The classic musical State Fair (1945/1962) brings a number of classic vocal standards to movie screens. When looking at both movies in comparison songs like “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” feel very standard in their depiction. These musical numbers are examples of timeless, mid-century Americana. Interestingly, this isn’t the case for “Isn’t It Kinda Fun”. The catchy tune features prominently between both film versions. However, while there are relatively few changes within the lyrics and overall structure of the song, the staging and delivery of the number allows an examination of the massive cultural changes in the almost twenty years separating these movies.
Our cinematic introduction to “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” comes in the 1945 film version of State Fair. A centrepiece of the movie, the song is showcased as a duet between Wayne Frake (Dick Haymes) and Emily (Vivian Blaine).
The performance in the movie serves two primary roles. Perhaps most importantly is the song’s purpose in developing one of State Fair’s main romantic pairings. Emily is a traveling showgirl and nightclub singer and it is through this song that she’s truly able to connect with innocent farm boy Wayne.
Secondly, the number is also an important character moment for Wayne. Throughout much of the narrative, he struggles to establish himself as anything more than a clueless hick in the eyes of Emily’s “show-business” friends. Haymes was a crooner by trade and he feels much more comfortable as a singer than with his acting. He shines in the moment, and this shows in the audiences’ reaction around him. As such, “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” helps establish Wayne as a serious contender for Emily’s affections. Though, as per usual for most post-WWII musicals, any sexual chemistry is largely absent.
The one thing that is clear from this music number is that in 1945 “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” is a standard work of Hollywood fair. It’s clean, polished and feels very similar to other numbers of the time.
The song later makes a reappearance in the all-star, 1962 remake of the same name. In this version, the song is repurposed as a showcase for Emily (Ann-Margret) during one of her shows at the state fair. The song takes the place of “That’s for Me” which is also sung by Emily (Blaine) in the 1945 version.
The changes to this number demonstrate the cultural evolution affecting the gold, old-fashioned Americana of the Hollywood musical. The song which is presented in 1945 as a standard vocal ballad is “Ann-Margret-ized” in 1962. Emily performs it on-stage as a dumb-struck Wayne (Pat Boone) watches from the audience below her. It is sultry and fiery, making use of not only Ann-Margret’s strength as a singer and dancer, but also her undeniable sexuality.
The first State Fair came as America struggled to return to normalcy at the end of World War II. Servicemen were returning from overseas and couples were anxious to return to life as it was. Meanwhile, the second movie comes from a drastically different cultural period. The 1960s were a time of substantial social upheaval. In the years surrounding this movie’s release, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique hit newsstands as well as the (equally important) Sex and The Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown. Views towards sexuality (and women in general) were changing, and this fact is evident in the music number. The choice of song (as well as actress) deliberately shows how culture shifted and evolved in the twenty-years following the end of the second World War.
While the 1962 version of State Fair hasn’t survived the passage of time as well as the original film, the remake is definitely worth a watch. The similarities and differences the depiction of songs like “Isn’t It Kinda Fun” shows how society changed since the release of the 1945 State Fair.