In the happy world of 1950s movie musicals came one where the protagonist dies after a failed mugging, leaving his pregnant wife behind. This was Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The movie was based on the Broadway musical from 1945, itself based on an older play Liliom, by Ferenc Molnar, and made into several films prior to Carousel. Molnar’s basic theme was kept but a few changes were made to the story, and notably setting it to music, which Molnar was only convinced to allow after Rogers and Hammerstein took him to see Oklahoma!  The story’s setting was shifted to 1870s sea-coastal New England. The 1956 movie of Carousel, like its Broadway predecessor,  is considered one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most seriously themed musicals, and well it should. Like  Sunset Blvd, its protagonist leads off the movie dead, having been killed attempting a robbery.

This blog post will feature original costume design sketches by Academy Award winner Mary Wills, who designed the costumes for Carousel.



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Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Shirley Jones as Julie


Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie
Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie


Costume sketch for Gene Lockheart as the Starkeeper
Costume sketch for Gene Lockheart as the Starkeeper

Yes, Billy Bigelow played by Gordon MacRae is dead. But he inhabits the lowest rung of Heaven, where he has lingered for years. He is told that things are not going well for the family he left behind. The Starkeeper tells him everyone in his station can have one day on earth to redeem their wrongs, which prompts the re-telling/flashback of Billy’s life. The scene opens to the cheerful music of The Carousel Waltz.  He was  a carousel barker, a braggart and ne’er-do-well, but handsome, and a magnet for the young ladies wherever the travelling show would take him. One day he flirts too seriously with the pretty Julie Jordan, played by Shirley Jones. His lady boss gets jealous and she sends Julie and her girlfriend Carrie packing. He gets lippy with his boss and gets fired. Billy and Julie end up spending the evening together, even after she is questioned by her own boss, a Mill owner, and then by a police officer, for hanging around with a good-for-nothing like Billy, and missing her curfew for which she’ll be fired. Even Billy asks her why. In musicals, the strongest emotions can only be expressed in song, and so she sings one of the musical’s most moving songs, the heart rending “If I Loved You,” which leads a few minutes later into his own singing of the same song.

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If I Loved You

But somehow I can see
Just exactly how I’d be-

If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
If I loved you.

The song’s lyrics foretell the problem that Billy and Julie have throughout most of the film, and they never do tell each other “I love you.” during his lifetime.

But Billy and Julie marry, and Julie takes a job waiting tables at her cousin’s restaurant. Billy has no job, however, and he’s too much a smart-mouth to take the one that’s offered to him by Carrie’s fiance on his fishing boat. Instead his considers  taking an offer by his old boss, Mrs. Mullins, to rejoin the Carousel. But he learns that Julie’s pregnant, and in a moment of joy, he decides he has to to stay and provide for her. On the beach he reflects about becoming a father, singing his  “Soliloquy.” His vision is of a boy, but then he comes the ponder the thoughts of a girl. Either way he must provide for them, and he then decides to take up the offer of a sailor acquaintance, Jigger to rob the mill owner Mr. Bascombe.

Costume sketch by Mary Wills for Cameron Mitchell as Jigger
Costume sketch by Mary Wills for Cameron Mitchell as Jigger


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Fisherman dancer


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Costume sketch of Barbara Ruick as Carrie

All the town-folk and the local sailors are excited about preparations for the annual “clambake” at the nearby island, cause for celebratory singing and dancing to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.”  After the merriment everybody sets sail for the clambake.

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Fisherman dancer


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After everybody is sated from eating, Jigger makes advances on the now engaged Carrie, and then he and Billy row back to the mainland unseen, while everone else has a treasure hunt. The two lay in wait for Brancombe, Billy with a knife that Jigger persuaded him to carry. When they finally confront Bascombe, he pulls a gun and fires.  Jigger runs away. Policemen show up and Billy runs up some crates rather than get arrested. He falls back down and lands on his knife, which mortally wounds him. Then everybody comes parading back still in a festive mood, only to discover that it’s Billy lying on the ground dying. Julie runs over to him and cradles him, finally telling him that she loves him, only now its too late. Seeing this scene back with the Starkeeper, Billy is still unrepentant, until the Starkeeper shows him the next scene of his daughter, now 15, a loner that the other students tease because of her late father’s reputation as a thief.

He next sees his daughter Louise, played by Susan Luckey, as the Starlight Carnival comes to town, and a handsome dancer, played by Jacques d’Damboise, takes her in hand for for a dance. She is flattered by his attention, but Billy from above quickly recognizes his type (he should know), and the dancer leaves her just as quickly as he picked her up.

Jacques d’Damboise center. Photo courtesy Photofest

All this makes her again the butt of laughter from the other school girls and she runs home in tears. Billy makes himself visible to Louise and offers her a star to console her.  Thinking him a stranger and frightened she turns away, Billy in frustration slaps her hand. Louise runs to her mother, who senses Billy’s presense, but all Louise can say is that the slap felt like a kiss. Billy now invisible again, sings to Julie, and she picks up the star.

