Texas Carnival (1951)
This movie tells the age-old story of Texas carnival workers who masquerade as wealthy cattle barons. All the old cliches are there: a dunk tank, a tap-dancing sheriff’s daughter, a chuckwagon race, and of course cheerful, clean cowboys constantly crooning. Okay, so it’s not a particularly complex, allegorical, or mythic story. But it’s fun nonetheless.
Skelton had starred opposite Williams in her first big movie, Bathing Beauty (1944), which was the only time the pair played romantic leads. They were both in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), but just about every MGM star had his own scene in that revue.
It wasn’t until Neptune’s Daughter (1949) that Skelton and Williams acted together again. In that film, Skelton romances Betty Garrett while Williams is occupied by Ricardo Montalban. Skelton made a brief cameo appearance in Duchess of Idaho (1950), making Texas Carnival his fourth (and last) film with Williams.
Howard Keel was another former co-star of MGM’s mermaid. He and Williams had recently made Pagan Love Song (1950), which was released about a month before production started on Texas Carnival in February 1951. Keel’s big, strapping form goes nicely with Williams’ athletic frame, and since he could sing while she swam around, they were a perfect match! MGM also re-teamed the pair in Williams’ last film at the studio, Jupiter’s Darling (1955).
Keenan Wynn was another familiar face. He had appeared in supporting roles with Williams in Easy to Wed (1946) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). After his brief but memorable turn in Texas Carnival, he would make a cameo in Skirts Ahoy! (1952).
Indeed, Ann Miller is the only star who hadn’t worked with Williams before!
Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells came up with the story for this movie, and Kingsley wrote the script. She had been at MGM since Arthur Freed hired her to work on Girl Crazy (1943), and she was a prolific screenwriter (as were most writers under contract in the studio era).
She established a reputation as a “fixer” and was often called in to fix last-minute script problems, sometimes even re-writing scenes on the set between takes. It’s difficult to know how many scripts she actually worked on as these eleventh hour “fixes” would often go uncredited.
Kingsley worked on the scripts of many MGM musicals and several of Esther Williams’ films, including Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, On an Island With You (1948), and Neptune’s Daughter. Indeed, Kingsley worked on 75% of Williams’ pictures, and the two women became friends. They would sometimes make revisions together, as I wrote about in Easy to Wed, and Williams appreciated Kingsley’s willingness to collaborate.
MGM assigned Charles Walters to direct this film. Walters had started as a choreographer and worked on Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Girl Crazy (oddly enough the film that brought Kingsley to MGM), among others, before the studio gave him a chance to direct some sequences in Ziegfeld Follies. After that, he became a reliable director for MGM, helming classics like Good News (1947), Easter Parade (1948), Summer Stock (1950), and High Society (1956).
“Chuck” and Esther Williams got along quite well, and he would go on to direct the “dear dame” (his nickname for Williams), in two more swimming musicals, Dangerous When Wet (1953) and Easy to Love (1953), which happen to be two of my favorites.
To the film! It opens on a shoddy carnival deep in the heart of Texas. Debbie (Esther Williams) is the “half-girl, half-fish” attraction, which consists of Debbie perched on a swing above a small dunk tank. She goes into the water when people hit the bullseye with a baseball, so she doesn’t even get to swim. It’s poor design, if you ask me.
Debbie’s partner Cornelius “Cornie” (Red Skelton) tries to entice people to their (admittedly dull) attraction. It’s three shots for 25 cents, but Cornie bets some passing men one dollar that they can’t hit the bullseye and send his “daughter” into the water (I guess they thought that would make things a little more interesting, but Debbie is not actually related to Cornie).
Of course the strong young Texans hit the bullseye and poor Debbie is dunked over and over again.
The shots come in such quick succession that she doesn’t have time to secure her pretty hat on its wires, so it gets dunked, too, and ruined. You can watch the scene here.
After this humiliating display, Debbie stalks into their tent to warm up. She is furious with Cornie. They aren’t making any money, she’s hungry, and she’s tired of this silly act. We learn that she had been working at a water pageant at a state fair until Cornie convinced her to partner up and start their own act, a decision she heartily regrets. (Fun fact: MGM discovered Williams when she was performing at the Aquacade, a huge water pageant).
