
“…two hours of welcome relief from the depression…a gay novel of normal, healthy farm people, a novel with plenty of gusto and relish for life in it.”—New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1932
“…he brings to his first published novel an unusual combination of the city slicker’s knowingness and humor with a sound understanding of and affectionate feelings for the life of which he makes his story.”—Saturday Review of Literature, May 7, 1932
The radio audience must have liked it — enough for Theater Guild on the Air to do it all again in just three years… minus the Lockharts, and with a different Van — Van Johnson — as the reporter.
Now I’m tempted to scout around to see if I can find DVDs of the movies and a radio adaptation of the musical. I’ll add additional information about other radio versions to the list on my JHeroes page on radio adaptations of Hollywood films.