December 23, 2015
Carousel (1956)
Grade: 78/100

Director: Henry King
Stars: Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, Barbara Ruick

What it's about. A big budget film adaptation of the 1945 Richard Rodgers - Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway musical. The stage musical was set in 1873, but the movie appears to be set circa-1900, based on the costumes, midway, and hairstyles. In a small Maine town near the ocean, Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) is a carousel barker employed by older and romantically inclined Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie). Young and innocent mill worker Julie (Shirley Jones) has a crush on manly-man Billy. Her best friend is Carrie (Barbara Ruick), who is equally sweet but has a more practical taste in men. She is in love with Enoch Snow (Robert Rounseville), a respectable merchant who reeks of fish.

Despite reservations from all concerned, Billy and Julie are drawn together and promptly marry. That leaves both unemployed, and they live on the charity of Julie's kindly Cousin Nettie (Claramae Turner). Billy has been moody but cheers up when informed by Julie that she is expecting. But Billy falls into bad company with career criminal Jigger (Cameron Mitchell), and agrees to become Jigger's partner in a payroll robbery that predictably fails dramatically.

This sends Billy to a lower-tier Heaven, a tedious cloudscape run by an officious starkeeper (Gene Lockhart), who, along with William LeMassena, eventually manipulate the clueless Billy into returning to Earth for a day to visit his still-unmarried widow and her troubled teenaged daughter Louise (Susan Luckey).

How others will see it. A lavish Twentieth-Century Fox production, Carousel failed to live up the banner box office performance of its predecessor Oklahoma (1955), and its contemporary The King And I (1956). Oscar and Golden Globe nominations went to the latter instead, and Carousel had little in its favor aside from modest critical praise.

Six decades later, Carousel has amassed a modest 4K user votes at, and the user rating of 6.9 out of 10 is also middling. It is true, though, that the key demographic of women over 45 grade the movie a significantly higher 7.5. The film (and its musical and soundtrack counterparts) retain a following despite the greater commercial success of other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

How I felt about it. Three big-budget film adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals were released in 1955 and 1956. Two of the movies, Oklahoma and The King and I, were box office smashes. Odd man out was Carousel, a bust despite retaining two of the leads from the prior year's Oklahoma, barrel-chested Gordon MacRae and winsome Shirley Jones.

The box office indifference to Carousel has been blamed on the dark side of its lead character, Billy Bigelow, who, during the course of the film, is accused of swindling spinsters, loafing, beating his wife, and robbing a businessman. Bigelow is too complex a character for a Hollywood musical, which typically assigns the white and black hats in straightforward fashion.

As a soundtrack, Carousel is best known for "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone", both hits in the decade before the film was made. Although lovers of musicals would of course disagree, Carousel works better as a drama than as a musical, particularly since the gay numbers "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "This Was a Real Nice Clambake" appear out of place relative to the gloomy backdrop. Even the frequently praised "Soliloquy", although important in its establishment of Bigelow's motives, becomes yet another musical obstacle to telling the story of how Bigelow ended up in eternal purgatory polishing stars.

The film loses its way somewhat when Bigelow gets his one day back in Earth. We fail to see what the "family trouble" is: the teen daughter Louise dances up a storm and breaks up with her well-to-do would-be boyfriend but appears to be in no immediate peril. Bigelow doesn't even apologize to her mother, whom he treated poorly during their brief marriage.

One can argue that Gordon MacRae is about ten years too old for his character. But he is younger than Frank Sinatra, who would have played him had not Sinatra quit to resume his affair with Ava Gardner in Africa on the set of Mogambo, a tall tale attributed to Shirley Jones. The problem with that story is Mogambo was released in 1953, nearly two years before production began on Carousel.

Also supposedly intially cast was Judy Garland as the female lead. Garland had a hit record with "You'll Never Walk Alone", and her remarkably emotive voice would undoubtedly have improved the soundtrack. The same can also be said of Sinatra, whose world-weariness would be appropriate for Bigelow's ever bad-luck character.

A Sinatra-Garland musical would have been a great curiosity to see, even though the forty-something Sinatra would be unconvincing as a girl-magnet carousel barker.

Still, Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are highly likable here, enough that we would want two film versions of Carousel rather than marginalizing our less famous leads. Perhaps the Sinatra-Garland movie could even devise a happy ending where Bigelow goes out a hero instead of a hapless robber.