Charles Walters’ lively Technicolor tale of mistaken identity, multiple romances and chuck wagon racing – interspersed with a collection of mostly forgettable songs – was the sort of thing that MGM could make it in its sleep by this time. And, fun though it undoubtedly is, at times it looks like on this occasion they did. They certainly did it on the cheap – it’s no Meet Me in St Louis (1944) or On the Town (1949) that’s for sure. It casts aquatic legend Esther Williams in the female lead but apart from a few trips to a hotel swimming pool and a rather lovely fantasy sequence, we never get to see her doing what it was that made her famous. Perhaps the MGM water tank was being cleaned that week…
Williams plays Debbie Telford who, with her partner Cornie Quinell (Red Skelton), operate a sideshow in a carnival that revolves around men throwing balls at a target, causing her to be plunged into a pool of water (they were simpler times…). A chance encounter with drunken millionaire rancher Dan Sabinas (Keenan Wynn) leads to the pair taking up residence in a swanky hotel, the staff mistakenly believing hem to be Sabinas and his sister Marilla. With Sabinas taking a taxi ride to Mexico (don’t ask…), things seem to be on the up for Debbie and Cornie but the arrival of hunky ranch foreman Slim Shelby (Howard Keel), Cornie attracting the eye of local sheriff’s daughter Sunshine Jackson (Ann Miller), the late-in-the-day return of both a severely hungover Sabinas and the more sensible Marilla (Paula Raymond) and Cornie accidentally running up a gambling debt he can’t hope to pay off lead to them all becoming involving in a hectic chuck wagon race that Cornie needs to win to honour the debt.
Williams’ legion of fans must have been bitterly disappointed when they paid for their tickets only to find that she remains firmly landlocked for most of the film. She does get to show off her skills in the scene that earns it a place here. A love struck Slim has a vision of her dancing around in the air around him, achieved by superimposing footage of her pirouetting underwater over footage of the doting Slim. It’s a shame they could’t do anything to hide the occasional air bubble which rather gives the game away but it’s a charming scene anyway that comes completely out of the blue and neither offers nor needs any explanation – Slim isn’t drunk, or ill, or insensible, he’s simply in love and seeing the woman of his dreams cavorting through the air above him seems entirely normal.
A little Red Skelton tends to go a long way and his clowning here runs the gamut from inspired to wishing he’d knock it off and give someone else a chance. Funny walks abound, there’s a lot of falling over and a really rather good drunken scene but his natural tendency to allow his routines to out stay their welcome isn’t reined in by Walters who was presumably delighted with all the pratfalls and slapstick so encouraged his star to do whatever he wanted. Skelton was about to embark on his long-running and much-loved television career with The Red Skelton Show debuting on 30 September 1951, just a month or so before Texas Carnival was released (it would run right through to 1970) and his small screen exposure would certainly have done wonders for the film’s box office (it was another decent hit for MGM). Texas Carnival is definitely his show and he makes the most of it. Too much perhaps. As Bosley Crowther put it in his New York Times review, Skelton “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.”
Howard Keel was just starting his career at MGM, having already appeared opposite Williams in Pagan Love Song (1950) (a third pairing, Jupiter’s Darling (1955) was a box office disaster, the first of Williams’ career and when Keel’s other MGM film of the year, Kismet, also tanked he was released from his contract) and he’d won a legion of admiring fans following his appearances in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Three Guys Named Mike (1951) and Show Boat (1951). He feels slightly short-changed here, turning up late to the party and spending the rest of the film largely in the shadow of Skelton. He sings a few songs in that distinctive baritone voice of his but you’ll have trouble remembering any of them even while he’s performing them (if memory serves, one appears to be a loving ode to his horse Emma). Completing the main quartet, Ann Miller is the most energetic of the cast and gets to show off her considerable dancing talents in a couple of high energy Hermes Pan choreographed routines. But again she’s sold rather short by a script that really exists to leave as much space for Skelton as possible – and in her case that mainly means that she spends the bulk of screen time inexplicably mooning over him.
But there are some fine moments along the way and some of Skelton’s clowning still hits the spot but it’s not until the full-blooded action of the climactic chuck wagon race that the film really comes to life. Uncredited stuntman Gil Perkins deserves all the kudos here as he pulls of a few old-school stunts that still look pretty spectacular even now.
If you’re a fan of Red Skelton then Texas Carnival is going to be right up your street, though fans of Williams are likely to be disappointed. But apart from a few poorly timed sequences in the hotel room, Texas Carnival zips along at breakneck speed and the hit rate for the gags is high enough not to try your patience. It’s not much of a musical – the songs are few and far between and not terribly memorable and Miller gets the lion’s share of the dance action – but it’s still a solid, old-fashioned (in a good way) bit of Hollywood bunkum with a memorable fantasy scene to spice up the proceedings. Perfect viewing for a rainy Sunday afternoon.