Could he have pulled it off?
Looking at these costume tests of Frank Sinatra as ‘Billy Bigelow’, in CAROUSEL, I wonder if maybe Frank made the right decision to pull out of it. He looks most natural in the third photo.
Twentieth Century Fox were happy that Frank Sinatra wanted to do the film version of the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
Sinatra had starred in another big stage musical, GUYS AND DOLLS in 1955 and his film with Debbie Reynolds, THE TENDER TRAP, also 1955, had been a big hit too.
So his name on the marquee for “Carousel” was money in the bank for Fox.
Only a few months earlier, in late 1955, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had produced and released the film version of their Broadway smash-hit, OKLAHOMA, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. Now Twentieth Century Fox was taking on another of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famous shows, “Carousel”.
SHIRLEY JONES, star of both “Oklahoma and “Carousel”, has spoken about Frank’s involvement in the latter several times over the years. She said, “Frank and I did all the pre-recordings and rehearsals.”
So what happened? Well, Shirley Jones told a story that Frank got a telegram from Ava Gardner saying he should get over to Africa where she was filming MOGAMBO, otherwise she might have an affair with Clark Gable! But “MOGAMBO” was made two years earlier.
Another reason given for Frank pulling out was that he didn’t know that “Carousel” was to be filmed in both 35mm and CinemaScope 55 , with each take to be filmed in both formats.
As the story goes, Frank arrived for the first day filming in Maine and promptly said he wasn’t being paid to film everything twice, and left the set.
This seems unlikely as Frank would surely have known in advance about the two formats being used. (Cinemascope 55 was a 55 mm wide format only used on Carousel and “The King And I”). As it turned out, it didn’t prove necessary to shoot everything in the two formats.
Maybe Frank had begun wondering whether the part of the fairground barker was right for him.
The story goes that Frank turned up in Maine for first day of filming and promptly left again, leaving Twentieth Century Fox in the lurch. Fortunately Gordon MacRae was able to step in . Fox sued Sinatra for breach of contract but I couldn’t find out what the outcome was.
Composer Richard Rodgers , when he started his association with Oscar Hammerstein in the early 1940s, often wrote vocally demanding operetta which required classically trained voices to do his music justice.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway shows had great singers such as Howard Keel and John Raitt. The male lead in Rodgers’ South Pacific was written for an operatic baritone.
So, as much as I admire Frank Sinatra’s voice, I query whether his style and range suits Carousel, though, surprisingly, the lead character of Billy Bigelow only has two songs, “If I Loved You” and “ Soliloquy”.
But, as written, ‘If I Loved You’ requires a big voice .
In ‘The Frank Sinatra Show” In 1958, Frank sang ‘If I loved You’ with Shirley Jones. It’s a wonderful ,dramatic song but I just don’t think Frank was right for it. The musical arrangement was slightly slower and there is no effortless high B-flat at the end.
When Carousel opened on Broadway in 1945, John Raitt created the role of Billy Bigelow. Ten years later, he was unknown in Hollywood and obviously Twentieth Century Fox weren’t prepared to take a chance on him.
Fortunately, when it came to the casting for THE PAJAMA GAME In 1957, John was given the opportunity to reprise the lead role he had created on Broadway. (Though his Broadway costar, Janis Paige lost the lead to Doris Day).
In 1945, Howard Keel understudied John Raitt In “Carousel “ and played the role in 1946. (The show was directed by Rouben Mamoulian.) Howard Keel went on to musical fame at MGM while John Raitt continued on stage and in night clubs.
A photo from the original Broadway production of Carousel which was produced by The Theatre Guild (represented by Ms Helburn.)
Other stars who lost out when their stage roles came to be filmed include Ray Bolger in ON YOUR TOES (Eddie Albert in the film).
Gene Kelly was the original PAL JOEY in 1940, but when they came to do the film version, ‘Joey’ was no longer a dancer and Frank Sinatra took the lead.
Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake were a huge success when KISS ME KATE opened on Broadway, but it was Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel who made it on screen.
Patricia Morison, who died in 2018 aged 103, made quite a few movies in the 30s and 40s, and should have been a bigger star. Paramount billed her as “Lamour and Lamarr equals La Morison!”
