Either Oklahoma! set the bar so high I’m unable to watch the other Rodgers and Hammerstein movies in their proper context, or there’s just several subpar shows which were adapted to film. The King and I, for all the problems I had with it, held my interest in the areas of set design and costuming, along with the lilting “Getting to Know You.” Carousel, the next Rodgers and Hammerstein film in the set, is downright irritating. Dangerously dated in ways unlike The King and I, Carousel tries to tell the a darker tale, but forgets to create a character who you’d want to watch live and persevere in a harsher environment. Instead, we’re left watching the perils of young Shirley Jones (returning to the R&H fold, post-Oklahoma!) as she struggles to deal with an abusive husband proclaiming himself a hero.
Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) has been in Heaven for fifteen years. He’s offered the chance to return to Earth for one day to see his wife, Julie (Jones) and teenage daughter. In order to do so, he must confront the past, and the event which brought him to Heaven in the first place.
Carousel wasn’t a commercial success upon release, much of the blame placed on the grim story wherein our main character’s already kicked the bucket. This wasn’t a problem for me, as we meet Bigelow decorating for senior prom, or at least that’s what the glass-star covered Heaven reminded me of. Movies where a character is deceased and looks back on his life have been the source for a lot of humor, like the two takes on Heaven Can Wait. Where Heaven Can Wait involved a character repenting by returning to Earth, Carousel isn’t interested in fixing a problem (although part of the reason Billy returns is to help his daughter), but addressing the nature of life. There’s never the hope Billy will return-thank goodness, but more on that in a bit-but he must acknowledge life goes on; he has to let go of his resentments in order for himself, and his loved ones, to move. Life is not unlike the carousel Billy worked on: there’s a beginning and end to both, and each acts in a circular nature.
All of this setup should yield a somber, but cathartic musical. Instead, we follow the life of a total cad and abuser who fails to change or learn the error of his ways. Frank Sinatra was the original choice for Billy Bigelow, and while his presence wouldn’t enhance my love the character, the character resembles his persona better than MacRae’s. MacRae, returning to the R&H fold after Oklahoma! (and reteaming with Jones), was a last-minute choice and he desperately wanted the role. I can’t imagine why. Billy is a standard Lothario who uses the carousel as a means of picking up women. All of this is well and good, until he commands Julie’s friend, Carrie (Barbara Ruick) to beat it so he can woo her friend. This is just one instance where you fear the wide-eyed Julie being left with such a beast. From there, the two break into a long song acknowledging they’ll never truly love each other and aren’t good for each other. So of course
they break up get married! It makes so much sense, you guys! The song, one of several I found indistinguishable from each other, would work great if these two were lovers or at least presented to the audience a burgeoning relationship of any kind. However, the ambiguity of their relationship, as well as the pace by which they’re singing to each other (they literally just met!), leads to a rushed and disregarded relationship doomed to failure.
Even Julie’s friends are shocked at her marriage to Billy, failing to see what she sees in him. “It takes some getting used to.” You said it, Nettie (Claramae Turner)! With all this rapidity Billy starts to feel like he’s made a terrible mistake (you think!), and the movie is content to tell us things about these characters as opposed to showing us. Billy keeps reminding people “You know I’m Billy Bigelow” but what does that mean? There’s no time to truly learn who this character is. We’re given a series of horrible acts he does, which are undermined by a line of dialogue telling us he’s really decent at heart. A lot of characterization is presented at face value. We either take their word for it, or find the movie woefully underwritten. We take Julie and Billy’s word that they supposedly love each other, just like we take Billy’s word that Julie is unique compared to other women; neither element is ever proven to us.
MacRae is decent at playing a jerk, but I wanted his character to find a glimmer of humanity. Yes, part of that is discovered upon realizing Julie is pregnant, culminating in a powerful ballad/declaration to do well for his children. However, why try to go legit when you can just flat-out rob someone, thus causing Billy to die and leave his wife to struggle with a child? At every single turn Billy stubbornly refuses to change, so how can you feel bad for him when he’s causes his own Hell? The hardest thing to sweep aside is his hitting of Julie, something he proudly states and then differentiates from a “beating.” He differentiates it without every explaining the difference; it’s abuse, regardless. He justifies and gives excuses from beginning to end before reuniting with his daughter, Louise (Susan Luckey) who he also hits when she’s meant to him. Yep, the man’s dead and hasn’t learned a thing! Thankfully, and here’s where my brain exploded, Louise and Julie realize it’s okay for a man to hit him, so long as he does it out of love! This coincides with Julie’s sweet (and it is one of the better songs in the movie) ballad, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” MacRae tries to keep the character on an even keel despite the weak story structure for his character. In the final reels the movie reminds the audience of what Billy was like as a kid despite providing zero foundation for set-up for these anecdotes. If the character was softer or came to any moment of truth before the final five minutes, I’d have bought it.
Jones really takes a backseat in this movie, probably because Julie Jordan is a doormat continuously making excuses for her husband’s abuse and general surliness. There’s a fair camaraderie with her friend, Carrie who steals several scenes. The best is Carrie’s realization “If I had more sense I wouldn’t have nine children.” Also, Shirley Jones telling a woman to “slut yourself” really needs to be a meme or something. There just isn’t enough of her in this movie!
For all its faults, Carousel’s final shot of Billy going back to Heaven with the setting sun sinking behind him is life-affirming and a stellar note to end on. It just never felt earned because Billy’s realization comes too little, too late. All we’re left with in Carousel is bouncy calliope music and a radiant Shirley Jones. Carousel is for R&H completists, although I’ve read the critical response to this movie was high. I can’t explain why, but maybe something didn’t go off in the translation.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.