TEXAS CARNIVAL

Charles Walters was a dancer and choreographer at MGM until he got a shot at directing, courtesy of Arthur Freed, who also promoted the directing careers of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen by more or less the same route.  Walters directed a lot of very good musicals and one great one, Easter Parade.  He wasn't a great visual stylist but most of his musicals have wonderful visual passages connected with the song and dance numbers — long takes with elegant camera moves or tracking shots that lend a special sort of excitement and beauty to the scenes.

Texas Canival, from 1951, is one of his lesser efforts.  It was produced by Jack Cummings, who had a knack for deploying the first-rate talent at MGM for second-rate efforts.  Texas Carnival has a lame script by  Dorothy Kingsley and a program of pleasant but less-than-memorable songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Harry Warren.  Hermes Pan did the choreography, featuring some crackerjack dancing by Ann Miller.  Esther Williams, Red Skelton and Howard Keel, the rest of the principal cast, are genial but bland.  None of the above artists is at his or her best here.

But there's one sequence in the film that makes it worth watching — a kind of dream fantasy in which Keel sees Williams floating around his hotel room one night, after he's fallen in love with her.  It's done with impeccable superimpositions of Williams filmed swimming underwater and the effect is magical.

Williams, as everyone including Louis B. Mayer liked to say, was a star wet but not a star dry.  Wet, however, she was really something — an expert dancer in a very unusual medium, H²O.  (She's pictured above in a scene from Ziegfeld Follies, directed by Vincente Minnelli.)  Her balletic moves worked best when they were simple and languorous, emphasizing the slow-motion effect naturally imparted by movement underwater.  Like over-cranking in the camera, underwater dancing allows one extra time to savor the grace of a dancer's body in movement.

When used for a lyrical, erotic mood, as Walters uses it in the hotel-room scene, it can be haunting, uncanny, sublime.  The scene points up one of the virtues of the second-rate MGM musicals — they often deliver moments and images as memorable as the best ones in the first-rate musicals . . . just enough magic to signal that MGM really was a dream factory like no other.

2 thoughts on “TEXAS CARNIVAL

  1. I think there's an interesting essay waiting to be written (or perhaps there already has been) comparing the directorial styles of MGM's house directors of musical films. Minnelli was probably the most consistently stylish, although Kelly and Donen probably brought about more actual changes to the way musicals were shot (I still think “On the Town” is, in many ways, the single most innovative musical ever made).
    It's also interesting to compare the musicals produced by Arthur Freed with those produced by Joe Pasternak, but that's another topic altogether.

  2. The contrast in styles is fascinating, but so are the stylistic elements that all of Freed's directors shared — particularly in the way musical and dance numbers were shot, usually in long takes with elegant camera moves. Freed wanted cinematic virtuosity as well as musical and choreographic virtuosity — something that was apparent in his very first films, which he hired Busby Berkeley to direct. Freed went on to “create” his own team of directors, like Minnelli, Kelly and Donen — all of whom he personally recruited into the directing ranks. In addition, all of his key directors, including journeymen like George Sidney and Charles Walters, had experience as performers on the musical stage.
    The Freed unit at MGM was quite an outfit and was clearly driven by a clear vision on Freed's part.

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