Strangely, her great singing voice was never used in Hollywood.
I’d love to see the 90 minute TV version of Kiss Me Kate from 1958, with Patricia and Alfred Drake recreating their roles.
I did see her in the show, with Howard Keel ,when the new BBC 2 channel opened in 1964. She should have done the film version.
Carol Channing, who died on 15th January,2019, lost out when it came to the films of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HELLO DOLLY.
And when MAME was filmed , Lucille Ball was deemed more box office than Angela Lansbury .
In all these cases, I’d love to have seen the original stage stars recreate their roles on screen. I know that not every stage performer can adapt to the big screen, but the stars mentioned above certainly would have.
Still, Frank Sinatra probably made the right decision about Carousel. Just a pity he left it to the last minute to change his mind!
I quite agree about Frank’s singing being unsuitable for Billy. The songs don’t come off being done in a lightweight style even by a great singer. Saw the British Kiss Me Kate TV version at the BFI South bank. Howard and Pat worked well together with Millicent Martin also in the cast.
Patricia also came back to England about 1981 to do the show at Birmingham Rep. I wrote to her and received a signed postcard.
How nice that Patricia signed a postcard for you.
Sinatra settled the lawsuit by agreeing to do an unspecified film. It turned out to be Can-Can.
Excerpt from 1958 TV show (I haven’t looked too hard, so there may be more out there).
Loved that clip. Will look for more. And thanks too for info on the contract dispute.
I shake my head at the thought of Sinatra (and I am definitely a fan) as Billy. I’m so happy he gave us the opportunity to hear and see MacRae in the role. Would that Hollywood would have given us the opportunity to see original stage performers in the roles they made famous.
Films are so expensive to make, I guess the studios had to have the insurance of star names. But, like you, I would love to have seen the stars I mentioned get their chance on screen.
Almost forgot that I spoke to Patricia at the after party for a Cole Porter gala in London. She sang So In Love and looked and sounded wonderful. I had no invitation but slipped through a side door! What a nerve I had. Patricia signed a picture I had brought and introduced me to a small elderly lady who was her singing teacher. Alexis Smith also signed a photo and was very nice. Also spoke to Kathryn Grayson and Taina Elg. Very lucky not to have been thrown out.
Good for you , sneaking in, to mingle!
Admittedly, it does stretch the imagination a bit to think of Frank Sinatra in the role. 🙂 I didn’t realize he was originally cast.
Yeah, I know what you mean about how it would have been so lovely to be able to see some of these actors recreate their roles on film. It always seems so unfair, because most people never have the opportunity to see these shows live with their original cast, and so a movie is the only way to even possibly come close to recreating the experience. I was rather glad that Ethel Merman was able to appear in the film version of Call Me Madam, though she lost out for Gypsy. 😦
Yes, good that Ethel Merman got to do Call Me Madam. And Robert Preston did The Music Man. (Being a big fan of Barbara Cook, I’m sorry Barbara didn’t do the film with Preston.
Unfortunately great stage performances only live in the memories of those lucky enough to see them .
I have a bootleg copy of the pre-recording of If I Loved You that Sinatra recorded for the movie, which includes the sung musical setup for the song, and a line by Shirley Jones. While the quality is poor, it is beautiful – Sinatra’s voice was still pristine. I also have the officially released but vocally incomplete recording of Soliloquy from the Sinatra in Hollywood box set. The other two songs purportedly recorded by Sinatra for the movie, including a duet with Cameron Mitchell, have yet to see the light of day, thanks to the intransigence of 20th Century Fox in refusing to cooperate or even allow the release of a pristine copy of If I Loved You.
FYI, if you have not as yet discovered this, the entire 1958 TV version of Kiss Me Kate is now on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVY1fVf9vnQ. Not a great quality – probably a kinescope – but it’s as close as we’ll ever come to seeing Drake in his prime.
Many thanks for your comments. Will certainly be looking at Kiss Me Kate.
Another of my favourite stage shows is “On the Twentierth Century” – Alfred Drake would have suited the role of Oscar Jaffe perfectly if the show had been written a decade earlier. I saw Keith Michell in London and he was very good.