She says “You don’t want a partner, you want a trained seal.” And she’s tired of being the trained seal. When he reminds her that he was the one who arranged for her to swim the Mississippi from St. Louis to Memphis, she snaps back: “Where did that get me? Memphis.”
Fun fact: in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Williams’ character’s father and an agent also protest that she is not a “trained seal.” And she undertakes other long distance swims as publicity stunts, though in that movie they pay off.
To placate his hungry partner, Cornie goes looking for food. They only have enough money for a 15 cent hamburger, not the steak Debbie was yearning for, but it’s the best he can do. On his way back to Debbie he sees a very drunk man named Dan Sabinas (Keenan Wynn) being cheated at a carnival game. Cornie helps him out, which wins him the ire of the boater-clad hawkers who thought they had a sucker ripe for the plucking.
After Cornie helps him, Dan says that they are best friends, brothers even, and he offers Cornie a herd of cattle, some oil wells, or thousands of dollars. Cornie is a good man so he refuses, but he does agree to drive Dan’s convertible to the Comanche Hotel. Dan is far too inebriated to drive, so he gets in a cab. But then he drunkenly insists that the driver take him to Mexico City. Cornie doesn’t hear that last-minute change, so he thinks Dan is on his way to the hotel as planned.
Meanwhile, the carnival guys threaten Cornie. They heard Dan offer Cornie money, and they want it. But all Cornie got out of the exchange was that weird doll!
And the keys to Dan’s car…the mean carnival guys chase Cornie and Debbie through the fairgrounds but the pair escapes by jumping into Dan’s car and driving to the Comanche Hotel. Poor Debbie didn’t even have time to change clothes, so she is still in her pink “Dunk Me” suit and a blanket, and feels pretty awkward at this fancy hotel. Since she’s in a bathing suit, Cornie suggests that she go wait by the pool while he finds Dan and straightens everything out.
Fun fact: I bet that the entrance to the hotel is the same one used in Thrill of a Romance (1945), minus the ivy and fancy steps. MGM had an enormous backlot and knew how to use it.
Anyway, while Debbie deals with the stares of fellow pool-goers, Cornie searches for Dan Sabinas.
What Cornie and Debbie don’t realize is that the doorman saw the “DS” monogram on the car and assumed that Cornie and Debbie are Dan Sabinas and his sister, Marilla. Word spreads, and by the time Cornie gets to the reception desk, the hotel staff and most of the guests think that he is Dan Sabinas, the Cattle King!
Debbie assumes that people are staring at her “Dunk Me” suit and blanket, but actually they’re curious to see Marilla Sabinas, the richest girl in Texas!
Cornie figures out the hotel’s mistake pretty quickly. (Being constantly addressed as Mr. Sabinas and directed to his hotel suite are good clues.) But he does try to set the record straight, though his efforts backfire. For example, when he asks the clerk where Mr. Sabinas is, the man thinks that Cornie is pretending not to be Mr. Sabinas in order to remain anonymous.
Their comical conversation ends with the man promising to protect the Cattle King’s privacy: “Your secret is safe with me, Mr. Sabinas–I mean, sir.”
Fun fact: the man at the desk in the maroon shirt is Hans Conried, whom you may recognize from Summer Stock (1950). In that film, he plays the pompous actor who is eventually replaced by Gene Kelly. Amusingly, despite Texas Carnival‘s heavy, almost cartoonish Texas focus, Conried still uses his crisp Mid-Atlantic accent in his role as hotel clerk. You may recognize his voice as Captain Hook from Disney’s Peter Pan (1953).
After that confusing chat, Cornie stops trying to clear up the mistake and decides to play along until the real Dan Sabinas arrives. For the time being, then, Cornie and Debbie get to hang out in this swanky mid-century hotel with rustic “Texas” touches.
Meanwhile, Dan Sabinas’ foreman Slim (Howard Keel) is heading to the hotel with the Cattle King’s prize cattle for a big stock show. And like all tough cowboys, he and his men are harmonizing beautifully as they ride the trail. Their song of choice: a loping sort of song called “Whoa, Emma!” about a mischievous filly.
