Flickchart Road Trip: Iowa
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
If the Iowa State Fair had begun on the date shown in my Iowa movie — the appropriately titled State Fair — then I would have arrived in Iowa right in the middle of it. In that movie, a billboard advertises the fair as beginning on August 23rd. However, this is 2013, not 1945, and in 2013, the fair ran from August 8th to August 18th. I missed it by a week.
What else is a person to do in a giant state filled with corn?
Well, I’ll tell you. You visit the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.
I toyed with the idea of including Star Trek, J.J. Abrams‘ 2009 hit reboot, among my Iowa movies. Its opening scenes take place in Iowa, and you don’t get that many chances to include movies set in the future on a blog series like this one. It didn’t fit in well, ranking-wise, with the other movies I wanted to discuss, so the next best thing is to honor it by visiting Riverside, Iowa, where the captain of the Starship Enterprise is supposed to be born on March 22, 2233. Star Trek purists — better known as Trekkers (not Trekkies) — will be quick to note that this birthplace was not the result of a decision by Gene Roddenberry, but rather, an idea by Riverside City Councilman Steve Miller in 1985. Looking for a theme for the annual town festival, Miller said the town should proclaim itself the future birthplace of Kirk, since it was known Kirk was born in Iowa, but not where. The rest of the council unanimously agreed, and it became accepted into Trek lore once Roddenberry gave his blessing. In fact, his Riverside birthplace made its way into two non-canon Star Trek novels that came later.
The town is in the southeast corner of the state, so I took I-35 down from the Minneapolis area, and caught I-80 east once I hit Des Moines. Right around Iowa City you take a short jog down route 218 and you’re there. The town still wears its “future birthplace of Captain Kirk” mantle with pride. There’s an engraved stone birthstone proclaiming Kirk’s future birthdate, and there’s also a miniature starship called The U.S.S. Riverside. I must admit that I geeked out for a few minutes and took a selfie next to both. (Yes, I’ve seen every Star Trek movie and have The Wrath of Khan ranked at #24 on Flickchart.)
That didn’t quite quench my appetite for deep fried Oreo cookies or roasted corn on the cob, but my Iowa movie helped in that regard. The aforementioned State Fair, the adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical directed by Walter Lang in 1945, will also be helping me with the fact that I’m missing the L.A. County Fair while out on this road trip. I’ve been going with friends each of the past five years during the month of September, but they’ll have to eat the Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich (you don’t want to know) without me this year. I tried not to let the global ranking of #5087 by Flickcharters bias me against it.
What it’s about
The Frake family and their Iowa home town have a lot of pride about their state fair — according to the song, their state fair is the best state fair in the state. Father Abel (Charles Winninger) is preparing his prize pig, Blue Boy, with the hopes that he will sweep the swine competition. Mother Melissa (Fay Bainter) is having moral misgivings about whether adding brandy to her mincemeat will unduly sway the judges. Son Wayne (Dick Haymes) wants to beat the ring toss game that cost him $8 and rewarded him with a fake prize the year before. Daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) just longs for a break from the same-old, same-old of her home town, including the persistent square to whom she is nominally engaged (Phil Brown). Little do the younger Frakes know, but new romances may await them at the fair in Des Moines, in the form of a ladies man news reporter (Dana Andrews) for Margy and a mysterious singer (Vivian Blaine) for Wayne. Will true love overcome their suitors’ prior commitments, or is the fair really only a pipe dream of how life could be?
How it uses the state
I would have expected a movie like this to throw the word “Iowa” into a line of dialogue within two minutes of the opening credits, but strangely enough, the state name isn’t spoken once in the whole film. It does, however, have a very memorable showpiece in the song “All I Owe Ioway,” which features such lines as “I am Ioway born and bred/And on Ioway corn I am fed.” There are also references to towns like Davenport, Postville and Des Moines, as well as the name of the state fair on ribbons and other prizes. I’m just surprised the movie doesn’t hit you square in the nose with its location from the get go.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Iowa movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films State Fair will battle:
1) Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson). My Flickchart: #129/3563. Global: #744. “Is this heaven?” “It’s Iowa.” Field of Dreams was cinematic heaven for lovers of baseball and lovers of movies in general. Since I fall into both categories, it’s just outside my top 100. “If you build it, he will come” is another of the enduring quotes from this glorious wish fulfillment fantasy, in which Kevin Costner‘s Ray Kinsella builds a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield. Ray hopes, with the encouragement of a mysterious disembodied voice, to lure back the members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who were indicted for a cheating scandal — as well as his father, who idolized “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a player on that team. Not only is this film beautifully shot and acted (James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta and Burt Lancaster are also great), but it’s sure to put lumps in throats with its moving finale — and to earn every one of those lumps. So it may be Dwier Brown‘s performance as Ray’s father that’s ultimately the most effective.
2) Cedar Rapids (2011, Miguel Arteta). My Flickchart: #784/3563. Global: #3352. Miguel Arteta directed such dark, dismal “comedies” as The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, so Cedar Rapids marks a refreshing move toward real humanism for him. It’s the story of Midwest insurance salespeople for whom the Iowa city of Cedar Rapids is their Las Vegas. They’re sent to the titular city for an annual regional conference, where they let loose like whatever happens will stay there. Clearly designed as a vehicle for Ed Helms, whose own Las Vegas misadventures in The Hangover helped make him a star, Cedar Rapids shines on the strength of its ensemble. The script is funny and Arteta’s direction is good, but Cedar Rapids could have gotten lost in the shuffle were it not for Anne Heche‘s most engaging performance in years, and John C. Reilly‘s surprising turn as the douchebag with the heart of gold, whose wise perspectives surprise you with their quantity of soul.
