Carousel (1956): Movie Musical out of Rodgers and Hammerstein Glorious Stage Hit

The glorious 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical hit, Carousel, was made into a Hollywood musical a decade later by director Henry King for Fox.

Grade: B+ (***1/2* out of *****)

Carousel theatrical film poster 1956.jpg

Theatrical release poster

As is well known, Carousel is based on the Hungarian play Liliom, a play by Ferenc Molnar (also filmed as a straight dramatic film in 1930 and in 1934).

Gordon MacRae stars as carnival barker Billy Bigelow, who against his will falls in love with Maine factory girl Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones).

Though Billy proves an irresponsible and unreliable husband, Julie loves him and stands by him. Upon discovering that Julie is pregnant, the unemployed Billy hopes to get quick money by joining his unsavory pal Jigger (Cameron Mitchell).

Predictably, the scheme goes awry, and Billy dies. However, standing before the Pearly Gates, Billy is given a chance to redeem himself by the kindly Starkeeper (Gene Lockhart).

He is allowed to return to Earth to try to brighten the life of his unhappy 15-year-old daughter Louise (Susan Luckey). Billy offers Louise a star that he has stolen from the sky; when Louise backs off in fear, Billy slaps her.

Things change when he and his Heavenly Friend (William LeManessa) attend Louise’s school graduation ceremony. The invisible Billy watches as the principal (Gene Lockhart again) inspires Louise (and, by extension, Julie) by assuring her that so long as she has hope in her heart, she’ll never walk alone, which is one of the show’s stoppers.

Last Reel: 

Fifteen years later, in the other world, Billy is told that he can return to Earth for one day to make amends. Billy returns to find his daughter Louise emotionally scarred because she is taunted due to the fact that her father tried to commit a robbery.

Not telling her his identity, Billy makes himself visible, tries to cheer her up, and gives her a star that he stole from Heaven. Louise, frightened, refuses it, and Billy, in desperation, slaps her hand. She rushes inside the house and informs Julie of what happened, saying she did not feel a slap, but a kiss.

Billy tries to make himself invisible before Julie can see him, but she has glimpsed him for a split second, sensing he has come back for a reason. Billy asks his Heavenly Guide for permission to go to Louise’s high school graduation, and there he silently gives both Louise and Julie the confidence they need and the knowledge that he did love Julie.

Narrative Structure:

The film begins in 1888, with Billy having died 15 years ago. The story of his life on Earth (from first meeting Julie at the carousel, to his death) unfolds as flashback that takes up three-quarters of the film.

Billy tells his own story to the Starkeeper, in order to receive permission to return to Earth for one day, which he was offered when he had first arrived but turned down.

The change was made to safeguard against the movie audience’s being surprised at the death of Billy, and to prevent them from leaving the theatre directly after it happens, in case they thought the story ended at that point.

Death instead of Suicide

In the film, Billy dies by accident, when he falls on his own knife while trying to escape arrest. In the original stage production, he deliberately stabs himself while standing on a pile of crates, which does not collapse.

Thematically, this is the composers’ darkest musical, and yet the production values are so exuberant that you end up cheering.

As a movie musical, Carousel benefits from widescreen and on location shooting, which may explain why the movie was so popular at its time, not to mention the glorious, timeless music.

Frank Sinatra, who was cast as Billy Bigelow, was forced to drop out of the production due to illness (laryngitis).

Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow
Shirley Jones as Julie Jordan
Cameron Mitchell as Jigger Craigin
Barbara Ruick as Carrie Pipperidge
Claramae Turner as Cousin Nettie Fowler
Gene Lockhart as the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon
Audrey Christie as Mrs. Mullin
Robert Rounseville as Enoch Snow
John Dehner as Mr. Bascombe
Susan Luckey as Louise Bigelow
Jacques d’Amboise as the Starlight Carnival barker
William LeMassena as the Heavenly Friend
Tor Johnson as Strong Man (uncredited)


Directed by Henry King
Screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Liliom by Ferenc Molnár
Produced by Henry Ephron, Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Edited by William H. Reynolds
Music by Richard Rodgers
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: February 16, 1956

Running time: 128 minutes
Budget $3.3 million
Box office $3.75 million (US rentals)

DVD: April 27, 1999