Gordon MacRae is Billy Bigelow, a smooth-talking carny barker who falls in love with a millworker (Shirley Jones) on the colorful coast of Maine. Filmed on location, with a beautiful seaside setting as a backdrop and a thrilling score for accompaniment, their romance unfolds. But right before the birth of his daughter, Billy is killed while committing a robbery. Now in heaven, years later, he returns to earth for one day to attend his daughter's high school graduation and teach her one very important lesson.
Like its immediate predecessor, Oklahoma!
, this 1956 screen musical boasted then state-of-the-art widescreen cinematography, stereophonic sound, a starring romantic duo with onscreen chemistry, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein imprimatur. Adding to its promise was a source (the venerable Ferenc Molnar play Liliom
) that had already been filmed three times. Yet unlike the original Broadway production, and despite evident craft, Carousel
proved a box-office disappointment. Why? Hindsight argues that '50s moviegoers may have been unprepared for its tragic narrative, the sometimes unsympathetic protagonist, and a spiritual subtext addressing life after death.
Whatever the obstacle, Carousel may well be a revelation to first-time viewers. The score is among the composers' most affecting, from the glorious instrumental "Carousel Waltz" to a succession of exquisite love songs ("If I Loved You"), a heart-rending secular hymn ("You'll Never Walk Alone"), and the expectant father's poignant reverie, "Soliloquy." Top-lined stars Shirley Jones (as factory worker Julie Jordan) and Gordon MacRae (as Billy Bigelow, the carnival barker who woos and weds her) achieve greater dramatic urgency here than in the more successful Oklahoma!, with MacRae in particular attaining a personal best as the conflicted Billy, whose anxiety and wounded pride after losing his job are crucial to the plot. It's Billy's impatience to support his new family that drives him to an ill-fated decision that transforms the fable into a ghost story.
Adding to the luster are the coastal Maine locations where 20th Century Fox filmed principal photography. Newly remastered by THX, Carousel looks and sounds better than ever, but VHS tape buyers take heed: as a movie conceived for the then-new widescreen platform (it was the first to be shot in the studio's second-generation CinemaScope 55 format), this is one film that doesn't benefit from pan-and-scan editing, which lops off half the screen's image, virtually eliminating the sweep and spectacle of big production numbers. The widescreen version is vastly superior. --Sam Sutherland