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At an all-black army camp, civilian parachute maker and "hot bundle" Carmen Jones is desired by many of the men. Naturally, she wants Joe, who's engaged to sweet Cindy Lou and about to go into pilot training for the Korean War. Going after him, she succeeds only in getting him into the stockade. While she awaits his release, trouble approaches for both of them. Songs from the Bizet opera with modernized lyrics. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
The singing voices of Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge were dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson and Marilyn Horne respectively, even though Belafonte and Dandridge were both accomplished singers. However, neither had the training nor the range to sing operatic roles. Catherine Hilgenberg, a soloist with the Roger Wagner Chorale (morphed later into the Los Angeles Master Chorale), was originally signed to sing the Carmen role, and a number of the arias were already recorded (with piano, on a separate track), when director Otto Preminger's bullying behavior became too much for her and she quit. Horne ("Jackie") was a 19-year-old music student at nearby USC. She auditioned for the part and was immediately hired - for $300. But it was a terrific break for her, and she grabbed it, and did an outstanding job, re-recording what Hilgenberg had already sung, plus the balance of the music. It's also fun to note that Horne was a singer for Tops Records, a company that made sound-alike recordings of hit records with identical arrangements (in those days arrangements could not be copyrighted) and "stand-ins" who could mimic the artists who made the hit record. Jackie Horne, later to become a major 20th-century opera star, was funding her college expenses, in part, by recording Kay Starr's hits. Starr was famous for belting out her songs with a certain razzmatazz style, and Horne's rendition was a dead-ringer. The Tops Records offices, it should be noted, were within walking distance from the USC campus. See more »
Carmen fixes Joe's belt, but in doing so she skips a belt loop. In the next scene the belt is worn correctly. See more »
Dandridge, the photography, and the intention are all amazing enough to justify the rest
First of all, this is a gorgeous movie. The WWII-era sets, the fluid photography with a lot of long takes, the lighting and costumes and overall feel are elegant and un-compromised, first frame to last.
Second, the idea is fabulous, an all-Black cast and an African-American adaptation of the classic Carmen opera (by the French composure Bizet). The vernacular and the stereotypes might seem worn, or even insulting if you take them wrong (or just take them out of context) but in fact it's in line with that even better, earlier opera, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The stereotypes are ones that made sanitized sense equally to White and Black America just as other musicals made sanitized sense to the same audiences. If I sound like an apologist, I'm only responding to attacks on the film ("farcical" "gruesome" or "dreadful"), as being untrue or insensitive to Blacks, by saying that nearly all musicals are incredibly stylized and false, and nearly all movies of this era played with safe, simplified versions of life.
No, to be fair to this really interesting movie you need to treat it like you would your own favorite movies from the 1950s, accepting the limitations just as the movie makers did. It's got its own syntax and style, it's own inner set of rules.
And within those the performance of the character Carmen by Dorothy Dandridge is incredible. She's on fire, introspective, nuanced, and outrageous. The cast around her is excellent but inevitably uneven, and she stands easily above them in pure performance energy, even over the other big star, Harry Belafonte.
All of this said, the beautiful, finely made, early widescreen movie here, "Carmen Jones," is lacking some kind of necessary intensity to work. I can't pin down why. From little strains of Bizet that perk it up (like a boxing worker whistling the most famous theme as he works) to the truly perfect photography and editing (maybe too perfect?), the movie has a steady, compelling flow. It's based on a Broadway musical from 1943 (the year the movie is set, as well), and it has the bones of a great drama, if a familiar one (it's still Bizet).
What might be the biggest problem is the understandable decision to film it in a realistic way, with song (and minimal dance) numbers inserted relatively seamlessly along the way. This is the standard musical approach from from the early Astaire-Rogers films to the relatively contemporaneous Arthur Freed productions of the early 1950s like "Singin' in the Rain." But Carmen, the opera and stage musical, is not a lighthearted romantic comedy. It isn't just escapist entertainment. And the gravitas and drama in it, at the end in particular, doesn't quite work the way it does on the opera stage. You watch Belafonte and Dandridge acting their hearts out, but it has that perfect 1950s movie-making production to remind us that it's a movie, and we are detached in a far different way than watching a stage version, with real people and false settings.
But never mind all that--you'll see for yourself how absorbed you get and why not more so.
A couple last things. First, the singing voices of the two leads are dubbed (yes!), surprising in Belafonte's case in particular because he was (and is) an accomplished singer. Second, Dandridge and director Preminger were having a longterm affair during the filming and after, and she pulls off what might be the best performance of her life here. Third, the movie was shown to the head of the NAACP before release to check on any problems that might be seen from an African-American point of view (this is 1954, remember) and no objections were raised. By this point, Preminger had been working with an all Black cast and was in close quarters with the leading lady so he must have had some sense that what he was after was on target for the time.
Watch it if you have interest in any of these things--WWII civilian life, Dandridge or Belafonte, opera adaptations into movies, early big budget African-American movies, Preminger movies, or terrific early Cinemascope photography. That should cover a lot of viewers, but not all. For me, I liked it a lot, and liked parts of it enormously (like the short clip of Max Roach drumming away on a barroom stage). But I felt slightly restless too often to get totally absorbed. One last suggestion--see it on the biggest screen you can, so it will be immersive.
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