Everyone is amazingly clean despite the dusty work!
Slim drops off the herd and heads into the hotel to find his boss. He learns that Marilla Sabinas is lounging by the pool, so he goes outside to talk with her. Debbie catches his eye but certainly doesn’t want to keep it.
She eventually jumps into the pool to escape him. She still doesn’t know that everyone thinks she is Miss Sabinas, so she assumes the man is coming to throw her out of the hotel.
Slim doesn’t give up easily, though. He follows her around the pool and asks her to have dinner with him that evening. But as he regales her with descriptions of the immense steaks at the hotel restaurant, she faints from hunger in the pool. Slim dives in to save her.
Here is Williams between takes around the pool:
A little while later, Cornie goes looking for Debbie but he can’t find her. So like any good clown, he climbs down the ladder in his clothes and shouts for her underwater.
It’s a version of a joke he performed in Bathing Beauty:
A bellhop finds Cornie at the pool and tells him that his “sister” is in their suite recovering. When Cornie arrives, the doctor tells him that if he didn’t know better, he would say that Marilla was suffering from malnutrition!
Slim has stuck around, and Cornie and Debbie practically drool while they watch him leisurely prepare a plate for her. They are relieved to learn that he is a new hire and has never actually met Dan Sabinas, and he has only seen Marilla from a distance. He seems quite accepting of Cornie and Debbie as the Sabinas siblings. The game continues!
Once Slim leaves, Debbie insists that they skedaddle the next morning before they get caught. Cornie doesn’t share her urgency, but he agrees.
The next morning, Cornie puts on Dan Sabinas’ clothes (the Sabinas’ bags were already at the hotel–which begs the question: where is the real Marilla? We know why Dan is late, but what happened to his sister?). In his plaid finery, Cornie does his best Texas cowboy impression in the mirror. It’s basically an excuse for Skelton to clown around with fake guns and a tobacco pouch.
You may have noticed by now that Skelton gets a lot of screen time in this movie. He’s the driving force behind the plot, and has several set pieces and comic routines. The focus on Skelton was remarked upon in several contemporary reviews; for instance, Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wrote:
Despite the generous presence of Esther Williams, Ann Miller, Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn, all ready and able, [Texas Carnival] is entirely Red Skelton’s show. It is the omniverous Mr. Skelton…who not only gobbles up entirely every scene that he plays alone but also snatches the white meat from the others in every scene that he plays with them. And since there are few situations in which the comic doesn’t butt, there is not much of the picture’s seventy-seven minutes that is not consumed by him. For those who like Mr. Skelton, this probably will be all to the good, for the unsparing slapstick comedian works himself and all his old acts to the bone…His humor may be slightly noisome but, at least, he doesn’t stint.
As Crowther says, if you like Skelton’s brand of clowning comedy, you’ll enjoy the cowboy-mirror scene. I like Skelton, but I do wish there was more of the other stars. Williams has barely even been in the pool!
Back to the film. Debbie is still determined to escape, but her bathing suit isn’t dry yet and she can’t leave naked. (Or wear a damp suit, apparently.) Fortunately, she is an expert at sheet wrapping. Here they are between takes:
While Debbie waits for her suit to dry, Cornie goes downstairs and runs into the sheriff. But don’t worry–he’s not in trouble. The sheriff wants “Dan” to meet his daughter, Sunshine (Ann Miller). She’s a dancer and has been hoping to meet rich Mr. Sabinas for a while. After an enthusiastic greeting, she yanks off her fringed skirt and starts tapping those famous feet.
It’s a fun, vigorous number in typical Ann Miller style. Big grins, feet moving at light speed, and dizzying spins. Her backup dancers are supposed to be Native Americans and even give the stereotypical war cry at one point, but besides that cringe-worthy element it’s a great number:
Besides wowing Cornie with her talents, Sunshine also seems intent on capturing his heart. She basically assumes that they’re in love as soon as they meet, and she acts like it for the rest of the movie. Poor Cornie just gets pulled along by her boldness and energy. And her father’s ever present revolver.
Fun fact: in Film Bulletin‘s review of this movie, they wrote that “Miller whams across the part of a Texas extrovert in grand style, scoring solidly with her dancing.” I love that description: “Texas extrovert!”
