Sometimes a movie can have everything going for but it just doesn’t work. “Carousel,” a 1956 movie directed by Henry King, has music by Rodgers and Hammerstein and a couple of exuberant lead characters in Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, but for various reasons it stops short of being a moving experience. For one thing, the music isn’t as interesting or memorable as other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The musical’s showstoppers include “June is Busting Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The movie begins in purgatory, where Billy Bigelow polishes stars that hang on strings. The Starkeeper (Gene Lockhart) reminds him that the dead can return to earth for one day to do some good. Billy (Gordon MacRae) tells the story in flashback of how he met Julie and ended up dead. In Maine in 1873, the couple first meet at the town carousel, where Billy works as the barker. Billy quickly moves in on Julie (Shirley Jones), and upsets Mrs. Mullin, the carousel owner. Billy, already taken by Julie, quits and soon goes off to sing a long song with Julie under some blossoming trees.
Billy, through arrogance and stupidity, doesn’t find work. Julie’s friend Carrie (the lovely Barbara Ruick) falls for a local fisherman, who offers Billy a job on a herring boat. Billy turns down the job, and then a rejects a chance to get his job back at the carousel. Instead, Billy falls in with a local hood named Jigger Craigin (Cameron Mitchell), and conspires with him to rob the local mill owner. Things change when Billy learns from Julie that he’s got a baby on the way.
The whole town then goes on sailboats to a remote island for a clam bake, which includes a clam bake song. After the clam bake, the citizens go on a scavenger hunt in the woods. This produces the most interesting scene in the movie. Jigger surprises Carrie and offers to teach her some “self-defense” moves. Jigger really wants to get physical with her and she naively obliges by following his instructions to put her arms around him and squeeze. I detected a better chemistry between Jigger and Carrie than between Billy and Julie. But the script makes a point of saying women often go after the rogue.
Twentieth Century Fox originally contracted Frank Sinatra to play Billy, but I don’t think he could have done a better job than Gordon MacRae. The music is operatic and that suits MacRae’s singing style. I love Shirley Jones in anything, but this property probably works better on stage. The dance numbers, particularly the “June is Busting Out All Over” sequence, are very good.