The next scene is the high school graduation ceremony, where Louise and the other girls and boys are gathered. The school principal is played by Gene Lockheart, who played the Starkeeper. His speech to the graduating class is that they need to become their own persons, and not let the faults and failures of their parents haunt them.  At this time Billy, invisible,  stands beside Louise and whispers for her to listen to the principal. He then goes over to where Julie is seated. As Dr. Selden, the School Principal, leads them into the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Louise puts her arm around a school mate, who does the same, and Billy tells Julie he loves her. Julie  and the chorus all sing as Billy is seen walking to the horizon.

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At he end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone.

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PRODUCTION: The title of of the film is Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which was produced by Henry Ephron and directed by Henry King. It was made at 20th Century-Fox and thus had excellent production values including art direction by Lyle Wheeler, Charles Clarke as cinematographer, and the wonderful costumes of Mary Wills. She had designed Hans Christian Andersen, The Virgin Queen, The Diary of Anne Frank, Cape Fear, and the Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, for which she won a costume design Oscar, among many other films she designed.

Carousel was filmed in CinemaScope55, a 55mm film stock. which gave high definition and relief to the screen image. Since this was the first use of this process, each scene was filmed twice, in both 35 mm and the 55mm film as a precaution. Frank Sinatra was first cast as Billy but he walked off the set saying he wasn’t being paid for making two movies. As it turned out, the double filming was soon abandoned. The filming was done on location in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine.

CRITIQUE: As a musical, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the American theater. The film stays very close to the stage musical, although with one critical differance, in the stage version Billy kills himself rather than be arrested for robbery. The film has gotten less high critical praise, but it is still one of the great movie musicals, and certainly one of the fabulous films of the 1950s. With the singing duo  of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, it could only be a winner. It was released only a few months after Oklahoma! and it suffered in critical esteem in its wake. And yet Carousel sags in the middle – during the clambake scene the actions seem forced and somewhat ponderous. Yet unlike, Oklahoma! its theme of redemption gives it an uplifting kick at the film’s end that was totally in keeping with the story, and must no doubt have pleased Mr. Molnar, the song and lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” helped propel that wonderful finale.

I first saw Carousel as a child, in the company of my parents, one of my early film-going experiences. My recollections of the movie were one of utter boredom. It was thus a revelation when I saw the movie as an adult, not so many years ago, at a TCM Classic Film Festival. Its music and scenes are now unforgetable to me. Perhaps others will discover or rediscover this classic film, this fabulous film of the 50s.









  1. Just came across this great article. Carousel is my favourite film of my lifetime and quite differently to you I loved it on seeing it as a child of 10 in 1955. On a previous post, someone says it was Gordon MacRae’s last big musical but in fact The Best Things in Life Are Free was, and, apparently it was quite a major hit in 1956 for Fox. I’ve never been sure why he didn’t make more movies but as the big musicals had finished I believe he wasn’t that interested as TV was the new draw and he preferred to sing rather than act. I’ve also recently found some blogs that suggests Sinatra walked away from Carousel because he was told that Richard Rodgers didn’t want him in it but I can’t prove that as it’s only heresay. I know he had to make Can Can to make up his contract five years later. I did find an interview with Gordon MacRae online where he said ‘Old Blue Eyes’ couldn’t see himself with all that padding and that the two camera excuse wasn’t true as all they did was put them side by side.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tony and the added information. When I saw it as a kid I was only 6 so I was probably too young to appreciate it. I think a major problem for Gordon MacRae was that he was an alcoholic and it just got in the way of his continued success. Such a shame for someone with his talent – but that could be said of so many stars. I’m glad you found my blog, and I still love Carousel too.

  2. Love the sketches and pictures. This is one of my favorites even though it’s one of the darkest if not the darkest of the big Hollywood musicals with an almost thoroughly unsympathetic anti-hero and somewhat of a doormat, at least at first, for a leading lady. But it also has some of the most beautiful music ever written sung by two great artists. I’m so glad Sinatra walked and that they managed to get Gordon MacRae to step in for him. Sinatra who at times signaled a boorish entitlement would have engendered zero sympathy, a vital component to making the character of Billy Bigelow at least somewhat engaging. Gordon MacRae with his All American robustness and blessed with a gorgeous baritone and a fine expressive style is much more suited to the rough hewn Billy. He’s particularly impressive in his big set piece “Soliloquy” selling it with his big voice in a way that Sinatra’s smaller range couldn’t have. Some of the attitudes towards violence and the treatment of women looked at with modern eyes are most definitely unacceptable and might give new viewers pause but I try to watch older film with an eye toward the perspective of the time it was made. Incredible that this was Gordon MacRae last big movie, such a shame he was just coming to the peak of his powers and big musicals went out of fashion.