Debbie gets tired of waiting for her suit to dry, so she puts on one of Marilla’s outfits (isn’t it convenient that Dan and Marilla’s clothes fit Cornie and Debbie perfectly!) and attempts to leave the hotel. But Slim is waiting for her, and she has to feign a headache to get away. There’s no escaping Sunshine, though! She sticks to Cornie like a burr and even works her way into his hotel suite.
And into his car. Cornie tells Debbie that he and Sunshine went for a drive and hit a herd of cows. So now Debbie and Cornie have no way to leave the hotel, plus they have to add the cost of Dan’s car to the astronomical hotel bill.
That evening, Cornie and Debbie are forced to keep up their masquerade as the guests of honor at a “Granddaughters of the Alamo” dinner.
(As far as I can tell, that’s not a real organization, though there is a “Daughters of the Republic of Texas” group.)
Oddly enough, no one at the dinner has ever met Dan or Marilla before, so their deception continues unchallenged. (It’s a lucky coincidence, though pretty impossible to believe.)
Marilla Sabinas was scheduled to give a speech, so now Debbie has to stand up and say something. She desperately asks Slim what in the world she is supposed to say, and he says, “Just talk about Texas.”
She thinks that’s useless advice, but she follows it anyway, saying, “I want to say a few words about Texas…” She is happily surprised when the room erupts in raucous cheers, dancing, and the firing of guns into the air, removing the necessity of any further efforts at a speech.
Slim corrals the chaos as the lead singer of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Debbie jumps easily into the dance in her white and silver fringe. The “Texas” outfits in this movie are hilarious caricatures. Unless everyone in Texas in 1951 did wear colorful cowboy shirts, bright neckerchiefs, and leather dresses dripping with fringe? I think it’s part parody, part Hollywood glitter.
MGM designer Helen Rose created the women’s costumes for this movie. She is one of my favorites because of the stunning, colorful, elegantly flashy costumes she designed for MGM stars. I especially love Rose’s designs for Esther Williams in Duchess of Idaho and Easy to Love, and the stunning gowns she created for Grace Kelly in High Society.
We don’t get to see any ballgowns or leopard coats in this movie because of the setting, unfortunately.
After Keel’s turn in the spotlight, Ann Miller gets another solo. This one includes horse-themed choreography; fortunately Sunshine is already in buckskins and boots! Hermes Pan, who is most famous for his work with Fred Astaire, did the choreography on this film.
In case you’re keeping count, this is Ann Miller’s second big dance number, and Esther Williams hasn’t had a similar solo in the pool. She mainly just stalks around being angry at Cornie, confused about Slim, and worried about their finances. Williams wrote in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid that
Years later, when I was married to Fernando Lamas and was watching a video of Texas Carnival with him, he turned to me and asked, “Why did you give this picture to Ann Miller? You’re the star, but she’s on the screen much more than you are. Didn’t you notice that she had more scenes than you did?” Fernando would actually clock screen time in order to calculate which star dominated the film. “I was just glad somebody was sharing some of the work,” I told him quite honestly. “I had a difficult kid at home” (197).
Williams had two children under two in early 1951, and her youngest son was only three months old when production began on this movie. According to her autobiography, he was a colicky, especially sleepless infant, and she had trouble finding and keeping nannies for him.
So this film must have been a blur for sleep-deprived Williams–no wonder she didn’t notice nor particularly care that Ann Miller got more of the spotlight!
Also: that means that Williams had gotten back into her movie-star-in-a-bathing-suit shape astonishingly quickly! She writes that MGM expected her to bounce back almost immediately, and that fortunately she was always able to swim herself back into pre-pregnancy form in time for her next film.
After this big Texas celebration, Debbie and Slim go for a brief walk in front of the hotel (it must have been a small set, and the scene wasn’t worth filming on location). Slim is pretty clear about his feelings for Debbie, and although she doesn’t want to, Debbie realizes that she is falling in love with him, too.
But she knows that he would hate her when he finds out that she isn’t really Marilla and has been lying to him the whole time…ah, mistaken identities and romance! A trope as old as stories.
