Rodgers and Hammerstein were superstar creators of American musicals, back in the 40s and 50s when that meant something. Their impressive body of work includes "Oklahoma!" "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," and "South Pacific," blockbuster productions of enduring popularity. Everyone knows their music, even if it's not by choice for most people under thirty.
Though derided for creating "formula" musicals that adhered to the same basic structure, Rodgers and Hammerstein were no slouches artistically. They set a high standard for quality and tackled difficult themes with surprising regularity. They famously portrayed interracial romances in "The King and I" and "South Pacific," and the immigrant experience in "Flower Drum Song." But as these musicals were written five or six decades ago, the prevailing social attitudes of the day left their mark. The stories might have been progressive back in the 40s, but it's difficult to watch most of the original versions through modern eyes without wincing at the steady stream of ethnic and gender stereotypes.
"Carousel" (1956), one of their duo's earliest musical films, is a good encapsulation of these issues. I wasn't familiar with it before my first viewing last month, and came away with an extremely negative impression. This surprised me, because "Carousel" has a good reputation and tops TIME Magazine's list of the greatest musicals of the century. I found the story ambitious, the performances decent, and the technical quality perfectly up to par. But in its entirety, the movie was barely watchable.
Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones star as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, a carnival barker and a mill worker who fall in love, but suffer a troubled marriage. The story is presented as an extended flashback observed by Billy's soul after death, recounting how things went so wrong with the relationship. "Carousel" is probably the most dramatically serious of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals along with "South Pacific," focusing nearly all its attention on difficult interpersonal relationships, and occasionally touching on darker themes like domestic abuse and class prejudices.
But while choosing such difficult subject matter was commendable, it's absolutely poisonous in the context of a musical extravaganza. I can see how "Carousel" would have worked as straight melodrama, but adding song-and-dance numbers results in awful tonal clashes. The songs are by turns operatically morose and cheerfully insipid, forever undercutting the dramatic tension. I've never seen a musical that had to fight so hard to inject any energy into its numbers. With angst-addled soliloquy after soliloquy, "Carousel" boasts only one truly bombastic musical sequence, "June is Bustin' Out All Over," that feels like it belongs in a different film.
Rodgers and Hammerstein would return to similar subject matter with "South Pacific," but that story had the benefit of a tropical locale and a good variety of principals from different backgrounds to help hold our interest. "Carousel," by contrast, is set in a tiny, insular seaside town in Maine that provides little by way of memorable visuals, and the small-minded townfolk tend to blend into one another. There are no major subplots or side-stories, and a very limited set of characters. Modern musicals have done far more with far less, but a Rodgers and Hammerstein production that skimps on the ensemble and the pageantry is like a superhero film that skimps on the fight scenes.
In end, what sinks the movie completely is an insistence on dour seriousness, coupled with an inability to confront its subject matter directly. Billy Bigelow reveals that he became involved in petty thievery and was abusive toward his wife, which lead to his untimely death. He's granted one day back on Earth to try and help Julie an his daughter Louise, who still suffer under the pall of Billy's actions many years later. The attempt does not go well, ending in more violence, but Billy is shown to be able to convey his feelings of love to his family and the movie ends with all three of them at a point of spiritual peace, backed by a rousing choral finale.
What the story fails to do is hold Billy to any sort of accountability for his actions. Rather, it only goes so far as to explain their origins and the good intentions behind them. In fact, good intentions seems to count for everything, as Billy Bigelow's redemption doesn't require him to actually do anything to make amends. Almost entirely glossed over are the consequences of the domestic violence, a controversial topic at the time of the film's release. Julie explains that Billy's slap felt like "a kiss" that "didn't hurt at all," which is a pretty heinous whitewash even for the '40s, and an absolutely unacceptable sentiment in the present day.
"Carousel" is important in film history as a major work from important artists, but otherwise its merits are pretty limited. There are sequences that are excellent on their own, such as "June is Bustin' Out All Over," and Louise's ballet in the third act, but as a film it doesn't hold up at all. I'm not surprised this isn't one of the more well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
Frankly, it deserves to be forgotten.