Carousel: How Does the Film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Classic Hold-up?
There is nothing like going into a movie theatre and seeing an old Hollywood classic on the big screen. Oftentimes, what we have been looking at on our television for years, looks and feels very differently when we see how its proportions, framing and colors were meant to be seen. I am so grateful to cinemas and film distributors who get this concept and who make the concerted effort to bring the films of “days gone by” to new audiences while availing those of us who have been around for a while a chance to swim in our nostalgia.
For the 60th Anniversary of the film’s premiere, Fathom Events presented the Rodgers and Hammerstein screen adaptation of the musical Carousel for four screenings. Sadly, at the showing I attended, there was only one other person in the audience, so I’m not sure what the future holds for revisiting classic on the big screen if the audience simply doesn’t come. Nevertheless, the two of us who sat in theatre were aware of the enormous treat of seeing Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae on the big screen, wrapping their beautiful voices around such songs as “If I Loved You”, “Soliloquy”, “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
Outside of their brilliant (and underrated) Allegro, Carousel has always been Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most inherently theatrical of the musicals in their canon. Their willingness to explore darker themes, the abundance of music written for the show, the option of opening the show with a brilliantly crafted pantomime (courtesy of Agnes De Mille) in lieu of the traditional overture, all add up to a musical that explodes onstage. This is also, perhaps, why Carousel is one of their least-effective films. Much of the stage magic had to be drained to create a film that was of reasonable of length.
When Carousel was being pared-down to fit a 128-minute running time, so much of the show had to (understandably) be trimmed. The first thing to go was much of the energetic connective material (particularly robust dance and choral music) in the score. The biggest hits to come out of the show were mostly songs on the slower, more-reflective side. Of course, it was necessary to keep all of them, including the famous bench scene and “If I Loved You” (even if they would also be abridged). What is left is a more evenly dark Carousel onscreen, because we have had to focus in on the two main characters, Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, and the darkness and uneasy love that surrounds them. The film version of Carousel just feels short on moments to breathe and absorb the challenging material.
That all being said, the film of Carousel is effective in fits and starts. The atmospheric, on-location scenes practically spray the seaside salt air on us. It is jarring, however, when we jump, back-and-forth, abruptly between these lovely pictures and the clearly, shot-in-the-studio moments that spray us with nothing but disappointment. Shirley Jones is a beautiful Julie Jordan, a bit on the sad and tentative side, but eventually revealing a stalwart character of undying strength. Gordon MacRae is a fine Billy Bigelow, and he sings well, but I never quite feel the torment and struggle of his character. In fairness to MacRae, he was summoned at the very last-minute to play the role when Frank Sinatra walked out on the film. The guy didn’t have much time to prepare for the role. Would Sinatra have been a better Bigelow? It is hard to say, He certainly had an edge to him that MacRae did not, but I also have a hard time imagining his voice fitting into the almost operettic world of Carousel.
In the end, the film musical of Carousel holds up in that it gives us a taste of the stage musical and a sampling of its great music and unique characters. If it is nowhere near the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, it has its magical moments from the first introductory notes of the hypnotically rapturous “Carousel Waltz” to the final strains of the ever-hopeful “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, It is wonderful to see and hear this imperfect but lovely film on the big screen.