The next day, Cornie hangs out at the entrance of the hotel so he can catch Dan Sabinas when he arrives. But he runs from his post when he sees Sunshine pull up in her spiffy red convertible. He likes her but she scares him.
He runs straight into an illegal poker game in a back room in the hotel. The players think that Cornie is running from the sheriff, so they quickly replace the piles of cash with jelly beans to appear more innocent.
Cornie joins in, assuming that the jelly beans are just jelly beans. He quickly loses $17,000 to Tex (Glenn Strange, the man on his left) before he realizes that each jelly bean stands for hundreds of dollars. He’d been munching on the candies during the game, too, so he ate about three grand.
Fortunately, Tex offers an unorthodox solution: they are both competing in the chuckwagon race in a few days, so he offers Cornie a double-or-nothing bet on the race. Cornie has to take it, as he certainly does not have $17,000 lying around.
You can imagine how upset Debbie is when she learns that they might have to add $34,000 to their already huge bill. She was distressed about a few hundred dollars, so this is terrible news. (How great is the purple robe with the huge monogram on the pocket? It reminds me of the robe in Easy to Wed.)
Debbie and Cornie make a pact to pay back Dan Sabinas, but they decide to escape now before things get even worse. On their way out of the hotel, they encounter Tex and an angry mob attacking a man who tried to “welch” on a bet of three dollars.
Cornie and Debbie decide to retreat quickly and quietly back to their room.
That night, the whole gang heads outside for a campfire. There’s more cowboy singing as everyone lounges in a picturesque tableau. But Debbie is too worried to enjoy herself. She’s lovesick and afraid that they’re going to be tarred and feathered when everyone realizes who they really are and how much money they owe.
She wanders away from the campfire but runs into Slim who takes the opportunity to sing a subtle song about wanting to marry her and settle down to have lots of kids. It’s called “Young Folk Should Get Married,” and soon they’re kissing in the moonlight.
When Debbie and Cornie return to their room, he tries to comfort her by saying that if Slim really loves her, he won’t care that she’s actually a carnival performer and not the richest gal in Texas.
She’s not so sure, but it doesn’t matter because we’ve already jumped into a dream sequence. It’s Williams’ only real swimming scene in the film (I don’t count her leisurely lap in the pool earlier) and it’s quite enchanting and unusual.
She glides into Slim’s hotel room and swims around in a dreamy, romantic number to the strains of “Young Folk Should Get Married.” He watches her cavort through the invisible water.
It’s a cool effect combining Keel’s dry shots with Williams’ underwater ones. Williams’ filmy white negligee looks beautiful rippling through the water, and she appears like a lovely ghost glowing in the dark.
Fun fact: according to her autobiography, when this scene was shown at a charity event many years later, Williams wanted to introduce it as “Howard’s wet dream.” But the event was for kids, so she had to choose a less titillating title!
MGM’s wizards accomplished this effect by building a hotel room set in a tank on Soundstage 30, Esther Williams’ water wonderland. (For more on that, visit my Esther Williams post.) The underwater set was identical to the dry hotel room where Keel filmed his part, except that the watery room’s walls were painted black. This allowed the filmmakers to essentially cut and paste Williams and her billowing negligee into the footage of Keel’s room. It actually looks really good, much better than the process shots in The Belle of New York (1952), for example.
Fun fact: Variety‘s review of this film was highly complimentary of this scene, calling it “another example of Metro technicians’ skilled trickery on the order of Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance in ‘Royal Wedding.'”
But it was not an easy shoot, in fact, Williams almost drowned. She’d been injured making movies many times before, and would be many times after, mostly because she was doing things that no one had ever done before. And it was all her–no stunt doubles. Nowadays, big stars get doubles to do anything the least bit risky, or even unpleasant, but Williams performed everything herself (with a few notable exceptions when she was pregnant).
This was partly because no one else could do what she did, but also because the studio assumed she was SuperWoman. That attitude was usually what got Williams into trouble because the filmmakers neglected to take reasonable precautions, or just had no idea about the complications that came with filming in and underwater.