  3. I’ve never been a fan of Carousel. I find it way too depressing for a musical–even with its ending. Nice to see the sketches of the costumes.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kim. Carousel does have depressing elements, which is what made it unique for a 1950s musical. And that’s what the uplifting and redemptive “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is for at the end.

  4. Thank you Christian for your wonderful post on Carousel. And in particular thank you for sharing your wonderful Mary Wills sketches. She was such a talented designer whose work I’ve always admired.

    1. Thanks for your comment Pat. I was happy to share the Mary Wills sketches – obviously I’m a fan of hers too. I have other sketches from several of her films and I’ll use these as I can in various blog posts. Thanks for visiting Silver Screen Modes.

  5. Christian, thanks for this great post. This is actually a movie I haven’t seen (shocking, I know!), so I loved learned about it through your eyes and from a perspective of its style. Really appreciate you sharing your sketches, too–can’t wait to see your FIDM exhibition on June 10th! Beautiful job, as always. See you soon!

    1. Thanks Kimberly. You’ll have to see it. The costumes are of everyday folks – fishermen and small town people, so there’s nothing fashionable here, but Mary Wills’
      sketches are so evocative and beautiful. The film’s music is so powerful – you have to see it. See youu at FIDM – so glad you’re coming.

  6. Kept thinking of a professor I had with whom I took several film courses including one on great musicals as I read your post. Carousel was one he praised highly and spoke much about so it is ingrained in my head. You do it great justice. I enjoyed seeing the sketches as well. Thank you.


    1. Thanks for your comments Aurora.I would have liked to hear your professor’s lecture. I’m glad you liked the sketches too, they are beautiful and bring the characters to life on their own.

  7. Wonderful! I love the score and casting i this film. Gordon Macrae isjust about perfect and Shirley Jones is one of my favorites. I saw this film as a kid and it never fails to move me.

  8. Christian,
    Believe it or not, I’ve seen Carousal. I know, shocking considering how much I dislike musicals from this era.
    One thing I remember most from the movie was the vivid colors and everything was so crisp and visually, you want to re-watch just to take it all in. Then I get into your review and read this “Carousel was filmed in CinemaScope55, a 55mm film stock. which gave high definition and relief to the screen image. Since this was the first use of this process, each scene was filmed twice, in both 35 mm and the 55mm film as a precaution.” Certainly explains a lot for me. Two cheers for Cinemascope55 and putting it to such good use here.

    I also enjoyed seeing the sketches. It’s fun to see everything from the beginning then how they turn out on screen.

    Another wonderful review, Christian.
    Enjoy the rest of your holiday,

    1. Thanks Page – I’m surprised you’ve seen the movie and I hope it’s not one that turned you off of musicals. It is spectacular on the big screen
      and yes, the music is what its all about. Thanks for stoping by and enjoy the rest of the holiday week-end too.

  9. I like these sketches. “Carousel” is one of those musicals I always feel is stronger on stage than the film, but I love seeing glimpses of Boothbay, a favorite place. Have to smile at the end shot where the sun sets over Billy’s shoulder, sets over the ocean. Which is doesn’t–in Maine. Thanks for a lovely post.

    1. Thanks for your comments Jacqueline. While I haven’t seen the musical play I can see where it would play more strongly than the film.
      The sun setting over the (Pacific) ocean seems totally natural to me however. I’m glad you liked the sketches too.

  10. I’ve never really gotten into “Carousel”, but your post has made me want to see it (in its entirety) just for the costumes.

    Can you believe I saw a DVD of this movie on sale for $10 a couple of weeks ago? I did not pick it up. Now I’m wishing I had…

    Thanks for adding this musical to the blogathon. A look at the 50s would not be complete without a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

    1. Thanks for your comment Silver Screenings. The costumes on screen really show “common people” in their working clothes, but
      there is so much in costume design behind the scenes to make that world real. I enjoyed sharing a bit of that aspect of the movie.
      And I do hope you get to see it in its entirety, preferably on a fairly large screen.

  11. I haven’t seen “Carousel” for quite a while, Christian, but have always been a fan and I really enjoyed revisiting the film through your review – so well done, and with the added attraction of your wonderful costume sketches.

  12. I really enjoyed how you blended the costume sketches with stills from the film in your post; it gives the sense of seeing how the artist’s conception come to life. So much nuance is supplied by costuming and design that we don’t see or realize on a conscious level. Thanks so much.

    1. Grand Old Movies – I’m glad you enjoyed the costume sketches, as well as the stills. There is so much artistry and work that goes on behind
      the scenes. It’s great that some of it is preserved and can be shared, and to recognize those names that are often forgotten.

    1. Thans for your comment CaftanWoman. The experience of a film changes so much with age and circumstance, and it was a pleasure for me to
      share the beautiful costume sketches of Mary Wills.

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