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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was a little gem about bucolic New England. Based on a famous 19th
century play, the story is set in summery rural Massachusetts where
nothing happens. The big event in the town is the new preacher who
scandalises everybody by not preaching hellfire and brimstone sermons.
A beautiful orphan lives with her aunt on a farm. Both the son of the
evil landlord, and the farm hand are courting her. Unfortunately, her
aunt's mortgage is falling due and she will be evicted unless the niece
marries the son. As she prepares to sacrifice herself, a down and out
breaks into the farm looking for food. This is provided, and a job
offered. The down and out notices that the family horse, Cold Molasses,
has a fair turn of speed. Being an ex-jockey from Saratoga(!) he offers
to race the horse at the county fair, where there is a three grand
prize. In the race he is pipped at the post by Lightning, the
landlord's horse. However, dark deeds have been afoot: interestingly,
in view of recent events, Lightning's rider carried a battery with
which to give the horse an electric shock to make it go faster. The
evil landlord and son are run out of town, the girl and the farm hand
marry, and even Auntie frogmarches an elderly admired into matrimony.
In a slight sub-plot at the fair, a small boy offers a small girl a drink at the soda fountain. When he cannot pay, the girl transfers her affections to a slightly older boy who can. The small boy then wins some money by catching the greasy pig, which he puts on Cold Molasses. Seeing the prize money, the small girl's affections are suddenly transferred back.
The acting was excellent, with the lead characters being very fluid rather than stilted, as so many were at the time. The storyline worked, though modern audiences might find it difficult to accept why Sally contemplates marriage to save her aunt from eviction. Sally was played by a very attractive, and suitably virginal looking, Helen Jerome Eddy. Whilst the burglar seeking food and being taken into the house was a very Christian message for a township which honoured religion more in the breach, the fact that he happened to be a jockey somewhat strained credibility. I preferred the buggies to the cars.
It is remarkable how people repeat the same stereotypical comments
about early films, even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.
So this story did not seem in the least bit "fresh" in 1920 and the
introduction to the film itself makes quite clear that it did not. "It
was produced in every town and village in America time and time again
over a period of twenty years" It was already rather "old fashioned and
predictable" by the standards of 1920 and the purpose of the production
(again clearly stated in the introduction) was to bring to the screen a
famous old play that had been dear "to our fathers and mothers".
The play, described as a "bucolic farce" dates in fact from 1888 but had a rather particular claim to fame which is probably what incited Tourneur to make the film. It was apparently written by one Charles Barnard but was produced for the stage by an actor/inventor/impresario called Neil Burgess (the introduction pays very specific homage to him) whose real name was James William Knell. He was also a female impersonator and himself played Aunt Abigail Prue in the stage production but what made the fame of the play was the system of treadmills and panoramas invented by Knell/Burgess which gave an impression of movement during the racing-scenes (using real horses), a system which would again be used for the chariot-race in the stage production of Ben Hur. So even if the story is a little dire, the production was, in its way, like that of Ben Hur, an important theatrical forerunner of cinema and the interest of making a film, with suitable apologies for the old-fashioned "wholesome" material, is therefore clear.
It is true it is no worse than the average US film of 1920 (sentimentality and buckled swashes rather ruled the day) but very much more interesting films were being made that same year in Germany and Sweden.
film kept repeating unattractive leading lady Arthur Houseman Helen
While by today's standards "The County Fair" is very old fashioned and predictable, it's still a dandy film almost 100 years later. And, if you love old silent films like I do, it's well worth downloading the film for free at archive.org.
This film stars Helen Jerome Eddy. She certainly is not a household name and was not exactly the sort of young woman you'd expect in movies, as she's actually rather plain looking. This is NOT a criticism--in fact, I think this simplicity is something that is a strength in the movie. The only member of the cast you might recognize if you love old films is Arthur Houseman--though he normally played funny drunks instead of rich weasels like he does here!
"The County Fair" begins with a nasty rich guy threatening to turn an old lady onto the street--unless her niece (who lives with her) marries this man's son. While she's dead set against it, the niece is a sweet thing and would do anything to help her aunt--even marry the rich jerk. However, a possible way out is presented. When a poor young man is taken in and fed, he turns out (naturally) to be a jockey and thinks he can win the $3000 prize at the fair and save the farm.
While where it all goes next is quite predictable, the film manages to make that journey quite enjoyable, romantic and sweet. Plus, compared to the average film of 1920, this one compares very favorably. What's old fashioned now seemed very fresh at the time. Well produced, directed and acted, this one is definitely worth seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The County Fair" is quite formulaic. In the opening, it says that it's based on a play that one's parents enjoyed. This was a 1920 film, but an even older play. It goes just like you think it will. A mean man wants to foreclose on sweet auntie, there's a way to raise the money, first prize is eventually awarded and the day is saved. Much of the movie deals with the auntie's niece and her relationship with the hired hand. Also, the auntie has (somewhat of) a love interest of her own. Yeah, yeah, yeah... But the end makes it all worthwhile. The horse "Cold Molasses" (owned by the auntie) proves itself to be the fastest horse around and is entered in a race that will raise enough money to prevent the foreclosure. It just so happens that the mean man owns a horse that's pretty fast, too - thanks in part to a battery charge to the horse's person. The race is run. While it's being run, we see Auntie gathering her belongings, certain she will lose her home. The mean man's horse wins, but the hired hand points out the battery charger and Cold Molasses is declared the winner. The hired hand rushes off to tell Auntie.. Somewhere along the way (and this must be a missing part of the film), her love interest ends up presenting the money to her. Shortly thereafter, the Auntie informs the love interest he will be her husband. A bit later, we see the niece and the hired man riding in a cart. They see the auntie getting married and decide to do that themselves. The horse, who must be pretty smart in addition to being pretty fast, literally noses his way into the scene. Pretty corny, but there's still still a lot to like.
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