She ruptured her ear drums multiple times from being underwater so much, broke a toe from clenching a swing with her feet as she swung fifty feet above the tank in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), and almost drowned when her canoe tipped over and she got caught in a powerful wave when filming in Hawaii for Pagan Love Song (1950). (You can read more about her dangerous stunts, including when she broke her neck when a costume element malfunctioned on a fifty-foot dive, here.)
The danger that lurked in this hotel room scene was much more mundane. When the crew built the underwater room they included a ceiling. It was painted black like the walls, and no one, including Williams, thought anything of it. They began filming: Williams performed her choreography, enjoying how the chiffon floated around her in pretty swirls. She always tried to stay underwater as long as possible to minimize the number of cuts in a sequence, so after she completed her forty-five second take, she started to surface.
The crew began preparing for the next shot, assuming that Williams was fine. But she wasn’t: she couldn’t find the hatch for the trapdoor exit in the ceiling because everything was painted black. She recalled the incident in her autobiography:
I kept swimming around, trying various spots in the ceiling, but every place I tried, I hit solid wood. I couldn’t see any way to get out because it was wall, wall, ceiling. I was trapped with no air, and I began to panic…Meanwhile, on the other side of the tank’s glass window, the crew was oblivious to the fact that I was in serious trouble. As I kept bumping into the ceiling, I could see one guy on the phone not looking in my direction; another was eating a sandwich. I was frantic, hitting and hitting and hitting on the black walls and ceiling…I was going to drown. Finally, Pete, the prop man, saw what was happening, dove through the hatch, and pulled me out gasping and fighting for air (195-196).
As you can imagine, she was furious, both at the people who had designed the “black coffin underwater set” (201) and at the crew’s lack of attention. She had almost drowned on a movie set, surrounded by dozens of people, and she was livid and terrified. The next day, when she returned to the set to finish the scene, the ceiling was gone.
Fun fact: as Williams remarks in her autobiography, this scene was considered rather daring at the time because she was in a man’s bedroom, unchaperoned, in lingerie. Indeed, that never could have happened in a dry scene. But the water kept things properly dream-like and detached: “The water ‘protected’ my virtue as well as the filmgoer’s. I was allowed to cavort around a bed underwater, clad in a see-through negligee…” (195) because somehow it was less erotic and threatening. (For more on the Production Code that kept movies “appropriate,” read my post History Through Hollywood: Vice.)
Here she is in her costume from this scene:
Back to the film. The next day, a very hungover Dan Sabinas finally arrives at the hotel. He goes to his suite and tries to take a shower. Debbie and Cornie are in the suite, too, but they don’t hear him come in. Thus begins that classic game of almost-running-into-but-continually-missing-each-other. For example, Dan keeps turning on the shower and closing the blinds, and Cornie and Debbie keep turning off the shower and opening the blinds. Everyone is bewildered until they finally meet.
Cornie gets a nasty shock when Dan doesn’t recognize him. He had pinned his hopes on Dan sorting out the situation, but Dan has no memory of the carnival. So Cornie decides to get Dan drunk, hoping that his drunk brain will remember him even though his sober one doesn’t.
But Cornie gets wasted trying to match drinks with Dan. Dan finally does remember Cornie, but at that point Cornie has passed out.
Fun fact: Howard Keel later wrote that this scene took a long time to shoot because Keenan Wynn kept breaking character to laugh at Skelton’s amusing fake-drunkeness. Skelton was uniquely talented at acting drunk, as you can see in his skit from Ziegfeld Follies, another scene that took a long time to finish because the cameraman kept cracking up.
Dan Sabinas now knows who Cornie is, but that doesn’t really help anything because Dan disappears from the story for some reason. That leaves a very drunk Cornie to compete in the chuckwagon race and the double-or-nothing bet. Slim, Sunshine, and Debbie desperately try to sober Cornie up so he can drive the wagon, but it’s slow going.
As Debbie works on Cornie, a woman walks by the tent and offers her assistance. It’s the real Marilla Sabinas (Paula Raymond), a fact that Debbie realizes when Slim calls “Marilla!” and both women answer. As they attempt to figure out what’s going on, Debbie realizes that Slim has known all along that she isn’t Marilla. She’s furious at him for tricking her, though a little relieved that he loves her for her, not because he thought she was Miss Sabinas.
