In 1943 noted Broadway composer Oscar Hammerstein II undertook a rather ambitious project; to translate George Bizet’s famed opera, Carmen (itself based on Prosper Mérimée 1846 novella) into a uniquely American musical/tragedy set at the height of WWII. In retrospect, Hammerstein’s decision to do Carmen with an all-black cast seems such an obvious nod to DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 smash stage hit, Porgy and Bess. But Carmen Jones turned out to be a remarkably faithful, as well as resilient adaptation of Bizet’s gritty and dark tale of obsessive/compulsive self-destructive love. Sitting in the audience opening night was Otto Preminger, whose first impressions were dismissive at best; just a watered down series of ‘skits’ altered so that its stars – who lacked the professional training of seasoned opera singers – could cope with the score. In truth, Preminger had absolutely no interest in making a musical. What intrigued him about the property was its dramatic intensity. To this end, Preminger hired Harry Kleiner, a fellow Yale disciple to write the screenplay, instructing him to draw inspiration from Mérimée original source material, but also to expand upon the limitations of Bizet’s opera and Hammerstein’s translation of it.
Today, Otto Preminger is rightfully regarded as a cinema genius. But in his day he often met with opposition from the powers that be; proving himself to be a very caustic force of nature with a monolithic and singular vision he expected everyone else to fall in line with without question. Preminger’s devouring presence on set meant he kept the reigns very tight on all his creative personnel. This, he believed, ensured his ideas would be brought forth comprehensively and without fail. ‘Without question’ was another matter entirely, often leading to rows between director and his stars. In realizing Carmen Jones (1954) for the screen, Preminger noted two foreseeable obstacles: first - no major studio would be willing to fund a movie ‘opera’, and second - most would be apprehensive about staging a movie of any genre with an all-black cast. Indeed, Hollywood’s attempts to honor the black perspective had been too few and far between and perhaps for good reason. In the segregated south, as example, bookings would be slim to nil, while the gamble in more progressive and affluent white American neighborhoods could also prove as sketchy.
Following Preminger’s defiant (and profitable) break with screen censorship with the release of The Moon is Blue (1953), the director rather expected United Artists to jump on the band wagon once more to fund Carmen Jones. Instead, Preminger found an unlikely ally in Darryl F. Zanuck over at 2oth Century-Fox. The irony in this alliance stemmed from Preminger’s feisty debacle on River of No Return (1954); a set in which he clashed so vehemently with co-stars Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe that by the end of production Preminger paid Fox $150,000 to buy out the rest of his studio contract. But the deal ironed out between Zanuck and Preminger for Carmen Jones was even more remarkable in that it afforded Preminger total autonomy while outright funding the project for a then impressive $750,000. It was a deal too good to refuse and Preminger immediately dove into hand-crafting his film, hiring cinematographer Sam Leavitt, musical coordinator, Herschel Burke Gilbert and choreographer Herbert Ross – even before he had begun to scout locations.
It is a matter of record that Otto Preminger and star Dorothy Dandridge had a passionate love affair while working together on Carmen Jones. Just when it began remains open for discussion. In point of fact, Preminger’s initial reaction to Dandridge was less than enthusiastic. He felt she was a fresh new face and engaging presence, but utterly lacking the sex appeal of Bizet’s harlot. Diahann Carroll was Preminger’s first choice. But she proved so intimidated by Preminger that he completely lost interest in her. Dandridge, however, was unrelenting in her quest for the role. After an initial meeting went badly, she went home, changed her wardrobe into more sultry attire, and her attitude and then, returned, strutting around Preminger’s office as the very embodiment of the tart. At some point between impressing Preminger and signing the contract to make the movie, Dandridge developed cold feet and asked to be removed from the project, whereupon Preminger raced to Dandridge’s apartment and begged her to reconsider. Thus, the liaison between the two began.
Viewing Carmen Jones today one is immediately struck by Dandridge’s tawdry appeal. She brings a potent brass to the part. Her Carmen is strangely appealing despite her disreputable behaviors. Carmen does the most appalling things to the men whose desires she readily enflames, and yet, we feel genuinely sorry for her when it all comes to not and untimely death. The one great regret of the movie is that Dandridge is quite incapable of doing her own singing; lip-syncing to Marilyn Horne’s pre-recorded tracks instead. So too did Calypso sensation Harry Belefonte quickly learn his songs would be recorded by LeVern Hutcherson.
Although dubbing was nothing new in Hollywood musicals then or now, Carmen Jones is a curious example of its excessive usage. Not even noted torch singer Pearl Bailey or Julliard-trained Olga James (cast as Cindy Lou) do their own singing. At some base level, Horne’s vocals for Dandridge effortlessly blend with Dandridge’s dialogue intros (the result of Horne’s meticulously study of Dandridge’s vocal range, perfectly segueing from Dandridge’s voice into her own inimitable singing style). But costar Harry Belefonte’s honeyed pipes have been rather incongruously melded with Hutcherson’s deep and inspiring baritone; this disconnect, painfully obvious.
