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When word comes that one of his kinfolk on earth is in trouble, Billy Bigelow, an unrepentant braggart consigned to the lower reaches of heaven, applies to the Starkeeper for permission to return to earth for one day. After reminding Billy that he had previously renounced that privilege, the Starkeeper asks Billy to justify his request. Billy then recalls his life as a cocky young carousel barker in a small New England fishing village: While working one day, the egotistical Billy flirts with Julie Jordan, an innocent young girl smitten with his swaggering manner and rugged physique. Jealous, Billy's employer, Mrs. Mullin, bans her from the carousel, and when Billy countermands her orders, she fires him. Billy brazenly invites Julie to join him for a drink, and later in the woods, as Julie and her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, anxiously await Billy, Carrie confides that she is engaged to marry Enoch Snow, the owner of a herring boat. When Billy arrives, he dismisses Carrie, and before leaving, she cautions Julie to return home to their boardinghouse before curfew or she will be fired. Julie ignores her friend's warning, however, and soon after, Mr. Bascombe, her employer and owner of the local cotton mill, comes by and asks Julie why she is out so late. When Billy objects to his intrusion, Bascombe summons a police officer, who warns Julie that Billy is a womanizing scapegrace. Nevertheless, Julie insists on staying, and when Billy questions her rashness, she sings a song about how it would feel to fall in love. Billy and Julie marry and Julie goes to work waiting tables for her cousin Nettie. Unable to find a job, Billy is propositioned by Jigger Craigin, the local reprobate, to rob Bascombe while the rest of the town is attending a clambake on a secluded island. Meanwhile, Julie defends her husband against the gossip that he repeatedly hits her. As the town readies to set sail for the clambake, Carrie introduces Julie to Mr. Snow, her supercilious fiancé. At Carrie's behest, Snow offers Billy a job on his herring boat, but Billy insults him and refuses his offer. Mrs. Mullin then appears and promises Billy a ruby ring to leave Julie and return to the carousel. Billy is seriously considering her proposition when Julie informs him she is pregnant. After musing about the responsibilities of becoming a father, Billy throws in with Jigger. At the clambake, the lecherous Jigger comes upon Carrie alone in the woods, and tricks her into embracing him. When Snow sees them together, he denounces Jigger and indignantly breaks his engagement to Carrie. As the group splits up for the big treasure hunt, Billy and Jigger return to town to rob the unsuspecting Bascombe. While awaiting their prey's arrival, Billy worries about the knife that Jigger has forced him to carry. When Bascombe finally appears, they demand his money at knife point, but the wary Bascombe pulls out his gun and fires, sending Jigger scurrying away. Billy, fearing jail, tries to scale a pile of boxes to escape, but tumbles backward and falls on his knife. Just then the revelers return from the clambake and when Julie discovers that Billy has been injured, she rushes to comfort him. As Billy dies in Julie's arms, gently caressing her face, Julie finally declares her love for him, too late. Back in heaven, the Starkeeper chastises Billy for being afraid to love, and then informs the still unrepetentant Billy that his daughter needs him. From above, Billy watches his fifteen-year-old daughter Louise being snubbed by the other children, who charge that her father was a thief. Soon after, the Starlight Carnival arrives and Louise is comforted by the handsome male dancer. Chided by the children for her behavior, Louise runs home in tears. When one of Carrie and Enoch's sons calls her father a cheap carnival barker, Billy makes himself visible to Louise and offers her a star. Frightened, she pulls away and he slaps her. Louise runs to her mother, and although Julie is unable to see Billy, she senses his presence. When Louise tells her that the slap felt like a kiss, Julie smiles with understanding. Still invisible, Billy sings his love to Julie and she picks up the star. At Louise's graduation ceremony, the speaker admonishes the children to stand on their own two feet and not allow their parents' failures to haunt them, and his advice heartens Louise. Kneeling beside Julie, Billy finally proclaims his love, and as the group breaks into uplifting song, Billy returns to heaven, his mission accomplished.