Carousel. 20th Century Fox 1956.

Before watching the movie:

On the surface, this looks like just as much fluff as State Fair, but the setup sounds rather dark. It’s a man’s one more day to get it right with his family after a fatal accident. Moreover, one summary I saw specifically calls him abusive, though that’s probably from subtext. Depressing themes in a musical? Not something one would expect before the late 60s.

But then it manifests as flowy dancing around a carnival, so it can’t be entirely bleak.

After watching the movie:

Hardbitten Billy Bigelow is approached by a friend as he polishes stars in Heaven to inform him that his family below is “in trouble”. However, there’s a rule that anyone who arrives with unfinished business may return for a day, a privilege Bigelow refused when he first came. In order to determine if he may use it now, the Starkeeper asks him to retell the story of what happened. And what happened is, back when he was the best carousel “barker” (a shill) around, he got a little friendly with customer Julie, and in the argument with the carousel owner over if that was allowed, Bigelow and Julie both lost their jobs and declared their interest in marrying each other, though they wouldn’t admit to loving each other. Stuck in their life of Julie helping at her Cousin Nettie’s business and Bigelow unable to find work he could do and would deign to do, Bigelow and Julie didn’t do much more than argue, which once lead to him hitting her. But then when a friend convinced him to turn to crime, well, Bigelow ended up Up There. Now, years later, Louise, Bigelow’s teenaged daughter he left behind is on the verge of making her own fateful decision.

On one level, I understand the musical genre’s drive to showstopping numbers. The show isn’t just the story, it’s also music and dance, and I can see there may well be audience who see the story as a contextualization for the songs. I do not, but I know it’s definitely possible to create an enjoyable showstopper. Whatever elements are required for that are not present in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”.  The closest I can come to rationalizing its plot utility is that it demonstrates that the time and place have changed. But the same could be done with a single line of dialogue, or half a page of expository conversation. Instead, there’s an infernally irrelevant song about a calendar month with lavish choreography shot in a harbor using pretty much entirely ensemble performers that had me saying “make it stop” about a third of the way through. I just did not care, and it just did not care that I did not care.

On the entire opposite end of the spectrum is “Louise’s Ballet”. It goes on for what seems like a long time by the standards of a musical number, but every moment of it tells the story of how Louise grew up with hardly any words. There wouldn’t be any room for it in modern pacing, and that is a loss of modern pacing. That scene and Heaven are the most stage-oriented scenes of the movie, in which there is no attempt to pretend it’s not stylized. We don’t value heavily stylized storytelling much anymore, but there’s a charm to Heaven being depicted as a dark blue backdrop with stars painted on it and hanging from the ceiling, and there’s a charm to Louise’s story being told entirely through interpretive choreography.

There are some complicated messages being presented here. Bigelow is clearly in the wrong to hit the people he loves, but Julie teaches Louise that if you’re hit by someone who loves you, it “feels like a kiss”, and there’s a musical number in which Julie tells us that there’s no point in worrying about whether your man is good or bad, he’s the man you love and that’s all that matters. So… men shouldn’t hit their women, but women should accept whatever they get from their men? In a similar vein, there’s quite a lot of use of marriage as an economic partnership that has little to do with love, but while that seems intentional, it doesn’t seem to be commented on as positive or negative so much as just shown as the way things are, or at least were back at the turn of the century.

Cycles and reversals are everywhere. Marriages of convenience turn into unlikely (and questionable) love stories, loving couples turn into life partners with nothing but their children between them. The carousel of life turns. Children end up having to make the same decisions their parents made. Return to where it all began. Nothing really changes, only Bigelow’s posthumous admission of love for his family brings hope to those who must carry on for the next go-round. Up and down, round and round, going nowhere and trying to have a good time of it.

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