Not even being good in the first place leaves this sexist anti-classic nowhere to hide, so now that we've found it, let's punish it.
Directed by Henry King
Written by Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, Benjamin Glazer, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein II (based on play based on the book Liliom by Ferenc Molnar)
With Gordon MacRae (Billy Bigelow), Shirley Jones (Julie Jordan), Barbara Ruick (Carrie Pipperidge), Rupert Rounseville (Enoch Snow), Susan Luckey (Louise Bigelow), Audrey Christie (Mrs. Mullin), Cameron Mitchell (Jigger Craigin), and Gene Lockhart (The Starkeeper)
Spoiler alert: severe
"Man, did I dig La La Land," you say excitedly to yourself, "and now all I want to do is wallow in 1950s musicals, like Damien Chazelle does all day. But I don't just want to rewatch Singin' in the Rain—so what about the hundred or so 50s musicals that I haven't seen before?"
Ask a question, and Netflix has your depressing answer. Thanks to the grotesque truncation of their streaming service's selection, your immediate choices are limited to roughly three: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (barely a musical at all—and you just watched it a month ago anyway); White Christmas (of which I know nothing, but the holidays are over); and, finally, the subject of our discussion today, Carousel, which boasts the compositions of Broadway legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It's scarcely a choice at all, then. After all, isn't The Sound of Music quite divine? (At least those first two thirds?) Yes, Carousel it had to be.
Then you discover that Carousel is possibly the worst movie of the 1950s. Including movies written and directed by Ed Wood.
Am I overstating the matter? Perhaps; but it would shock me if it weren't the worst of the major studio musicals of the period. I imagine it doesn't speak all that well of my education that I wasn't aware of its reputation already. For quite the reputation it has.
Carousel, as you probably do know, is infamously bad. It's a disastrous moral reprehensibility, just for starters—almost more convincing as a parody of the kind of movies that got made in the 1950s, rather than any actual example. Using women as narrative footstools is the subtext in something like half the movies produced over the course of the Eisenhower Decade; but Carousel is special even in this milieu. It takes sexism as its outright text, to the point of including a musical number ("What's the Use of Wond'rin") wherein our heroine exhorts her fellow women, in almost so many words, to give up on being people.
In brief, it is the story of a romance that appears to be based on nothing more than bullying dipshittery (that is, if it's based on anything at all besides writer fiat). More to the point, it's the story of a dead man's ghost, who comes to terms with the life he'd (mis)spent as a dull-witted jerk and occasional spousal abuser. The ultimate lesson—as propounded by what amounts to an agent of God—is that domestic battery is probably not awesome, but it is perfectly okay, if you love them.
There's probably something that could've been salvaged from that precis, if Rodgers and Hammerstein or the filmmakers had wanted to dig it out. It would've been a tale of self-reflection and painful growth, that either came down a lot harder on its protagonist—or at least rooted the man's inevitable redemption in some kind of redeeming quality. (At the very least, it wouldn't have presented him with what amounts to a check-minus on the report card of life, for the sin of doing literally nothing worthwhile, or even interesting, except for punching his wife in the eye.) Sadly, "something salvaged" is not Carousel.
We begin in the basement of Heaven, or something like that, and here we find our disfavored hero, Billy Bigelow—sounds like an asshole already, doesn't he?—who died long ago. Ever since, he's been consigned to this mildly purgatorial existence, where his duties involve puttering around the clouds and polishing the stars in the sky, manifested here as a constellation of plastic gee-gaws hanging from the rafters of a soundstage. (Altogether, it's shabby, but not bad. Indeed, its stagey fakeness is actually quite charming right up until the moment that Gordon MacRae, portraying Billy, opens his yap.) But Billy is soon called into the office of his celestial supervisor, who pushes Billy on the subject of his wasted life—and Billy, clearly rather slow on the uptake, pushes back. Because when you're offered irrefutable evidence that the cosmos possesses a Christian moral framework, and when you're given a second chance to get God to like you again, what you'd obviously do is sneer at it.
That is, it's obviously what you'd do if you were a total shithead.
Regardless, this "Starkeeper" keeps at Billy, and Billy reluctantly comes around, vomiting up his life's story. So now we find ourselves cast back fifteen years, to the turn of the 20th century in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. (Incidentally, depending upon which line of dialogue you choose to go by, Carousel's sub-Heaven either exists outside of time, or time progresses there exactly at the same pace it does on Earth. It's a minor annoyance in the grand weave, albeit a telling one.) Anyway, this is where our real story begins: when Billy was a barker for the local carousel, and he met Julie Jordan.
