Earlier this week, Shirley Jones revisited the 1956 film Carousel, as part of the film’s 60th anniversary celebrations. As she watched her Julie Jordan set eyes on Gordon MacRae’s Billy Bigelow, she could not have pictured the film any other way. However, it was almost Frank Sinatra who played the carnival barker in the timeless Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical film.
“No, I can’t [imagine it] at this point,” she reiterates. “But it was a big problem for everybody because Frank Sinatra was going to play the role. At that time, when you did a [film] musical, you rehearsed it like a Broadway show. We rehearsed for two months before we even started doing the pre-recordings. We pre-recorded every number … Frank was thrilled about playing the role—thrilled—and obviously perfectly cast.
“I was up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, for our first shot on location,” she continues, “and he walked on the set. He saw two cameras and said, ‘I planned to do one movie, not two’—because we were shooting in two separate processes—and he walked out.”
As the story goes, Sinatra wasn’t up for filming everything twice—once for regular CinemaScope and the other for CinemaScope 55, a larger format introduced in 1955—stating, “You’re not getting two Sinatras for the price of one,” but it was later revealed that he was running to wife Ava Gardner’s side after Gardner threatened to have an affair with Clark Gable.
Henry and Phoebe Ephron, the producers of the Carousel film, panicked after their leading man fled set, Jones explains, “and it was devastating.” That was when Jones was asked to call Gordon MacRae, who was doing a nightclub act in Las Vegas.
“[Henry] said, ‘Can you get him on the phone?’ and that’s how it started,” says Jones. “I was standing on the dock. I got some quarters. I went to a payphone. I got him, and I told him the story. I said, ‘Gordon, would you like to play Billy Bigelow?’ And, he said, ‘Give me a week. I have to lose ten pounds!’ And that’s how that came to be; it was remarkable because the role, of course, was so perfect for Sinatra, but I have to tell you, when I heard Gordon sing it, I fell apart. He sang that score so beautifully. He was wonderful in it.”
In celebration of the film’s 60th anniversary, Fathom Events and 20th Century Fox present Carousel 60th Anniversary in cinemas across the country January 11 with screenings at 2 PM and 7 PM. Screenings were also held January 8.
“I just saw the film again [a few] days ago,” says Jones, “and I was sitting with Ryan, my youngest son, and both of us were in tears the whole movie. Working with Gordon was wonderful because we had already done Oklahoma!, so it wasn’t like I had a new leading man in any way, and his voice… I was so taken away by his voice.
“The story is literally about a woman taking everything [from a man], even getting hit by her husband and saying, ‘Still, he’s the sweetest, most wonderful person in the world.’ About 15 years ago, they had a big matinee in New York of Carousel, and it was just one showing, and most of the audience was a lot of women. I was there with a friend of mine. Actually, it was Sheila MacRae, Gordon MacRae’s wife. When [his character] was mean and hateful, about 15 women in the audience got up and said, ‘We’re leaving! We never want to see this again.’”
Though Julie Jordan takes abuse from Billy Bigelow in Carousel, it never stopped her from loving him, reassuring her daughter in an unforgettable moment, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you—hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”
“The story and the characters are so vivid,” Jones continues. “When she first saw him at the carousel—when I saw the movie again, and I saw my reaction to him—it was like she was seeing an angel for the first time. [She] never took her eyes off of him, and she said to herself, ‘This is my man.’”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.