Monday, May 31, 2010

The Genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein: Carousel

It is impossible to describe Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel without using the word “haunting”. Considered by most critics and admirers to be their darkest musical, Carousel is a blend of beautiful and memorable music, a story of love unspoken, feelings unexpressed, disappointment, joy and death. These are not the usual components of a musical play. In fact, it begins with the hero, Billy Bigelow (Gordon McRae) already dead and working in a sort of way station to heaven, polishing stars. Based on the novel “Liliom” by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar, Carousel retains most of the story without many of the bleaker aspects of the original novel.

Carousel was released in 1956 and directed by Henry King (known for movies such as Song of Bernadette, Twelve O'Clock High, The Sun Also Rises and Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing). It is the story of Billy, a carnival barker for a carousel owned by the tough, street-wise Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie). Billy is handsome, charismatic, and well aware of his effect on women. One evening he meets Julie (Shirley Jones), a young girl who attracts Billy by her beauty and demeanor of quiet poignancy. At first, Billy sees Julie as just another conquest, but her decency and trust arouse a different feeling in him. He is a man who is not accustomed to much depth of thought, and he is surprised and a little annoyed by his feelings of protection toward Julie. In one of the most beautiful love scenes in movie history, Billy and Julie sing “If I Loved You”, their timid foray into intimacy with each other. Julie chooses to stay with Billy even at the expense of her reputation, and Billy leaves behind his job as a barker for the jealous Mrs. Mullin.

We are never quite sure if Billy and Julie are intimate before their marriage, but they are next shown returning to Julie’s Aunt Nettie (Claramae Turner) as a newly married couple. Billy, a rather surly and egotistical man, refuses to find ordinary work, and the couple lives with Julie’s aunt. Billy meets a shady sailor, Jigger (Cameron Mitchell) who encourages Billy’s baser interests in gambling and lazy living. A reluctant husband, Billy bristles indignantly at the rumor that he has beaten Julie, angrily answering that he just hit her. Then Julie tells Billy that she is going to have a child, and Billy begins to grow into a man. One of the most famous and moving songs, “Billy’s Soliloquy”, finds him looking forward to being a father, thinking first of a son with whom he can have fun, then realizing his child may be a daughter. Billy’s tough-guy character shies from fathering a girl, until feelings of tenderness and protection bring him to the conclusion that he must make something of himself to protect his unborn child. His feelings toward a daughter mirror the protective feelings he found in himself toward Julie. The song and MacRae’s performance are brilliantly written and performed.

Julie’s friend, Carrie (Barbara Ruick), has taken a different path and marries Mr. Snow (Robert Rounseville), a rather dull but dependable man who promises to be a solid husband. There are two numbers sung by Carrie, “When I Marry Mr. Snow” and “When The Children Are Asleep” which are lovely and tender. Julie understands the difference between her husband and the steadfast Mr. Snow, but she never wavers in her love and loyalty to Billy.

A rollicking dance number    “June Is Busting Out All Over” precedes a clambake attended by the young people of the town. Billy and Jigger decide to sneak off during a treasure hunt to rob one of the rich ship-owners. Billy can think of no other way to make money for his family. Julie, unaware of his plan, is nonetheless worried and begs him to stay with her at the clambake. After he leaves, Julie sings a song to the other women explaining the loyalty women feel toward their men, “What’s The Use Of Wondering”, a song of sadness and love.

In his attempt at robbery, Billy is thwarted by the shipowner’s defense, and he accidentally falls on his knife. The clambake party returns, and Julie sees that Billy is dying. He asks her to tell their unborn child that he had plans to make something of himself, and dies in Julie’s arms. Aunt Nettie consoles the heartbroken Julie with what is probably the most famous song from the musical, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Years later, Billy is given the chance by the Starkeeper (Gene Lockhart, who also doubles as the village minister) to return to earth for one day to see if he can help his daughter Louise (Susan Luckey ), now a troubled teenager. For me, the number “Louise’s Ballet” is the tour de force of this film, and is worth seeing just on its own. Famed ballet dancer Jacque D’Ambois dances the part of a carousel barker, using dancers to form a magical impression of a carousel and horses. Louise is captivated by her dreams of the father she never knew, and her budding feelings of love for the handsome barker. It is a number not to be missed.

I will not go further for the sake of those who have not seen the movie. In Molnar’s original novel, Liliom actually commits suicide after the botched robbery, and is unable to help his daughter, and subsequently doomed to hell. For a Broadway musical and movie of this era, such an ending would not be acceptable. Nonetheless, the story loses none of its realistic portrayal of imperfect people in an imperfect world, struggling with love, self-doubt and morality.