Billy romances her, by way of a conversation upon the carousel which cannot be heard by the audience, although apparently he says things of sufficient sweetness for Julie's blood to start pumping to all the right places. It's shortly revealed that he could've been saying virtually anything, though; the first scenes with actual dialogue between the two involve Billy invoking what shall become his usual peremptory manner with Julie, as well as with her friend Carrie, and with the owner of the carousel—a woman, mind you, whom we are led to understand has a certain unsavory custodial interest of her own in poor Billy's sex life. The jealousies unleashed cost Billy his job; and once Billy has told his boss off for good, the very first thing he asks Julie is if she has any money, in a tone of voice that goes a long way to suggest that raping her against a tree might not be totally worth his time and effort, if she doesn't.
But that's not entirely fair to Billy, I guess. Julie is so eminently down-to-fuck that she waits for this aggressive figure in the darkness at the edge of town, and (soon after he shows up to keep their appointment), even finds herself helpfully warned away. The first Cassandra she ignores is a cop, who knows of Billy's habits; the second is her own boss from the factory; he appears to be wandering aimlessly around the woods at night for reasons of his own, but his provenance isn't important. What is, is that he gives Julie a choice between returning to the labor camp or getting felt up and sung at by Billy. Julie chooses the latter, of course, because she's a free-spirited idiot—and also because Carousel doesn't have any plot if she doesn't, while it can (barely) achieve one if she does. (Truthfully, Carousel only barely has a lot of things you'd expect—including the carousel. Meanwhile, it has a lot of lines of dialogue about the carousel—and almost as many lines of dialogue that seem to suggest that Carousel's screenplay is operating under the belief that the sexiest man in any locale is the loudmouthed carny who barks for it. However, since these lines appear to have been written by actual aliens, it's easy to ignore them as far too bemusing to be worth your attention.)
Anyway, this brings us crashing into "If I Loved You," Billy and Julie's duet. It confirms what the previous number, Carrie's "(When I Marry) Mr. Snow," had prepared us to expect: a lot of mediocre music, delivered by worse-than-mediocre talent.
In the process, we learn that Gordon MacRae's singing voice is astonishingly, even comically overripe—to the extent that one can understand only about half his lyrics, drowned out as they are by the onslaught of notes he keeps piping in through the wormhole in the back of his throat, which apparently bridges our own continuum to the dark reality of the Vibrato Dimension. It perhaps goes without saying MacRae's singing voice doesn't resemble his own rough-and-tumble Real 'Murican acting voice in the slightest. Shirley Jones, stuck suffering as Julie, is the better of the two leads, if mostly by default: she's not in it as much as he is; and she possesses a basic kind of range. Of course, none of her solo songs are particularly good either.
But then, hardly any of Carousel's songs are. It has a whole song about cooking seafood, though. And maybe that's fair enough: no less a triumph than The Little Mermaid has one, too. But since that's the song in The Little Mermaid that everybody just straight-up forgets about, maybe it says something bad about Carousel that its seafood-based melody is at least its second-best song.
But I've derailed myself here; let's see if we can power through the rest of that plot. So: Billy and Julie do get married, and Billy contents himself with being unemployed and living off Julie's cousin; in the meantime, Julie's friend marries a halfway decent fella, and they look down on Billy with contempt, while looking down on Julie with pity, especially for the belt Billy gives her offscreen, thanks to to his inability to get another job barking for carousels. (The legnths this movie goes to in order to paint "carousel barker" as an actual profession are just mind-boggling, guys.) All along, Billy refuses to take one of the many easily-acquired gigs aboard the fishing boats that serve as the backbone of the Boothbay economy. However, when Julie reveals she's pregnant, Billy finds himself at a crossroads. As this is a musical, he sings a song about it, "Soliloquy," which is slightly less misogynistic than most people seem to think it is (the gist is "a son! a son! but, what if... a daughter?"), but that's mostly because he only wakes up to the fact that parenting is actual work when he considers the possibly of having a female child. Possessed of this newfound openness to responsibility, Billy ironically becomes even less responsible, and finds himself an easy mark for his friend, Jigger (sidebar: what?), who seduces him into helping with the knifepoint robbery of a rich man at the annual clambake. It goes even more hilariously awry than you could expect, when Billy slips and falls directly upon the blade. (This was a change from the stage version of Carousel, mind you: in it, Billy actually killed himself on purpose, to evade capture; and there's no doubt in my mind that it came off much less stupid there.)
