As far as all-black musicals are concerned, 20th Century Fox's 1954 production Carmen Jones is a towering achievement. In this adaptation of Georges Bizet's classic opera Carmen, producer-director Otto Preminger guided actress Dorothy Dandridge to a sizzling, sultry performance that made her the first African-American actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for a leading role. Exciting, no? Well…
Now that Carmen Jones has been released on Blu Ray (and a very nice Blu Ray it is), the inherent flaws in the film stand out more boldly than ever before. To be fair, Otto Preminger had a huge challenge in making an opera (even one that had a successful run on Broadway) appealing to a mainstream audience. Preminger did a great job of making the music and dialogue flow organically into each other. He also did all right in accenting the story's dramatic tension and gritty settings, but what mostly stands out here are the artificially over-dubbed voices, awkward lyrics, and uncompelling story. At the time, no major studio had attempted an all-black musical since 1943's Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky - yet those films actually hold up better today, since their scores held some authenticity in drawing from jazz and rhythm & blues. It even falls short when compared with Fox's other big-budget Broadway adaptations of the period, such as Oklahoma! and The King and I.
Despite the terrible dubbing on the lead characters' singing voices, Carmen Jones benefits from having a cast of pros giving their all. Although stymied by her character's lack of depth, Dandridge oozes with charisma as the destructive vixen Carmen Jones, opposite a confident Harry Belafonte as Joe, the soldier who gets caught up in Carmen's wanton ways. As with a lot of operas, it's hung on a flimsy plot full of spectacle - at a North Carolina Army base during World War II, Joe is assigned to deliver hellcat Carmen to the authorities for fighting with a co-worker at the parachute factory where she works. En route, however, Carmen persuades Joe to stay at her grandmother's place and she escapes after seducing him. After getting punished, Joe eventually catches up with Carmen at a nightclub where she parties with her friends Frankie (Pearl Bailey) and Myrt (Diahann Carroll). After arrogant boxing champ Husky Miller (Joe Adams) offers to take Carmen and her friends to Chicago, an altercation between Joe and his superior officer forces the couple to hightail it to the Windy City. Joe is now a fugitive in hiding and shackled to a manipulative shrew, but will his true-blue girlfriend, Cindy Lou (Olga James), arrive in time to set him straight?
Otto Preminger likely had the best intentions in mind for Carmen Jones, but his decision to place the story in an earthy, contemporary milieu makes it an earnest, straightforward bore (strangely enough, the most adventurous segment here is the opening credits sequence - the first of many times Preminger enlisted the help of legendary designer Saul Bass). Maybe I'm drawing an unfair comparison here, but the way Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger treated opera in 1951's Tales of Hoffmann - as a purely stage-bound spectacle filled with heightened artificiality - makes it (by far) the more exquisitely done work of the two. Carmen Jones is well-crafted and entertaining enough, yet Preminger's efforts to make it "real" are undone by the dubbing on Dandridge and Belafonte (talented performers who could actually sing, although not in an operatic style) and the disconnect between the music and the setting. Despite the concessions, I'm sure it was a huge step forward for African-American visibility, although (unlike Stormy Weather) it comes across like the kind of thing white folks do to enlighten themselves about black culture. That mindset also led to Dandridge being nominated for an Oscar - a forward-thinking gesture, even if it honestly wasn't warranted (Dandridge is okay, but she doesn't inhabit the film like Judy Garland did that year with A Star Is Born).
If it appears that I'm ragging on Carmen Jones, the film is actually an enjoyable and unique experience (if only for a one-time viewing). The performers largely overcome the limitations of their simplistic roles, as well as the decent yet often cringe-inducing lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. For instance, Pearl Bailey gets to perform a lively number that well showcases her sassy voice, although it's saddled with the demeaning title "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum." Sweet-voiced yet underused Olga James also belts out a fantastic song in which she pleas for Joe's safe return. The musical arrangements are beautifully done, and the maligned dubbing is well-performed by vocalists Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. Flawed as it was, the film was successful enough for Preminger and much of the cast to reunite for 1959's splashy Gershwin adaptation Porgy and Bess - although legal entanglements have kept that film under lock-and-key for decades.
The Blu Ray:
Carmen Jones follows the template of Fox's other catalog reissues of their classic-era library, with handsomely mounted picture and sound along with little supplementary material. As with their release of 1941's eye-popping Blood and Sand, Fox inexplicably chose to adorn the packaging of this colorful production with a routine black-and-white publicity photo and underwhelming design. Why, Fox, why?
Carmen Jones' lush, naturalistic color photography and grand Cinemascope proportions have been well-preserved with this disc, which presents the film in widescreen letterboxed 2.55:1 format. While I'm not sure if it's been restored especially for this disc, the picture quality is excellent with very few instances of aging, dust and fading. Lacking the vividness of Technicolor, the DeLuxe color process used here is warm and beautifully calibrated.
The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack sports an appealing, full-bodied mix that puts the clear dialogue front and center supplemented with atmospheric scoring which stands out without being intrusive. The musical numbers have a surprising lack of degradation and hiss. A Dolby Digital 1.0 Spanish dub soundtrack is also included, along with optional subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
The only bonus included is the film's original Theatrical Trailer, which weirdly sells this challenging effort as a gay (in the old-fashioned sense) Singin' in the Rain-style tunefest.
Carmen Jones unites adventurous producer/director Otto Preminger with African-American sex symbol Dorothy Dandridge in a torrid story that brings Bizet's Carmen up-to-date. Sure, the opera-meets-black-culture concept hasn't aged as well as other ambitious projects of the era (and, disappointingly, Dandridge isn't all that great), but I actually think everyone should see this film at least once for sheer historic value. Despite its indifferent packaging, Fox's Blu Ray sports excellent picture and sound. Reccomended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.