Originally, the part of Billy Bigelow was to be played by Frank Sinatra. As much as I love Sinatra’s singing and acting, I think he would have been totally miscast. He left the production after learning that for the technique of Cinemascope each scene would have to be filmed twice. McRae was hired and filming continued. Interestingly, immediately after Sinatra’s departure, the filming process was changed and the need for that technique was no longer necessary. McRae had the part for which he was perfect.

The part of Julie was originally offered to Judy Garland, also in my opinion a casting mistake. However, that never materialized, and popular Shirley Jones took over. Shirley said that Carousel was her favorite musical. Richard Rogers also said that his score for Carousel was his favorite.

Carousel began as a Broadway musical, with John Raitt in the part of Billy. I have heard Raitt’s performance, particularly the Soliloquy, and his rendition actually surpasses McRae’s, as good as McRae was. You may know that Raitt is the father of country singing star Bonnie Raitt.

The "Carousel Waltz," heard at the beginning of the film is one of Richard Rogers’ most beautiful numbers. It sets the haunting tone for this unusual and brilliant work. Rodgers and Hammerstein's creation of depth and eloquent pathos done in the musical genre is without equal.


  1. Becky, I've never watched this film from start to finish. I've seen bits and pieces over the years, but never sat down to enjoy it. Your review makes me think I might enjoy it. I've always liked Shirey Jones, especially in The Music Man. Thanks for spotlighting this film.

  2. Becks, thanks for the wonderful post,and the mention about the director Henry King. Besides the films in your post he directed , Jesse James The Keys To The Kingdom(He worked with Tyrone and Gregory Peck )Captain From Castle, The Gunfighter, Alexanders Rag Time Band, among many many others.
    I agree with you about John Raitt, I wished he could have done the film.

  3. This is a wonderful post, Becky, about one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most intriguing musicals. They certainly pushed the bounds of the conventional musical with serious themes in THE KING AND I and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But in CAROUSEL--which I think is all about redemption--a good chunk of the film focuses on an unlikable character. I suspect the CAROUSEL soundtrack is not as well-remembered as much of their work...but, as you pointed out, it still features two of their best-known songs with "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" (the John Gary version always sticks in my head).

  4. Paul, John Raitt was a marvel, wasn't he? And Rick, I LOVE John Gary. I played his records to death when I was a kid. Beautiful voice and incredible breath control. It's too bad rock and roll pushed out that type of singer. Wish they could have just lived together in harmony (get it....harmony....well, it's not that good of a joke).

  5. CAROUSEL is high on my list of R&H musical film favorites. The "If I Loved You" sequence is a real 'heart-tweaker' - beautiful song, beautifully staged. Gordon McRae & Shirley Jones were a well-matched pair, and emblematic of the time. They both had fine voices and he personified that classic mid-century type, the strapping fellow with heroic dreams (often more brawn than brains. She was the perfect winsome, dewy-eyed pretty girl with a hand worth being won. Thanks Becky, great write-up...

  6. I'm not very familiar with the genre of musical, so this month at the Café has been filled with wonderfully colorful films that I either don't know or don't know well. But I really do enjoy reading about films, whether or not I've seen them, and Becky, this was a delight to read. You write with warmth and heart, and you make any film I might not have seen move to the top of a must-see list. Thanks for making my Memorial Day that much brighter!

  7. Becky, I do not think I have seen the movie, Carousel . I did enjoy reading your wonderful review.

  8. "Soliloquy" is my favorite song from that story["my boy Bill..."].

  9. Becky, I truly enjoyed your heartfelt and informative review of "Carousel." I tried to watch this when I was a young girl and didn't care for the way Billy treated Julie and tuned out. I like "You'll Never Walk Alone" very much. You have inspired me to want to see this all the way through one day. Wonderful review and fascinating research, especially about the casting of Billy.

  10. Your love of the movie is obvious but I strongly disagree that JOhn Raitt's version of Soliloquy is better. Gordon McCrae is one of the most underrated vocalists of all time. The passion he put into his music is unsurpassed, except by Sinatra in some of his songs. Shirley Jones is Carrie. You never doubt this is a young girl, then a woman in love regardless of who or what her man is. I don't think this movie is dark, it's is life at its best and worst, with love an redemption at its end.

  11. ... um, Bonnie Raitt is not a "country" singing star ... any more than John Raitt or Gordon McRae is a "rock n' roll singer". ;-)

  12. I do so agree about the dance sequence near the end between Susan Luckey and Jacques d'Amboise. The gorgeous orchestration and Cinemascope add such élan and impact to that wonderful choreography. I hope to see that scene in a cinema some day.