Sunday, May 15, 2011

Texas Carnival (MGM, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was Texas Carnival, a rather shabby but still somewhat entertaining 1951 MGM musical produced by Jack Cummings (the least of MGM’s three major musical producers at the time), directed by Charles Walters (one of the many Queer folk in Judy Garland’s circle and someone she frequently used as a platonic date when she didn’t have an actual husband or boyfriend) and starring what almost qualifies as an all-star cast: Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Ann Miller and Howard Keel. (Thus the film reunites Williams and Skelton from Neptune’s Daughter and Williams and Keel from an even more atrocious movie, Pagan Love Song.) The plot of Texas Carnival features Skelton as a carnival concessionaire, “Cornie” Quinell, who runs a dunk tank with Williams as Debbie Telford, the prospective dunkee (he bills her as his daughter and says she’s “half girl, half fish,” but it’s just a simple dunk tank and she really doesn’t get much of a chance to swim her stuff underwater), only they’re doing so badly he can barely afford a hamburger.

Things change for him when he’s accosted by a drunken Texas multimillionaire (in cattle and oil), Dan Sabinas (Keenan Wynn), who instantly befriends him and tells Cornie to get him a cab, have himself driven to a fancy hotel where he’s expected, and then follow him there in Dan’s own car — only the inebriated Dan tells the cabbie to take him to Mexico instead, and when Cornie and Debbie arrive at the hotel in Dan’s car they are immediately assumed to be Dan and his sister Marilla (Paula Raymond). In what’s essentially a reworking of The Bride Wore Red, Cornie and Debbie run up a five-figure tab in room charges, meals and, in Cornie’s case, a $17,000 gambling debt — he got roped into a poker game and, not knowing the jelly beans at the table were being used as chips, he ate $5,000 worth of them. Debbie is understandably worried about what’s going to find out when the real Dan Sabinas shows up and/or someone at the hotel figures out they’re impostors, but Cornie assures her that he and Dan are bosom buddies and the real Dan will sort everything out when he arrives.

In a plot twist the writers, Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells, pretty obviously stole from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (which had originally been released in 1931 but had been reissued in 1950, one year before Texas Carnival was made), once Dan actually shows up — sober — he has no idea who Cornie is, though the writers and Skelton do a neat reversal on Chaplin’s gag: Cornie decides to get Dan drunk so Dan will recognize him, only Cornie has more to drink than Dan does and by the time he comes to after having drunk himself into unconsciousness, Cornie has no idea who Dan is. (Skelton was well known for his drunk scenes — including the “Guzzler’s Gin” routine he’d originated in vaudeville and preserved in the film Ziegfeld Follies, which Lucille Ball — who was also in Ziegfeld Follies — ripped off for the great “Vitameatavegamin” episode of I Love Lucy.) Meanwhile Debbie falls for Dan’s ranch foreman, Slim Shelby (Howard Keel), while Cornie attracts a comic partner of his own in Sunshine Jackson (Ann Miller), daughter of the local sheriff (Tom Tully) and an aspiring dancer who gets to rehearse a couple of songs, including one called “It’s Dynamite” in which she’s backed by the Red Norvo Trio.

It’s surprising that the Norvo trio was well known enough they were put into a movie like this playing themselves — albeit backing Ann Miller in a raucous high-energy tap number (with piano and drums added to their basic vibes-guitar-bass instrumentation) was hardly the sort of quiet, intimate jazz they were known for in person and on records from Savoy, Fantasy and Decca. What’s less surprising — depressingly familiar, in fact — is that the great African-American bassist Charles Mingus was in Norvo’s trio at the time, and he was allowed to record the soundtrack for their number — but when it came time to film it, the “suits” at MGM insisted that Mingus not appear on camera and a white bassist synch to the pre-recording instead. (This was 14 years after Benny Goodman had become the first leader of a racially integrated band in the film; he insisted that the two Black musicians in his famous Quartet, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, appear right alongside the two white ones, himself and drummer Gene Krupa, in the Warners musical Hollywood Hotel — but obviously Norvo in 1951 didn’t have the kind of commercial clout Goodman, also a former Norvo employer, had had in 1937.) The plot finally resolves in a chuck-wagon race — an absurd sport in which the wagons are supposed to race in one direction, then one of the occupants is supposed to cook a breakfast and serve it to the judges, and then they’re supposed to head back along an obstacle course — which Cornie needs to win to bail himself out of his gambling debt, and which he does win when the rest of the wagon disintegrates under him and the metal frame holding together him, the front wheels, the driver’s seat and the horses pulling it essentially becomes a virtual chariot, while none of the other drivers finish at all.

Texas Carnival isn’t much as a musical — it’s a waste of major talent both in front of and behind the cameras (the songs are by Harry Warren and Dorothy Fields, but neither of them were having a good day) — but its plot is stupid enough it reaches an entertaining level of total absurdity, and there’s at least some glowing Technicolor cinematography to compensate (the beautiful rust-orange of the sunsets is especially nice even though the “skies” are obviously painted backdrops against a studio wall). What there isn’t is a spectacular Esther Williams water ballet; the only time we get to see her doing anything that even resembles swimming is one in which she appears floating in space in a white chiffon gown (the sequence, or at least her image, was clearly filmed underwater — the air bubbles coming out of her nose and mouth give it away) in the middle of Howard Keel’s hotel room in what’s supposed to be a dream sequence but looks pretty nightmarish to me (“Help! I dreamed my entire hotel room was full of water and Esther Williams was swimming and dancing in it!”). One commentator joked that maybe they were cleaning Esther Williams’ pool that week — either that or changing the chlorine — and the page said that the original ads for this film read, “For the millions who loved The Great Caruso and [the 1951] Show Boat” — both of which, though flawed, were far better films than this!