After that romantic tangle is cleared up, the real Marilla tells Debbie that if Cornie wins the chuckwagon race and thus erases the $17,000 debt, she will talk to her brother and get everything cleared up. The hotel debts and the car will be forgiven, too. But if Cornie loses the race and has $34,000 to pay in Dan Sabinas’ name, Marilla probably won’t be able to help. “You’d better start heading for the border,” she tells Debbie.
When the cook assigned to ride with Cornie sees how drunk he is, he quits. (Smart guy.) So Debbie volunteers to be the cook, and off they go on a wild race. Debbie drives, because driving a team of horses is something that everyone can do without any experience. She does great, but Cornie almost blows them both up when he uses way too much gas on the stove. (The race entails driving the wagon to a designated spot, cooking a full breakfast, feeding it to the judges, and driving the wagon back to the starting area.)
After he cooks a disgusting breakfast, Cornie accidentally takes off without Debbie. Then he falls out of the wagon, so Debbie jumps on a horse to go retrieve him. Slim follows, fortunately, because she isn’t able to return Cornie to the wagon by herself. They finally get him back behind the horses, though the wagon slowly disintegrates until he is basically skiing. (It reminds me of the amazing chariot chase in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
Fortunately, Cornie wins the race and the debt disappears!
It’s a ridiculous scene with ample use of stunt doubles. Maybe they thought the film needed a big action sequence? I would have preferred another swimming scene or dance to this pseudo-western comedy chase, but no one consulted me.
After the race, the film cuts to the carnival. Cornie and Debbie are back with their bad act. We assume that Marilla and Dan took care of everything, but we never get more closure than that.
Sunshine shows up, too, along with her gun-wielding father. But fortunately, Cornie doesn’t need any persuading to marry his cowgirl sweetheart.
The movie ends with a literal bang when the sheriff accidentally fires his gun and hits the bullseye, sending Slim and Debbie into the tank. But it’s okay–they come up kissing. The end!
Texas Carnival was in production in February-March 1951, and premiered at the end of September to good box office.
Reviews were mostly positive and fairly typical for a movie like this. For example, Variety concluded that “the fun promised is delivered.” Skelton’s comedy sequences “will be greeted by uproarious laughter,” and Williams “moves prettily through the footage.” The lack of swimming pool scenes “is more than made up for by swim suit garb and the dream swim sequences in which Miss Williams water ballets herself around in Keel’s room, seemingly without benefit of aqua.” Keel, Miller, and Wynn get compliments, and all in all, the film is “light, easy-to-take entertainment.”
Motion Picture Daily wrote that the “cast is excellent:” Williams “provides pleasant visual effect in several bathing suit scenes,” Skelton “in comic complications,” Keel “in fine baritone voice” and Miller in “dancing delights.” “Fans who seek nothing more than easy film diversion will find rewards in this one.”
Film Bulletin concurred, writing that the film “is a bright, breezy Technicolor musical spotlighting the pulchritude [really?] of Esther Williams and the gay insanities [words sure change] of Red Skelton, that should please generally as light, happy entertainment…the story is out and out nonsense but makes quite a few amusing points in its satirical shafts at the Lone Star State.” The review noted that Skelton ran away with the picture, writing that “Skelton is very much the show…and he does a superb job of garnering laughs…”
As previously mentioned, The New York Times‘ reviewer Bosley Crowther also noticed the emphasis on Skelton:
Despite the generous presence of Esther Williams, Ann Miller, Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn, all ready and able, [Texas Carnival] is entirely Red Skelton’s show…However, with others in the picture who also may have their fans, the lesser part of politeness might have been to let them do more. The shapely Miss Williams, for instance. Except for one isolated scene in which she swims as a gossamer vision before Mr. Keel’s enchanted eyes, right after he has vocally informed her that marriage is a sensible thing, she spends her brief time in the picture rubbing Mr. Skelton’s dust out of her eyes. Miss Williams is too ornamental to be occupied that way.