Carmen Jones contains both a first and an egregious flub. The first goes to New York graphic designer, Saul Bass – whose captivatingly simplistic style in print media immediately caught Preminger’s eye. Bass’s image for the movie’s main title, a single stylized black rose burning against a red-tinted writhing flame plays upon the iconography from Bizet’s opera, but with a strikingly fresh pictorial approach. The image was later incorporated into the movie’s original poster marketing campaign. It also launched Bass’s new career as the ‘go to’ guy for integrated movie titles. The flub took place during Preminger’s shoot on the back lot at the Culver Studios subbing in for Chicago. Even those with less discerning eyes can easily spot the moment when Carmen, strutting down a street of façades, pauses to catch a glimpse of herself in a shop window, the reflection of Preminger, his cameraman Sam Leavitt and crew caught riding the camera dolly track as they photograph the scene. One wonders why this sequence was never reshot. Certainly, it must have gained Preminger’s attention when viewing his dailies.
Just six weeks into principle photography, Preminger was to encounter bitter opposition from censorship head, Joseph Breen, over the complete lack of moral judgment in Harry Kleiner’s screenplay. The two had clashed on The Moon is Blue and Breen may have seen Carmen Jones as a way of getting back at Preminger for having released the aforementioned without a passing grade from the self-governing – and some might suggest Puritanical ‘self-serving’ - censorship board. Although Preminger quietly agreed to minor changes and, in fact, even shot two versions of each scene Breen had found objectionable, only Preminger’s racier interpretations made it into the final cut.
When Carmen Jones had its world premiere at New York’s Rivoli Theater it was an immediate sensation, playing almost a year in exclusive first-run engagements in both London and Berlin. Secure in the movie’s success, director and star openly flaunted their relationship – a move that ultimately proved modestly detrimental to Preminger but utterly lethal to Dandridge’s appeal in the U.S. Although she was offered the relatively minor role of Tuptim in Fox’s The King and I (1956), Preminger’s intervention (advising as both lover and mentor to decline any supporting roles) inadvertently began Dandridge’s steady decline into oblivion; a fate not unlike Dandridge’s alter ego in Carmen Jones.
Carmen Jones opens in the ramshackle of a North Carolina parachute factory during WWII. Ironically, our initial introduction is not to our star but Olga James, cast as Cindy Lou, the sweetly innocent and adoring lover of Corporal Joe (Harry Belefonte) who is on the cusp of starting his military training as a flyboy. Joe and Cindy Lou have been betrothed ever since Joe was in short pants. In fact, the two are neighbors. Cindy Lou’s unexpected arrival comes just in time to see her man seduced by the wily parachute seamstress, Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), who parades like a peacock through the canteen, declaring love as a passion no mere mortal can dictate. No one chooses who to love. It just happens. At least, that’s the way it is for Carmen; usually contented to be on the arm of any man who’ll show her a good time, but suddenly drawn to Joe because he is not like the others. In fact, Joe pays Carmen virtually no mind and assures Cindy Lou that their bond is as strong as ever.
Regrettably, the bond is tested almost immediately after Carmen engages in an all-out brawl with another seamstress. Sergeant Brown (Broc Peters) revokes Joe’s twenty-four hour pass and orders him to immediately take Carmen to the civilian jail; an ill-fated journey by jeep that will change the course of everyone’s fate for the worse. For Carmen, having set her cap on Joe, repeatedly goads him and then attempts to escape before they can reach their destination. With the jeep disabled in a stream, Carmen lures Joe to her grandmother, Hagar’s (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) squalid shanty. Hagar warns that no good can come of it. Throwing caution to the wind, Joe and Carmen share a fiery night of passion together, Joe awakening the next morning to discover her fled to parts unknown, thereby forcing him to return to base camp with a dereliction of duty hanging over his head. While serving out his sentence in the stockade Joe is visited by Cindy Lou. He confesses his affair with Carmen to her and she, already knowing about it, forgives him without question or bitterness. But Carmen has infected Joe’s heart. From this moment on he cannot forget her or go back to Cindy Lou.
Carmen sends a rose to Joe that he keeps close to his heart. Upon his release from the stockade Joe looks Carmen up at a backwater speakeasy in Louisiana. Unfortunately, Joe’s arrival coincides with that of boxing champion, Husky Miller (Joe Adams); the star attraction playing to a packed house of sycophants. One glimpse of Carmen is all Husky needs to know she should come to Chicago for a hot time in the old town with him. Carmen, however, seems to have reformed. She’s stuck on Joe; that is, until Joe explains how he cannot stay with her because his delayed flight school training is about to commence. In the meantime, Husky tells his manager Rum Daniels (Roy Glenn) that if he cannot convince Carmen to come to Chicago he can start looking for another job right now. Since Daniels has been living too high on the hog with Husky’s money he isn’t willing to throw in the towel now, but elects to pursue Carmen by plying her two fair-weather friends, Frankie (Pearl Bailey) and Myrt (Diahann Carroll) with the promise of jewelry and furs once they reach Chicago – but only if Carmen comes along for the trip.
