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America has always been fascinated by carnivals, yet movies that examine life in these traveling entertainments have often been a stumbling block for their makers. Tyrone Power fought hard for the right to star in Nightmare Alley, a 1947 exposé of spiritual flimflammery on the midway that audiences found too sordid for their liking. And there's always MGM's major miscalculation Freaks, a horror film starring real circus freaks that so offended critics, it was recalled and locked away in the studio vaults.
1980's Carny comes closest to recreating the tawdry appeal of the modern carnival. Musician Robbie Robertson produced, plays a leading role and co-wrote the screenplay; he also worked in carnivals when he was young (or so claims the Carny publicity). Actors Gary Busey and Jodie Foster give unusually spirited performances in a story that accepts the amoral carnival lifestyle at face value.
The stars are backed by an ideal ensemble of character actors for a show that revels in the cheap glamour and sideshow camaraderie of the traveling "Great American Carnival". Country waitress Donna (Jodie Foster) is intrigued by performer Frankie (Gary Busey), who paints makeup on his face and sits in a dunking-cage daring yokels to toss baseballs at him. Frankie explains that he's not a clown: he's not funny and his makeup is a mask to hides behind as he hurls insults at people. Fed up with her possessive, oafish small town boyfriend (Craig Wasson), Donna asks Frankie to help her leave town. Under the disapproving eye of the show manager Patch (Robbie Robertson), Donna tries to become a carnival worker ("carny"). She's fascinated by the way the carnies earn their money. Frankie makes the suckers at the dunking booth angry ("rangs them up") to get them to keep playing. The old carny On-Your-Mark (Elisha Cook Jr.) behaves like a raving madman, and attracts suckers to whatever booth he's working. Gerta (Meg Foster) runs a cheap booth where players pull strings to win prizes, but she's the real reason the customers play her game. Gerta flashes her pale blue eyes and flirts with whoever shows up at her booth.
The funfair runs on thrills greed and the false promise of carnal pleasures. The carnies are ambivalent about their cynical jobs but nostalgic for the traditions of the business. Nothing in the carnival is strictly honest. Individual concessionaires will bilk the suckers if they think they can get away with it, but sheriffs and racketeers in every locality see the carnival as an opportunity to extort money from Patch and his business partner Heavy St. John (Kenneth McMillan). One municipality refuses to let the carnival's freaks perform, which deprives them of their living wage. Patch will humiliate himself to keep the peace but he also isn't above threatening people and pulling dirty tricks. He immediately sees Donna as a distraction and a threat to Frankie, an erratic fellow who becomes even more unbalanced trying to impress her. When Donna agrees to become a background dancer in a strip show, Patch tricks her onto the stage to "go hard". Donna's influence on Frankie gets the blame for the havoc that ensues when "rang'd-up" thugs attack the sideshows and crash a pickup truck through the midway. Greta coldly hands Donna some traveling money and tells her to disappear.
Carny presents the traveling show in all its sleazy moods. Patch and Frankie enjoy the foolish young girls who show up to sleep with them. The burlesque strippers offer each other emotional support between shows. Donna witnesses an informal wedding ceremony, when a couple of carnies ride the carousel together. The ritual means that they've decided to be a pair, for at least one season.
Still looking like a fifteen-year-old, Jodie foster shows Donna's excitement as she catches the carnival bug, feeling the power she has over the suckers who ante up at the string-pull booth just to listen to her talk. Donna practically seduces a pair of young lesbians, and happily lies when she promises to meet them in the parking lot. Gary Busey's Frankie is something of a loose cannon, a fast-talking insult machine who sometimes forgets when to quit. He crashes the "truckers only" section of a cafe, and seems incapable of not provoking the customers.
Robbie Robertson's Patch is a slick operator who works overtime to keep the carnival in operation, which isn't at all easy. He puts out fires by calming down irate patrons and roughing them up if he has to; he can be ruthless when dealing with the carnies. Elisha Cook's dotty old-timer makes speeches about retirement, and his associates all wipe back tears. Bert Remsen runs the strip show, and realizes that his girls need plenty of support to get through their performances. Kenneth MacMillan's Heavy St. John connives with Patch to keep the payoffs reasonable; no matter what they do it seems to be getting harder to keep the show afloat. The final conflict arises when a local mobster (Bill McKinney) threatens to wipe out the carnival unless he gets a big payoff, and the "young blood" Donna is offered up for sex with his main henchman. As in Tod Browning's old Freaks, the entire carnival shows its solidarity, and strikes back in concert.
Carny is given sensitive direction by Robert Kaylor, but what little press attention the film attracted was tilted toward Robbie Robertson, formerly of the rock group The Band. Robertson appears to be the impetus behind the production and the on-screen presence that gives Carny its authentic flavor -- his somewhat cynical "keep the action happening" attitude seems to provide the guiding example for the other performers. Jodie Foster finds the right blend of defiance and self-confidence for her Donna, and the sleazy collusion in the shared looks between Robertson and Kenneth MacMillan hits exactly the right note. Carny gets my vote as the film that best expresses the spirit of these fascinating gypsies.
Showing up in a brief cameo as yet another local lawman shaking down the carnival is Robert Douqui, accompanied by a very young-looking Fred Ward.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Carny is a good enhanced encoding of a film that seems to catch the spirit of a slippery subject. The transfer element is in good shape and colors are bright; the audio is also good but we wish some of the dialogue were a bit easier to understand. An original trailer is included, that seems to have no clear idea how to sell this film. Carny indeed seems to be a few years too late for its originality and honesty to be appreciated. By 1980 the creative freedom of director-driven adult films was already giving way to family blockbusters and action franchises.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.