#535) Carmen Jones (1954)

#535) Carmen Jones (1954)

OR “Let’s Get Bizet”

Directed by Otto Preminger

Written by Harry Kleiner. Based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II, the opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet, and the novella “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée.

Class of 1992 

The Plot: “Carmen Jones” updates the opera “Carmen” from 1820s Spain to 1940s North Carolina with an all African-American cast. Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) is a free-spirit and relentless flirt working in a parachute factory during the war. When she is arrested for fighting with a co-worker, Corporal Joe (Harry Belafonte) is assigned to escort her to the authorities. Carmen works her charm on Joe and the two begin an affair. Things are complicated by Carmen’s desire to not be held back by anyone, Joe’s engagement to Cindy Lou (Olga James), and the arrival of champion boxer Husky Miller (Joe Adams). An impulsive trip to Chicago leads to more complications, and follows its source material to its tragic conclusion.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up calls the film “[e]xceptionally liberal in its time”, gives some historical background, and weirdly highlights that “Otto Preminger’s realist sensibility often seems contradictory to the whimsical nature of a musical”.

But Does It Really?: “Carmen Jones” tends to be forgotten in terms of classic Hollywood musicals, but it earns its NFR status thanks to its progressive subject matter and a star-making turn by Dorothy Dandridge. The film’s social commentary may have been eclipsed by later progressions in the Civil Rights movement, but “Carmen Jones” can still be viewed today without any major cringing, and is a testament to the career of Dorothy Dandridge. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Wow, That’s Dated: Like “Porgy and Bess” before it, “Carmen Jones” is a musical about Black characters written by White men. Sure, phrasing like “You is” and “Dey is” might be accurate to this specific regional subculture (emphasis on might), but at the end of the day, this show is White composers approximating a Black experience.

Seriously, Oscars?: Well received in its time, “Carmen Jones” won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, and received two Oscar nominations. Although Dorothy Dandridge lost Best Actress to Grace Kelly, she made history by being the first African-American woman nominated in that category. The film’s other nod was for its Musical Scoring, which it lost to “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers“.

Other notes 

  • How do you think Rodgers felt when Hammerstein told him he wanted to collaborate with a dead guy?
  • Like many a classic opera, “Carmen” features music that you’ve heard a thousand times before, but couldn’t say where it’s from. “March of the Toreadors” shows up in a lot of commercials, as does “The Toreador Song“, but most people would recognize “Habanera” out of all these numbers.
  • Another historical highlight: “Carmen Jones” features Saul Bass’ first opening credits sequence! Bass debuts with a simple yet powerful image of flames over a stylistic rose. This symbol was put to more provocative use in international versions of the film’s poster.
  • By the early 1950s, Dorothy Dandridge was known primarily as a nightclub singer, with a handful of bit parts in films. A starring role as a reserved teacher in “Bright Road” almost cost her “Carmen Jones”, when Otto Preminger felt she was too demure for the part. After an in-person meeting with Preminger where she “dressed the part”, Dandridge won the role, and started a four-year affair with her director.
  • I don’t know how Preminger almost messed this up: Dorothy Dandridge has star quality coming out of every pore. You can’t take your eyes off of her (well, at least I couldn’t).
  • Despite both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte being known for their singing abilities, neither had a voice deemed up to the demands of the score, and the two were dubbed by, respectively, Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. That being said, Horne does a remarkably good job matching Dandridge’s vocal inflections.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Sam Leavitt. Like his other 1954 musical “A Star Is Born“, Leavitt knows how to fill the CinemaScope frame without the characters becoming eclipsed by spectacle. Though there are a few shots that must have been a real bummer to watch in pan-and-scan.
  • “There’s a Café on the Corner” features a fun performance by Dandridge/Horne, but Carmen’s doing a lot of moving about in an open-top car. Someone please invent the seat belt.
  • Things start to pick up once we arrive at the café. In addition to the always entertaining Pearl Bailey (the only lead performer who does their own singing), you get Diahann Carroll in her film debut! She was 19!
  • The “Whizzin’ Away Along de Track” number is a fine example of this musical’s focus on character rather than the spectacle of its contemporaries. The song is primarily one shot of the five singers (all fitted comfortably in the widescreen), but there’s enough character development and back-and-forth between them to hold your interest without resorting to cuts. Well done.
  • Just a reminder that Harry Belafonte is still alive and thriving at age 93, with a performing career that is second only to his outstanding humanitarian accomplishments.
  • Dorothy Dandridge strips down to her bra and panties! It’s 1954, how did any of this get past the censors? Preminger, you’ve done it again!
  • The only thing Cindy Lou has done wrong this whole movie was not be a star of the same stature as Belafonte or Dandridge. At least her subplot ends with an inner monologue song about how she can do better than Joe.
  • When he picks a fight with Husky Miller, Joe learns the hard way never to bring a knife to a fistfight. …wait, what?
  • [Spoilers] Given its opera lineage, I should have seen this movie’s ending coming. It’s a real downer, but at least Preminger only films Carmen’s dead body from the shoulders up. I always get distracted watching corpses breathe in movies.

Legacy 

  • “Carmen Jones” was a hit and made Dorothy Dandridge a star. Dandridge followed the career advice from her paramour Otto Preminger, which she ultimately regretted taking when it limited her casting options and stalled her rising star. After a decade of various financial and professional setbacks, Dorothy Dandridge died unexpectedly in 1965 at age 42.
  • Preminger would reunite with Dandridge and Pearl Bailey for another NFR musical entry: 1959’s “Porgy and Bess”.
  • The making of “Carmen Jones” is touched upon in the 1999 HBO movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”, starring Halle Berry as Dandridge and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Preminger.
  • Following its original Broadway run in the ’40s, the stage version of “Carmen Jones” has only had a handful of revivals. “Carmen Jones” would eventually return to New York in 2018 in an Off-Broadway production starring Anika Noni Rose.
  • The original “Carmen” opera is still performed with some regularity, with a few filmed versions over the years, including a hip-hopera starring Beyoncé. You know, for the kids.

Listen to This: Despite showing up in two movies on the NFR, Harry Belafonte doesn’t sing a note in either of them. Fortunately the National Recording Registry came through in 2017 by inducting his 1956 album “Calypso”. The NRR write-up includes an essay by Belafonte expert Judith E. Smith, as well as an interview with the man himself. Day-O!

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