3) Butter (2011, Jim Field Smith). My Flickchart: #1569/3563. Global: #24694. Butter is spread all over the place — if you will. Sometimes, it tastes sweet; it’s got a 10-year-old foster child (Yara Shahidi) with a preternatural gift for carving butter sculptures, and it’s got the most humanistic performance you’ve ever seen from a surprisingly cuddly Rob Corddry. Sometimes, it tastes bitter; Olivia Wilde excels as a foul-mouthed stripper who doesn’t blink at turning tricks, and Jennifer Garner does all she can to crush the aforementioned 10-year-old foster child in their competition for top butter carving prize at the Iowa State Fair. Then it’s got the decidedly weird satirical undercurrent of serving as a veiled metaphor for the 2008 presidential race between Brack Obama (Shahidi’s character) and Hillary Clinton (Garner’s character). The effect of these dueling elements is predictably unsettling, and when you add in the fact that different characters narrate at different times, it becomes even more so. Fortunately, it’s also downright hilarious when it’s on, and has some real moments of heart as well.
4) Michael (1996, Nora Ephron). My Flickchart: #2231/3563. Global: #5268. Michael was the moment when viewers really realized that John Travolta‘s comeback wasn’t going to feature a Pulp Fiction every time out. Nora Ephron’s harmless romantic comedy about reporters (specifically Andie MacDowell) following on the trail of a naughty angel (Travolta) is pure cinematic vanilla — not the slightest bit terrible, but not the slightest bit memorable either. Travolta’s titular character smokes, boozes, commits pranks … and doses out pithy bits of unexpected wisdom, proving he’s really a softie despite being a little rough around the feathers. A small town in Iowa is where he’s being harbored (by Jean Stapleton). Travolta does get the chance to dance, which had kind of become the Travolta inside joke after Fiction and Saturday Night Fever.
5) The Crazies (2010, Breck Eisner). My Flickchart: #2839/3563. Global: #3377. The gap between the reality and the fantasy was really the problem here. The Crazies — a remake of a 1973 film — was advertised so effectively, so chillingly, that I came into the screening expecting my socks to be knocked off. Instead, The Crazies was … well, kind of crazy, but not in a good way. It goes over the top and back again in its depiction of zombie apocalypse starting in the small (fictional) town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. I remember progressions of time being a particular problem in the first half of this movie, and then nuclear explosions being a particular problem in the second. (Oops, didn’t mean to give anything away.) I’m not going to say this movie is terrible — I’ve liked over 700 movies I’ve seen less than it — but it was a disappointing return on that ominous pitchfork scraping along the hospital hallways from the ads.
First duel: State Fair vs. Butter. I’ll take the idealized version of the Iowa State Fair over the jaded version. State Fair wins.
Second duel: State Fair vs. Cedar Rapids. In its own strange way, Cedar Rapids is even more idealized than State Fair. Cedar Rapids wins.
State Fair finishes third out of the six movies.
In the fourth week of this trip, back in late January/early February, I saw another film version of a Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! (Can you guess in which state I saw it??) I was pretty harsh on that one, in part because I knew the show well, having acted in it as a teenager. With State Fair this week, I carried in no such history/biases … and ended up liking the movie a lot better.
There’s something so wonderful about the gleeful optimism of the characters in this film, and how they go all moony-eyed over the annual state fair. You really get the sense of how normal life is turned into something extraordinary for the short period of time the fair takes hold of the state. Not only are there the normal fair activities — games of chance, livestock competitions, ferris wheels, horse races — but true doses of glitz and glamor. As one example, the Iowans on hand get to exchange a quiet night of knitting and the serials on the radio for a cabaret-style dance floor and the music of Tommy Thomas and his band. As another, young couples in love can ride in a gondola straight off the canals in Venice, with a lovingly created Venetian backdrop. Take any event romanticized in the movies for all its wonder and splendor, and State Fair does an equally good job making the Iowa State Fair quiver and vibrate with joy.
It’s really evident how this adaptation of the musical was functioning as escapism for a country just coming to the end of a 15-year period marked by the Great Depression and World War II. In fact, State Fair was released only a week before VJ Day signaled the end of the war, and it might as well symbolize the exuberance of an entire nation celebrating the impending return of such simple pleasures as state fairs. Even all these years later I felt that contagious sense of relief and release.
It helps that this movie has a lovely cast and a bunch of catchy songs. I’ve already made mention of two of those songs — “Our State Fair” and “All I Owe Ioway” — but my favorite moment is probably the sing-a-long with most of the cast (and a dance floor full of happy couples) in “It’s a Grand Night for Singing.” Really, is there any better distillation of the film’s themes and larger place in what was going on in the world than that song title? Sure, some conflicts get resolved rather easily. Most notable is the fact that (spoiler alert) Abel’s pig wins top prize at the fair, even though the judges witness him lying on the ground in the apparent throes of sickness only moments before. Still, that’s all part of the tonic State Fair is trying to be. It doesn’t want to be deep and present anything close to “reality.” It just wants to soothe us and make us forget all our cares.
Since I had such a nice time with State Fair, let’s stay with 1940s musicals for one more state. That state would be Missouri, as I continue further southward in my zig-zagging motion across the Midwest, and that 1940s musical would be Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minelli in 1944.