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Carousel (1956)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

{Reprinted from the Dane County Libertarian}

A Twentieth Century Fox film from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Directed by Henry King

Some people like opera. I like American Musicals. Among American musical composers Rodgers and Hammerstein have produced some of the best music and been allied with many of the top films. Carousel is one of the greatest and is as American as apple pie.

From descriptions you might have seen in TV schedules: "a carny resorts to theft to provide for his family;" you might think Carousel isn't much of a film. But recall those same people describe The Fountainhead as: "an architect's buildings are altered to save money." Admittedly Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae), described as "a pretty fly gazebo" by a cop patrolling his beat (the only real presence of government in the movie), is a tragic figure. However, Billy isn't the only major character in this film version of Molnar's play Liliom. Julie (Shirley Jones), Billy's wife, is the film's truly heroic figure.

Shirley Jones (Julie) and Gordon MacRae (Billy), fresh from their first film pairing in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, along with their fine supporting cast are in top form in Carousel. From their performance of the hauntingly romantic "If I Loved You" and the ever present theme music of the "Carousel Waltz" to the energetic "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" their singing and the songs are marvelous.

Billy and Julie are a young couple who fall in love after meeting at a carnival where Billy is a carousel barker. Because of their feeling for each other and the designs of minor characters, both lose their jobs. They elope and marry but return to the Maine community where they met and Julie's family lives. Having no jobs the couple "temporarily" moves in with Julie's cousin Nettie. They attempt to steer the course of their lives between the expectations of puritans of the town and ne'er-do-well friends of Billy's. After Billy discovers that Julie is pregnant he becomes involved in a robbery scheme of Jigger's (a crooked sailor he knows) and is killed. When Billy dies in Julie's arms she loses her courage for a moment and Cousin Nettie reminds her "the main thing is to keep on living, to keep caring what's gonna happen." Courageously, Julie stays the course and raises their daughter, Louise, alone.

Years later, Billy, who has gone on to be a star-polisher in the movie's afterlife, visits his troubled teenage daughter Louise intending to help her get along with the distressing legacy that he has left her. The story moves quickly to its climax.

In praising Carousel I don't mean to imply that I believe in some of the minor plot elements, e.g. stars as small crystals able to be handled by men, or a multi-leveled heavenish afterlife. These elements are not crucial to the theme of the movie. Carousel is made up of both fantastic and realistic elements. The fantasy is simple, the reality is not.

Carousel has both wonderfully moving music and a story set in an age when liberty was a matter of course for Americans. Carousel isn't a political movie and therefore shouldn't be described as "libertarian." However, if libertarianism were to regain its status as the way things are done in America, we wouldn't spend all our days worrying about politics. We would be left to pursue our happiness. That is what Carousel is about. It is an inspiring story of American individualism: a story about love and family, free will and making your way in the world, responsibility, hope and redemption.

The final scene is Louise's graduation where a popular country doctor gives a short and simple speech. That speech contains as elegant a statement summarizing the American ideals of pursuit of happiness, independence, self-reliance, renewal and hope as I have ever encountered. The music of "You'll Never Walk Alone" provides the perfect musical accompaniment to the story's climax.

Carousel teaches that individuals can make it in the world, although making it might be difficult. It is meant to make you feel good. It succeeds. What could be better than that?

[Endnote: I wrote this review years ago, but I don't see anything I would wish to change. If I were writing it now (space on the web being less of a constraint than in a small format print newsletter) I'd write more. There are more heroic figures than Julie in Carousel. Most of the female characters are heroic. Besides Julie as the main heroic character there is her daughter Louise (Susan Luckey), who represents the future (and she can dance) and also Cousin Nettie (Claramae Turner), who stands for family and the voluntary society (and she can sing).

I find Carousel to be an extremely moving film. That might be partly because of my personal history, but I doubt I am that unusual in this respect. Billy Bigelow is not a heroic figure, but he ends up better than he starts. He is less a scoundrel than Jigger (Cameron Mitchell, who is amusing as Jigger) and actually shows concern and interest in helping Louise and a genuine feeling for Julie.

The Starkeeper/Dr. Selden (Gene Lockhart) and Billy's "heavenly friend" (William LeMassena) are male figures worthy of respect, neither puritanical prudes nor sleaze balls, but female figures dominate the positive side of this movie. I don't see anything wrong with that. Many women have had to raise their families alone (as have many men). Families with more than one parent are usually better than not, but even they are not guaranteed to be perfect, as represented by Carrie (Barbara Ruick) and Mr. Snow (Robert Rounseville).

One of Carousel's main themes is stated by Cousin Nettie, who knows that perfection isn't an option, when she says, "the main thing is to keep on living, to keep caring what's gonna happen." That is the main thing isn't it? To make a life as good as you can, to face hardship with courage and forge a life for yourself and those about whom you care? Putting it as Dr. Selden does: "I can't tell you any sure way to happiness. I only know that you've gotta go out and find it for yourselves. You can't lean on the success of your parents. That's their success. And don't be held back by their failures." 

Give Carousel a view. The music is terrific. The story is a classic. Even after seeing this movie many times over the course of my life, it never fails to move me.]

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