This brings us back to not-quite-Heaven, and, predictably enough, it turns out that Carousel is the musical version of what It's a Wonderful Life would've been, if only Clarence were a wife-beater, Frank Capra didn't direct it, and Jimmy Stewart was nowhere to be found. (Indeed, for what it's worth, MacRae wasn't the first actor hired to play Billy. Nope, that was Frank Sinatra. The story goes like this: Carousel was initially all set to be filmed twice, first in CinemaScope, and then in regular widescreen; and the minute Sinatra showed up on set and discovered this, he turned right around and walked out the door, grumbling loudly that they'd paid him to make one movie. Ultimately, they only actually filmed each scene in 'Scope; but Sinatra's fit of pique helped him dodge a bullet. Obviously: we can imagine a significantly better Carousel with Sinatra in the lead. Surely Billy's songs would be much better; and Billy might well present himself less like a 50s greaser hellion existing in a 40 year old man's body; and the landlubbing loser would probably not swagger around quite so much like Ned Land getting ready to help Captain Nemo fight a squid. But no matter how bad and juvenile and amusingly barrel-chested MacRae's performance is, let's be honest: it's only our imaginations at work if we think Sinatra could have saved this thing, for Billy being an unruly prick is simply baked too deeply into Carousel's scenario.)
Well, the Starkeeper sends Billy back to Earth for one day, and on Earth Billy finds his offspring—his daughter—in a very bad way, ostracized due to her father's rotten legacy. Specifically, he finds her being bullied and pushed about, and ready to take up the family business, running off to join a Goddamn carnival with their own Goddamn carousel.
"CAROUSEL BARKER" IS NOT A TRADE, CAROUSEL.
But Billy uses his ghostly influence to fix things; specifically, by slapping his daughter around, then disappearing. Well, whatever works, Carousel. This is when we're treated to the paean to domestic abuse that forms this review's title—though I've cut it down substantially, because in the film it's delivered in a numbingly long dialogue. The moral of the story, for women, seems to be as follows: "Honey, you can change him, even if he is already dead." Then, with seconds left to go: the happy ending. Christ.
Clearly, Carousel has its badness burned into its very bones. It was going to be an uphill struggle to be any kind of "good." It's as offensive as a movie can get without glorifying sex murder; and, somehow, even most movies that accidentally-on-purpose do glorify sex murder still wind up less offensive. (Though don't count Carousel out yet! There's an excruciatingly long pseudo-comic scene of violent groping, wherein Jigger accosts Carrie in the forest during the clambake, and tricks her—on account of Carrie being exasperatingly stupid—into believing that he's only teaching her "self-defense" techniques, such as using one's supple ass to repel a rapist's hand.)
Also, this unbeatable move.
Carousel is bad in other, more standard ways, too: its songs are mostly trash, and it's unforgivably boring as piece of musical spectacle (there's a song sung amidst a fleet of sailboats that begs for some kind of bad-ass choreography, and it gets absolutely none—unless a background extra laughing at something happening off-camera somehow counts as "choreography"). Carousel was shot in the early years of 'Scope, and director Henry King, apparently unable to figure out how to film a closeup in the new format, scarcely tried. Instead, he relies almost entirely on a mixture of medium close-ups that leave enormous tracts of wasted screen, and wide shots that bask in the lack of interesting scenery, all while keeping us at least fifty yards from the leads for whole scenes at a time, which in Billy's case is probably a good idea.
Basically, there are only two things that keep Carousel from being 100% wall-to-wall garbage, and these are the pair of literal showstoppers which constitute the only things anyone has ever said anything nice about. The first, set to the rollicking "June Is Bustin' Out," is a nice, invigorating ensemble piece for a bunch of extras who actually do know how to dance. It has nothing to do with the plot, true; and Billy and Julie aren't even in it; and, yes, those are problems. But these facts also probably explain why it doesn't suck. (For the record, the title is indeed suggestive on purpose: the basic thrust of the number is that "now that it's not bitterly cold here in Maine, the people want to screw." A fine sentiment, if mostly wasted here.)
Anyway, the quality of being "somebody else's story" is what animates Carousel's only other dance number, the proto-psychedelic ballet that subjectively dramatizes Louise's adolescent struggles through a phantasmagoria of her hopes and fears, including the literalization of her dead dad's carousel, with female dancers as the horses. (Okay, fine. But at least this represents a brand of sexism that can claim to be bizarre, colorful, and fun.) Frankly, Louise's ballet is so far beyond everything else in the whole movie in terms of craft, skill, and emotional payoff that it mostly just serves to throw the rest of Carousel's awfulness into the sharpest possible relief.
Because, otherwise, Carousel really is just about as worthless a thing as you'll ever see. Look: I don't know if it's Rodger and Hammerstein's worst. I don't know if it's the worst musical of its decade. But if it's not, I do know I don't want to find out what actually is.