The fact that Carousel is Rogers and Hammerstein's least accessible and darkest musical is what makes it so compelling. It has its lovely melodies and dance numbers, of course, but there's no escaping the fact that this is a story about spousal abuse, parental abandonment, and suicide, and no one is going to whistle a happy tune through all that.
Set in a coastal Maine mill town sometime around 1900, the painful love story brings together itinerant carnival worker Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) and virginal mill worker Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones), who fall passionately in love even though everyone thinks she could do a lot better. Hot-tempered and insecure, Billy wants to be a productive member of society, but he doesn't know how, and once he's married and Julie is pregnant, he fears he won't be able to provide. Their situation is contrasted with that of Julie's best friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Barbara Ruick), and her prosperous fiancé, Mr. Snow (Robert Rounseville).
When the annual town clambake comes around ("This Was a Real Nice Clambake"), lowlife sailor Jigger Craigin (Cameron Mitchell) convinces Billy to join in a robbery scheduled to take place when everyone is distracted. Billy agrees, but it all goes terribly wrong, and when cornered by the police, Billy takes his own life, an act that leaves Julie desolate and sends him to a sort of purgatory where an angel works with him on redemption, offering him a chance to return to Earth to try to make things right.
Carousel shares many characteristics with Oklahoma!, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical that preceded it to the screen by just one year. Most obviously, it reteams Jones and MacRae, and they are excellent. MacRae's interpretation of "Soliloquy," one of the great American musical theater numbers, is both thrilling and chilling. Like Oklahoma!, the film seamlessly integrates songs into the plot, propelling the story forward efficiently, and like Oklahoma!, it even features an impressionistic Agnes de Mille ballet, this one telling the story of Julie and Billy's daughter growing up across the 15 years he spends in purgatory.
You'll recognize great numbers such as "June is Bustin' Out All Over," "If I Loved You," and "What's the Use of Wond'rin," a song that many women have thought about when pondering their crummy marriages. The movie ends, of course, with the soaring "You'll Never Walk Alone." Today it's hard to think of this song without conjuring up images of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, but in context, it's a beautiful number staged perfectly, and it's not nearly as corny as you expect.
Trounced at awards time when it competed against The King and I, yet another Rogers and Hammerstein musical that came out the same year and was far more commercially successful, Carousel has faded a bit in our collective consciousness, and that's too bad. Among several Rogers and Hammerstein masterpieces, it really stands out. Few musicals before or after dare to go to some of the dark places Carousel takes us. It's a fascinating journey.
You spin me right round baby.