The musical film “Carmen Jones” (1954) had a long journey from its original conception to the silver screen. The novella, “Carmen,” written by Prosper Merimee in 1845, was the basis for French composer, Georges Bizet’s 1875 Opera of the same name. Then in 1943, Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated the opera into a stage production (now titled “Carmen Jones”) with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. This adaptation updated the story by moving it to a World War II-era, African-American setting. Then, Harry Kleiner wrote a screenplay based on Hammerstein’s libretto (and also Prosper’s original novella), which became the basis of producer/director Otto Preminger’s film.
The plot revolves around an up-and-coming WWII soldier named Joe (Harry Belafonte, with singing voice dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson), and his relationship with a temptress named Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge, with her singing dubbed by Marilyn Horne). As the film opens, Joe is about to be married to his home-town girl, Cindy Lou (Olga James), when a fight breaks out between Carmen and another woman working in the parachute factory. Joe is ordered to transport Carmen to the authorities in Masonville, miles away.
On the ensuing journey, Carmen does her best to seduce Joe, despite his reluctance. When their jeep ends up in a river, Carmen convinces Joe to let her make him dinner in a nearby town. Alone in a hot, dirty and secluded shack, Joe stops fighting himself, and Carmen gets her way. She also slips out while Joe’s not looking, which gets him thrown in the stockade for a month.
During this time, Carmen, still hung up on Joe, meets Husky Miller (Joe Adams, with singing voice dubbed by Marvin Hayes), a rough, tough boxing champion. She spurs his advances because of Joe, but after Joe is released, things don’t go exactly the way she hoped or planned. He becomes obsessed with her and stifles the adventurous, carefree attitude that made her so appealing in the first place. In order to escape the claustrophobic situation, Carmen leaves Joe for Husky (and his fame and fortune).
It’s easy to see how in 1954, “Carmen Jones” was popular with critics and audiences. The story itself is timeless, and could even be updated again today just by changing the setting. There is something about obsessive love in a relationship with a cold-hearted vixen that seems to apply to every generation and setting. The cast leaves something to be desired, as many of the smaller roles are unimportant and seems to be acted with a level of inexperience. Dorothy Dandridge, however, gives such a phenomenal performance that nobody’s really watching the other characters anyway. She received a much deserved Academy Award nomination for this performance, making her the first African-American to ever earn a nomination in the Best Actress category. There wouldn’t be another until Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were both nominated in 1972.
The other reason, and perhaps the largest reason for the success of “Carmen Jones,” was the blatant sexuality that oozed from every frame of film. This was partially because of Dorothy Dandridge and the way she played her part, and partially because of the costumes designed by Mary Ann Nyberg. The majority of it, however, came from Otto Preminger and his apparently fearless goal of making films that were real. Never afraid to butt heads with the Motion Picture Production Code, Preminger set out to make this the most sultry, passion-filled, sex related film possible- and that is exactly what he did.
Today, “Carmen Jones” lacks not so much as a film, but because it takes place in a forgotten time. The entire African-American cast keeps the film in a time capsule, resonating with the sadness of a segregated society. It also suffers from a shortened running time that seems to be overrun with slower, lackluster songs. More upbeat scenes (and perhaps a dance number or two) would keep things moving with a more entertaining pace. It’s obvious that the idea here was to focus on the singing, which is fine; however neither leading actor was able to sing for themselves (despite their natural singing abilities), and that lowers the overall quality another notch as the dubbed voices are noticeable and uninspiring.
Otto Preminger undertook quite a challenge in bringing this story to the screen, and his dedication and commitment to excellence certainly shines through. Unlike so many musicals that came before, “Carmen Jones” lacks the toe-tapping, smile producing song and dance numbers, but Preminger has made up for this with an abundance of sexual energy and pure unadulterated drama. I find it interesting that this film was released just three months after Stanley Donan’s screen adaptation of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), filled with ridiculous scenarios and plotlines, but having fun at every turn. In between these two films, the serious musical film, “A Star is Born” (1954) was also released, but when the Academy Award nominations rolled around, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” received a Best Picture nomination, leaving the drama musicals standing on the sidelines, waiting to be appreciated in a later time.