Crowther and other reviewers also commented on Keenan Wynn’s performance, and wished that he had more screen time: “We might have been happy with a good bit more of Mr. Wynn, for he is rich as the roaring Texas Gotrocks in the few scenes that he plays,” and “Keenan Wynn’s unbridled Texas is genuinely funny.” (The New York Times and Film Bulletin, respectively.)
Crowther suggested that maybe Williams and Wynn did have more scenes originally:
But then it may be that all of them did have more to do and their stuff later was cut from the picture. Somehow it looks that way. The continuity rambles and the bridges are often quite abrupt. Indeed, the scrappy nature of the whole thing, for all its bright Technicolored elegance, gives the impression that it was pared down to a straight Skelton comedy. As such, it fulfills a purpose. It is straight Skelton comedy, all right—big, brawling, boisterous—like Texas. Or, if you wish, like a carnival.
It’s not entirely surprising that Skelton takes the lead in this film since he was an extremely big star at the time who appeared in films, radio, and on television. He started his popular television show the same year that Texas Carnival was released, and it ran until 1970, an astonishing nineteen years. He was a big deal!
Although this was his last film with Williams, Skelton would end up with Ann Miller and Howard Keel once again in Lovely to Look At (1952). But the era of giant musicals and their giant budgets was coming to a close.
Profits were down from the strong war years, and the studios were trying to cut spending to compensate for the smaller box office returns. This was particularly urgent for MGM, who had always spent more on their movies than the other studios. When movie attendance was up, their investment paid off, but that was not the case in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
So MGM brought in producer Dore Schary from RKO in 1948 as vice president in charge of production. He had worked in MGM’s B-picture unit in the early 1940s, and had a reputation for efficient filmmaking. The studio hoped he could curb some of MGM’s spending.
Schary and Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM and champion of lavish films with enormous budgets, clashed immediately. Mayer loved big stars, big movies, and big spectacle, while Schary favored “message movies” about social issues. For example, Mayer was a driving force behind turning Esther Williams into a star and inventing the genre of swimming musicals in the early 1940s, whereas if Schary had been in charge, it’s a safe bet that swimming musicals would never have been invented.
In Scott Eyman’s great biography of Mayer, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, he wrote about MGM acting coach Lillian Burns Sydney’s reaction to Schary’s hiring: “You’ve ruined everything,” she told Mayer, and explained that she was worried that Schary would eliminate all musicals, comedies and adventure movies in favor of smaller message films and dramas. “They won’t have need for anybody around here. Even you! You’ll see,” she warned Mayer.
As predicted, budgets began to fall once Schary arrived at MGM; for example, Texas Carnival‘s budget was much smaller than a film like Bathing Beauty (1944), which partly explains the lack of any big water spectaculars.
Sydney was also right about Mayer, and he was slowly pushed out of the studio he’d helped create. He officially resigned in June 1951, making Texas Carnival the last Esther Williams picture made under Mayer’s rule.
Williams recalled in her autobiography that after Mayer left MGM, he asked her if she would come work at his new studio. Williams had a good relationship with Mayer, but she wasn’t stupid. She wrote, “I didn’t want to turn him down flat, but I also had no intention of going with him…the truth was that my pictures really couldn’t be made anywhere but MGM.”
After all, how could Mayer, or anyone, replace MGM’s trained crew skilled at underwater filmmaking? Or the hair and makeup wizards who had perfected underwater coifs and lipstick? What about the chorus girls who’d been taught to swim? (They’d realized early on that it was easier to teach dancers to swim than swimmers to dance.)
But what really couldn’t be replaced was MGM’s quarter of a million dollars worth of pools, equipment, and technology on Stage 30. Williams told Mayer, “How can I go with you if you don’t have a pool?” When he said that he’d build one, she added, “No, you won’t. But call me if you do” (201-202). Mayer never did build that pool, and Williams stayed at MGM, chafing under Schary’s rule, until her era of big splashy musicals ended in 1955.
So, Texas Carnival is sort of the beginning of the end, though Williams still had five movies to make after this one. Texas Carnival isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s still a fun musical with some great stars, and it’s a good example of the type of musical churned out by MGM around this time.
And enjoy this patronizing article from the September 1953 issue of Modern Screen that I stumbled on while researching this post. Because after all, “beauty is every woman’s job!”