To teach Joe a lesson, Carmen agrees. Sergeant Brown provokes Joe into a fist fight sure to land Joe back in the stockade and ruin his chances of ever becoming a flyer. Instead, Joe knocks Brown unconscious; Carmen helping to hide his body in the woods before convincing Joe to go to Chicago too. Now AWOL, Joe is forced to hide out in a seedy tenement apartment. Carmen’s love is true. But she isn’t a gal used to lumping it on the lam. Penniless, but determined, Carmen sets out for the gym where Husky trains, asking Frankie for a loan. Too bad Frankie has no money of her own. But sometime later Carmen returns to the apartment with a bag of groceries. When she refuses to tell Joe how she obtained the money to pay for them the two have a quarrel and Carmen storms out in a huff, turning up at Husky’s hotel suite where Frankie and Myrt are playing cards. When Carmen draws a nine of spades from the deck she remembers Hagar’s fateful warning and succumbs to Husky’s advances.
Several days later Cindy Lou comes in search of Carmen at Husky's gym; imploring her to divulge Joe’s whereabouts so that she can run away with him. But just then Joe appears, crazed with jealousy and pulling a switchblade on Husky who beats him to a pulp in short order. Cindy Lou resigns herself to having lost Joe. But Carmen stops the fight and even helps Joe elude the military police. That evening Joe ‘hides’ in plain view; sneaking into Husky’s boxing match inside a packed arena. Sitting only a few rows behind Carmen and her friends, Joe quietly observes Carmen’s elation as Husky defeats his opponent in the ring. Unable to cleanse himself of the promises they made to one another, Joe waits for Carmen inside a nearby storage room, forcibly dragging and threatening to kill her unless she returns to him. Believing Joe incapable of such brutish behavior, Carmen laughs him off and pays the price for her ignorance when Joe strangles her in a fit of insane possessiveness. The military police arrive and escort Joe away.
For all its potent drama, Carmen Jones remains something of a lopsided misfire. As a musical it’s top-heavy and highbrow; its’ operatic arias, clearly sung by voices belonging elsewhere, an ill-fit for this rather oversimplified and melodramatic tale of toxic love gone hopelessly awry. On the other hand, the more tragic elements are occasionally blunted by the lushly orchestrated/ powerfully emoted exuberance of the Bizet/Hammerstein score. One senses Otto Preminger’s struggling desire to make the sort of epic musical/tragedy a la a West Side Story, but instead coming across with a topsy-turvy mélange of feuding/fussing lovers turned rancid by their own diverging passions. Bizet’s gorgeous melodies dominate the first half of the movie. But Carmen Jones’ musical moments are rather turgidly staged. There is, for example, no choreography to speak of; most of the songs shot flatly to fill the expansive Cinemascope frame with the lip-syncing dead center while other cast members crowd in on both sides. In the final analysis Carmen Jones isn’t terrible. It just isn’t exceptional. Its’ contemporized grand opera never yields to the free-flowing excitement of mass entertainment and that’s a pity. And the movie is neither melodramatic nor musically satisfying: just a mutt of these two irreconcilable genres thrust together: an interesting experiment, to be sure, though never quite living up to expectations.
Fox Home Video debuts Carmen Jones in a transfer that is at long last worthy of its Cinemascope origins. Previous DVD incarnations were plagued by a residual softness throughout and colors that, at times were anemic at best. It is gratifying to find this 1080p image looking hearty and robust with a good solid smattering of film grain and colors appearing far more natural. Tonality greatly improves too. There are still moments when the DeLuxe palette falters, but not to the extent as witnessed on DVD. The image appears ever so slightly horizontally stretched, although I don’t think this is a classic case of the ‘Cinemascope mumps’. It now appears that the old DVD transfer was just a tad compressed; figures standing too far off to the sides of the frame appearing wraith-thin on the DVD, but a tad more ‘full’ on the Blu-ray. Of course, figures in the middle of the frame have added a bit of girth too, but not in any way that registers as artificially enhanced. The HD DTS 4.0 audio is, in a word, marvelous. The score sounds great. A pity Fox never found the time to include a Biography Special on Dorothy Dandridge or Harry Belefonte or even an audio commentary from some noted historian on the making of the movie. No – all we get is the same tired old trailer. Extra features: where forth art thou? Bottom line: for fans this one comes recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)