I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse. Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909. From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient: it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.
To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell. The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:
This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.
That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul. It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance. At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls. And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.
As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt. But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.
Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy. And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie. Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no. At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no. Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that. But that’s the point. The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business. You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.
When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late. That’s why they end up living with her aunt. Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it. She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say. She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant. The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.
When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money. But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll. But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.
Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved. In this case, it is trains. I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written. And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate. For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance. Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking. But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.
When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth. He talks to his daughter. When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her. Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him. Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not. They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit. The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.
Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men financially that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, usually with children depending on them. That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.
But those days are long gone. Women have options today, and we don’t romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love. And yet, this story remains popular. It beats me.