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Carousel (1956)

Wednesday July, 30 2014 at 05:00 PM

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Of all the musicals written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Carousel, which first appeared on Broadway in 1945, is the darkest and most emotionally complex. The story involves a young textile-mill worker from Maine, Julie Jordan, who falls in love with rough-mannered, self-centered carousel barker Billy Bigelow. The two marry hastily, but Billy can't hold down a job and doesn't seem to want to; partly out of shame, he mistreats Julie, but he has an epiphany when he learns she's going to bear him a child. Now eager to provide for his family, Billy tries to think of ways to make money, but he can't resist falling in with an old pal, Jigger Craigin, who has hatched a supposedly foolproof plot to rob Julie's former employer. The robbery goes awry, resulting in Billy's tragic death - though he does get a chance, from beyond the grave, to make amends to those he left behind.

That's a pretty heavy-duty emotional workout for a musical to handle. But the 1956 movie version of Carousel, directed by Henry King and adapted for the screen by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, handles the shifts in tone deftly. Shirley Jones, just coming off her starring role in another hit Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical, Oklahoma! (1955), plays Julie; Gordon MacRae - who had also been Jones's co-star in Oklahoma! -- is Billy. Together, they navigate the material's potentially choppy waters, delicately approaching issues of irresponsibility, dishonesty and spousal abuse.

And singing all the while, too. The picture, like the stage production before it, is beloved for big, splashy ensemble numbers like "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake" (with choreography by Agnes De Mille and Rod Alexander). But the tenderness and echoes of human frailty that MacRae and Jones bring to numbers like "If I Loved You" give the story its real weight and dimension. MacRae's rich, sturdy baritone, balanced by the touching optimism of Jones's springtime-in-blossom soprano, serve as an aural metaphor for the perilous journey these two lovers are about to undertake. They have a lot to lose.

Jones was a favorite of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the only performer to be under contract to the duo. She'd come to New York from her hometown in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s - she was barely 18 at the time -- hoping to make it as a Broadway performer. A pianist friend told her that Rodgers and Hammerstein were holding open auditions - she had never heard of them at the time, but she showed up anyway, and the casting director was so impressed by her that he summoned Richard Rodgers to hear her that very day. Rodgers then called Oscar Hammerstein at home. Three weeks later, as Jones said in a 2011 interview with National Public Radio, she had been cast in her first Broadway show, South Pacific, and within a year, she was starring in the film version of Oklahoma!

MacRae, on the other hand, almost didn't make it into the cast of Carousel at all. The role of Billy had originally been set to go to Frank Sinatra, who dropped out of the production suddenly. Accounts vary as to what caused Sinatra's departure: Some say he came down with laryngitis; others claim that he dropped out because he believed - mistakenly, as it turns out - that he'd have to shoot every scene twice, once for regular CinemaScope and the other for the larger-format version, CinemaScope 55. Sinatra is reported to have said, "You're not getting two Sinatras for the price of one." Regardless, MacRae slipped easily into the role.

The dark complexities of Carousel may arise, in part, from the fact that it was based on a nonmusical: Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár's 1909 work Liliom. The story originally took place in Budapest. As Oscar Hammerstein was figuring out how to adapt the play, he began to think of moving the setting elsewhere, ultimately settling on Maine. In a 1945 article in the New York Times, he wrote, "I began to see an attractive ensemble-sailors, whalers, girls who worked in the mills up the river, clambakes on near-by islands, an amusement park on the seaboard, things people could do in crowds, people who were strong and alive and lusty, people who had always been depicted on the stage as thin-lipped puritans-a libel I was anxious to refute." He went on to observe, "Julie with her courage and inner strength and outward simplicity seemed more indigenous to Maine than to Budapest."

Liliom had actually been adapted for the screen several times before: Frank Borzage made a version in 1930, and Fritz Lang directed his own interpretation of the material in France in 1934. And it's possible that even though Hammerstein decided to move the story from a somber Eastern European city to a vibrant part of America, the original setting may have something to do with the somewhat pensive aura that clings to the movie version of Carousel. As the critic Dave Kehr noted in the New York Times, writing about the film's 2006 DVD release, the big movie musicals of the 1950s were, in general, "the cinematic equivalents of tail-finned Cadillacs fitted out with all of the latest gimmicks meant to stave off competition from television." Pictures like Oklahoma! and Carousel fit that model nicely. "Here are advertisements for America that no one could resist," Kehr writes.

But he goes on to note that "only Carousel, with its underlying Hungarian melancholy and masochistic romanticism ... escapes the 'cockeyed optimism' that shaped American ideology during the first decade of the cold war." Carousel is not as joyous as its title suggests. But the pleasures it brings are subtle ones - as musicals go, it's sadder but wiser.

Producer: Henry Ephron
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Henry Ephron and Phoebe Ephron; original musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; play by Ferenc Molnár
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Music: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Editing: William Reynolds
Cast: Gordon MacRae (Billy), Shirley Jones (Julie), Cameron Mitchell (Jigger), Barbara Ruick (Carrie), Claramae Turner (Cousin Nettie), Robert Rounseville (Mr. Snow), Gene Lockhart (Starkeeper).
C-128m. Letterboxed.

by Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES:
IMDb
NPR.org
The New York Times
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