Yesterday I watched the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel. I had heard mixed reviews about it—some lauding it as the team’s best artistic collaboration and others saying it was just a mediocre effort. My overall opinion was that it would be a so-so movie. And it was. Some things were really fabulous…and other things, I didn’t like as much.
First of all, I thought the two main leads (Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones) were wonderful. They did occasionally flail in the acting department but even that was okay. Their gorgeous voices and excellent on-screen chemistry more than made up for any shortcomings. I wish they would’ve made more movies together (besides just the other R&H classic Oklahoma!). Jones has a very lovely screen presence and conveyed the naivety, innocence, and loyalty very well. As for MacRae, I have read that many people consider this his finest performance. Not having seen all his work I’m not sure I would say that, but he certainly fits the part perfectly as the big strapping, headstrong character, who has a soft side beneath the nonchalant attitude he exudes. But don’t get any preconceived notions that his character will change much. Even after death he is still a ‘ne’er-do-good’, although the plot attempts to end the film on a somewhat happy and decidedly tender moment. MacRae certainly does look a lot different than he did in By the Light of the Silvery Moon and On Moonlight Bay. I could hardly believe it was the same man.
The supporting cast is mostly good. All have nice voices and contribute adequately as far as acting.
My main problem was with the story. Besides the fact that I don’t care much for fantasy, It was dark and depressing. I kept waiting for an upturn but it didn’t really happen. I know that many people like it for this exact reason. I have no problem with deep plots but this one just kind of dragged one down. It starts out as a relatively happy love story and then goes into the more serious character downfalls of one of the main characters.
Before I go any further, though, I suppose I should give an idea of what the basic plot is. It revolves around a surly carnival barker named Billy Bigelow (MacRae), who falls in love with Julie Jordon (Jones), makes a lot of mistakes, dies and has one day to go back to Earth and attempt to make things right. That was a very poor synopsis, but you get the idea.
Watching this, I got rather frustrated with Billy. I was like: just be nice to your wife, don’t hit her, get a job…argh. And then he dies. Oh, well. I guess if he was nice there wouldn’t be a movie, but even though the ending attempts to patch everything up, it still feels somewhat unsatisfactory considering the pain he caused his family. Especially the part about being hit feeling like a kiss. I mean, whhaat?
This story claims to be set in the whaling community of New England, but as someone who has personally lived in the northeastern states, I have never heard anyone talk like they do in this film. I’m not sure what the writers were trying to achieve here by making them talk this way, but I’d say it had more in common with a Western or Southern dialect than anything. But, I could be wrong. I just found it rather distracting.
I do really like the New England setting, however. While the discrepancy between fake-looking sound stage sets (standard for musicals of the time) and breathtaking Maine location shooting can be a bit jarring, one of the best parts of the movie is of the gorgeous seascape.
The place that was supposed to be heaven or purgatory or whatever was rather dreadful, though. Thankfully, the scenes there don’t take up much of the movie, but it looked like a soundstage someone poured royal blue paint over and then hung a few plastic (was plastic invented then?) Christmas tree ornament stars from the ceiling of. Seriously. It was a bad. It could’ve been much more ethereal and mysterious. Instead, it looked like a bad piece of scenery from a middle school play…designed by a team of kindergarteners.
It is wonderful, too, how the setting is incorporated in the two acrobatic ballet sequences of the film. I like the first one, to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”, (which reminded me a bit of the barn dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) more than the later one done with Louise (Billy and Julie’s daughter). That one started out well with Louise doing some lovely dancing on the beach (the girl who played her is not much of an actress but dances quite nicely) and then merged into this full on ballet with people acting out things through dancing and her meeting a very creepy looking circus guy. Anyway, it just seemed to drag on and interrupt the flow of the movie. I understand that it was necessary to have something to fill those plot points in but I think it could’ve been done in a different way.
Although apparently many critics liked it, unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other musical pictures, this film was not a large box office success. The soundtrack, however, was very popular. I would agree that the music is one of the outstanding features of this film. The title waltz, “If I Loved You” and “You Will Never Walk Alone” were some of the best, in my opinion. I was a little disappointed with the lyrics to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”, as I think it could’ve been a lot more than just a ‘mating song’. I also didn’t really like the “Soliloquy” ballad where Billy sings about his future child, as much as everyone else seems to. I did enjoy the beachside scenery for that scene, however. Perhaps the other numbers will grow on me, but I think the one that really stands out is “You Will Never Walk Alone”. It was beautifully incorporated into the plot of the story and brought a tear to my eye. I definitely recommend checking out the soundtrack.
Now that I’ve seen this musical once and know what to expect, perhaps in time I will learn to appreciate it more. It did contain a lot of great moments even if the overall result was somewhat unsatisfactory. I do think this film is worth watching, if you haven’t seen it already. I was probably unnecessary harsh on this movie, so I will just say right out: I am a hopelessly romantic type person. Blame it on that.
Random observation: why are most of the women’s dressing shades of orange, pink, red, and peach during most of the movie?
I’ll leave you with a clip of the movie, the “If I Loved You” duet…one of the most beautiful moments of the film.