New England in the late 19th century
Two young mill workers, Julie and her friend Carrie, are visiting the fair. The carousel owner Mrs. Mullin accuses Julie of making eyes at the barker Billy Bigelow, and she forbids her to ever go on the carousel again. When Billy takes Julie’s side and makes fun of the jealous Mrs. Mullin, she fires him. While he fetches his things, Carrie reveals to her friend that she has become engaged to fisherman Enoch Snow. She tells Julie not to stay out too long: Bascombe, the owner of the cotton mill, will not tolerate his female employees returning home late. Bascombe strolls past with a police officer, who warns Julie about Billy. Bascombe offers to accompany her home, but she decides to stay – and is also fired.
Finally alone, Billy and Julie talk about life, without being able to admit to each other that they are falling in love.
Six weeks pass. Preparations for the traditional clambake (a summer beach picnic at which huge quantities of clams are consumed) are in full swing. Julie and Billy have married and moved in with Julie’s cousin Nettie. Julie confides to her friend Carrie that Billy is miserable about being unemployed and has hit her. Carrie has happier news: she and Mr. Snow are soon to marry. Billy returns after staying out all night with the ne’er-do-well whaler Jigger. Billy insults Carrie and Enoch and then leaves again.
Enoch tells Carrie about his plans to found a large fishing fleet and a large family. They dream of their future together.
Billy doesn’t know what to do. Should he follow Jigger and his companions on the whaling ship? Should he go along with Jigger’s plan of robbing the rich Mr. Bascombe? Should he go back to the carousel, as Mrs. Mullin would like him to – but at the price of separating from Julie? One piece of news changes everything: Julie tells Billy that she is pregnant. Enthusiastically, he envisages the joys of fatherhood … and in order to get his hands on some money quickly, he decides to become Jigger’s accomplice in the robbery.
The entire town leaves for the clambake. Billy goes too: being seen at the clambake will create a vital alibi for him and Jigger.
After the clambake, everyone is replete and happy.
Jigger makes moves to seduce Carrie – Enoch comes across them at the wrong moment and plaintively declares the relationship between him and Carrie to be over. The girls comfort the despairing Carrie. Julie, who has been through more disappointments than her friend, knows better: “He’s your feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that”.
When Billy slips away with Jigger, Julie tries to stop him, but in vain.
The robbery fails: Jigger is able to escape, but the intended victim Bascombe arrests Billy at gunpoint. With Julie’s name on his lips, Billy stabs himself. Nettie consoles Julie over the death of her husband.
A Heavenly Friend accompanies Billy “up there”. Billy would like to meet the Highest Judge of All, but has to make do with the quirky Starkeeper, who tells him that as long as someone on earth remembers him, he may return for one day in order to do something good – for his daughter Louise, for example. Billy looks down: fifteen years have passed on earth, and Louise is now fifteen. She is lonely and bitter, because the other children (including those of Carrie and Enoch) mock her for having a thief for a father. Billy wants to go down to see Louise – and steals a star as a present for his daughter.
Billy makes himself visible and tries to give the star to the despairing Louise. When she refuses it, he is angry and slaps her hand. Louise tells her mother what has happened: the blow felt more like a caress. Julie sees the star and feels curiously close to Billy.
Invisible once more, Billy attends the graduation at Louise’s school, hoping to make amends for his mistakes. Dr. Seldon (who bears a strange resemblance to the Starkeeper) gives a speech urging the young people not to rely on the successes of their parents and not to be discouraged by their mistakes.
Billy comforts Louise, who feels his presence despite being unable to see him. And finally, Billy tells Julie that he loves her. The song Nettie sang to Julie to comfort her is heard. And while his widow and his daughter join the chorus, Billy is led back into the world beyond.