Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carousel (1956)

Think of a few of your favorite musicals. Consider what makes those musicals special to you. Do they have clever lyrics and zippy melodies? Are you entranced by the bright and glamourous costumes: the billowing skirts, gorgeous gowns, and dapper tuxedos? Is it the hopeless romanticism? The thrilling flights of fancy? The dancing spectacles? Do you like your musicals footloose and fancy free? It can't be any coincidence that musicals have been, historically, one of the most popular genres of cinema during troubled times. How, then, does that explain for the relative popularity of the single most maudlin musical ever made: Carousel?

Before my recent reassessment of Carousel, I hadn't seen it in twenty years. I remember that I had not been too impressed by it, but I couldn't remember much else. Carousel is a Rogers and Hammerstein musical that was released in 1956, a year after one of their most popular musicals, Oklahoma! And, in fact, it boasts the same amiable stars, Gordon MacCrae and Shirley Jones. How could that go wrong?

Unbelievably, it starts out bad, and it just gets worse. A popular carousel barker, Billy Bigelow (MacCrae), meets a naif named Julie (Jones). Billy has a reputation as a ladies' man. It was said that he had promised many girls he would marry them, and then, after he gets some of their money, he disappears. After the fair closes for the evening, Billy meets Julie in a nearby park. Both Billy and Julie are fired because their meeting was forbidden by both of their employers.

The two confirm that they're not in love with each other through song ('If I Loved You') which, of course, inevitably leads to their immediate marriage. However, Billy soon discovers that he isn't happy being married. He has trouble finding steady employment, and he and Julie live off of Julie's Cousin Nettie. Billy knows that everyone considers him a no-good bum, but he is too proud to take jobs when they're offered to him. Julie is very much the image of the meek wife, and, allegedly, Billy takes his frustration out on Julie by beating her. Plotwise, Carousel is already treading some murky waters. Right before the big bacchanalia that is the Clam Bake, Mrs. Mullins (Billy's former boss and owner of the titular carousel) comes to the wharf, looking much like a madam from a burlesque house, making eyes at Billy and offering him his job back. He nearly relents and leaves Julie, but Julie has a perfectly-timed bombshell of her own: she's going to have a baby! All of a sudden the impetuous, pig-headed Billy is the perfect husband, and he goes off to the beach to explore his newfound feelings of paternalistic pride through booming song ('Soliloquy').

Julie's pregnancy cements their failing marriage once and for all, but one problem remains: they still have no money. In the end, Billy seems convinced that they might have a girl and that he'll need a lot more money to take care of her. Instead of getting a job or figuring out some kind of achievable means of saving money over the next nine months, he goes off with one of his ne'er-do-well buddies to rob someone at knife-point. Unfortunately, Billy and his genius friend choose someone who fights back, and Billy ends up stabbing himself with his own knife while he's trying to make a get-away. And he dies. And everyone sings 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

The action of the movie is technically a flashback. When the movie opens, Billy is up in heaven polishing stars when he is told that his wife and daughter are having problems without him. He tells his story in order to be granted a short visit. At the end of the film, he returns to earth, watches his daughter frolic on the beach (in a Twyla Tharp-choreographed ballet called the 'Starlight Carnival'), and watches her graduate from high school. There's also a creepy scene where Billy actually meets his daughter, Louise, and he hits her. Louise asks her mother if it's possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel anything, and Julie gets this dreamy, faraway look in her eyes, and says yes. Ick.

Plotwise, Carousel is a real clunker. Musically, it is, perhaps, unfair to compare this to the far superior Oklahoma!, but I can't help it. The songs were very well sung (I certainly would never say that Gordon MacCrae and Shirley Jones can't sing!), but the tunes are unmemorable. I suppose the three big numbers were: 'If I Loved You,' 'June Is Bustin' Out All Over,' and the sappy 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

Perhaps my greatest complaint is that the characters aren't fleshed out very well, so it's difficult to really feel anything towards them. I'm fairly certain that this movie is meant to be a tearjerker, and while I usually comply wholeheartedly, this movie leaves me cold. I don't know if it's because of Billy's brutishness or just the general lack of character depth. After all, what could be more tragic than a nice young woman being married to an unlikeable brute who dies while she's pregnant, leaving her to raise their daughter on her own? I generally forgive more likeable, fun musicals for being short on characterization and plot, but since this was such a downer, I don't feel that there was proper closure to the story. I'm happy that I gave it a second chance, but I don't think I'll ever need to see this one again. Perhaps the most positive aspect of watching Carousel was being reminded of what a fine voice Gordon MacCrae had. Why couldn't his character be a little less miserable?

(YouTube video links are courtesy of cendrillon325 and Anjaxo)