Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Texas Carnival Was No Fun

My guess is that "Texas Carnival," which starred Red Skelton and Esther Williams and premiered on this day in 1951, coincided with the start of the Texas State Fair.

As long as I can remember, the Texas State Fair has opened here in Dallas at the end of September. It was probably that way 65 years ago, too. "Texas Carnival" was not specifically about the Texas State Fair, but it was in that same general setting. The only thing missing, I suppose, was Big Tex, the iconic 55–foot statue that greets fairgoers at Dallas' Fair Park.

Skelton and Williams were before my time; they were celebrities my parents probably saw in movies when they were children.

I remember Skelton vaguely from his final year or two on TV, his many characters and his signature signoff, "Good night and may God bless." He was amusing, which was good because his aspiration was to make people laugh.

Williams was retired from acting by that time. I have only seen her in old movies, nearly all of which centered on her prowess as a swimmer and promoted swimming in some way.

I wish they had left it at that instead.

Since they didn't leave it alone, I would have thought that they would have capitalized on the things that made Skelton and Williams stars in the first place.

Now Skelton always was a clown. While some people seem to gravitate (often a bit involuntarily at first) to that vocation, Skelton was what you might call a premeditated clown. He set out to become a clown, and he succeeded. But his role as a carnival dunk tank operator in Texas was a bit too over the top.

It was not as off the wall, though, as Williams' role. As I say, she was known for her swimming, and you would think that would be a big part of her role in any movie — but not "Texas Carnival." The objective of her role in that movie seems to have been to keep her out of the water as much as possible. Her biggest moment was when she swam in a waterless hotel room. Really. It was a dream sequence. I wonder who dreamed up that one.

She was the girl in the dunk tank, but that was only her job when the movie began. As the story — such as it was — evolved, Williams got farther and farther away from water.

That wasn't completely possible, but, by and large, it was achieved.

Then there was Ann Miller, a dancer, singer and actress but mostly a dancer and singer who was occasionally called upon to act. Whether she did so was largely a matter of opinion. She had some singing and dancing scenes in "Texas Carnival," but they lacked the vibrance that her singing and dancing usually brought to her roles.

But at least she lived in Texas when she was a child, and she brought a touch of an authentic Texas twang to her lines. I'm not sure if Skelton ever spent any time in Texas. Not that that would be necessary, but it wouldn't have hurt.

There was a lot of singing in "Texas Carnival," but none of the songs were memorable. Howard Keel played a singing ranch foreman who courted Williams. Skelton, meanwhile, was interested in Miller.

I wonder if audiences in 1951 were interested at all.

Keenan Wynn played a wealthy (and inebriated) Texas rancher, a character that barely managed to connect all the story's loose threads and held them together with all the stability of a house of cards.

Alcoholism may have been regarded as hilarious in the 1950s, but I doubt that such a plot device would be too warmly received in the 21st century. The story would need some considerable retooling in the unlikely event that someone chose to remake it.

The central theme — mistaken identity — probably could have been retained. Without it, it is hard to see where there would be much of a movie. Not that there was a whole lot to begin with.

Of course, if anyone happened to be foolish enough to try to do that, it wouldn't hurt to rewrite the whole story, not just the rancher's part.