“There’s a man I’m crazy for.”
Stage musicals had always been an important source of material for Hollywood. The 1930s proved to be the first decade when this was particularly true, as virtually everything that appeared on Broadway, whether good musical or bad, found its way to the screen, so desperate were the studios for material. Two decades later, Hollywood returned to this source, but the reason was somewhat different. Long-running Broadway musicals tended to have developed a guaranteed audience either because people had attended the play or because they had read about it. In the 1950s, guaranteed audiences appealed to studios that were feeling the pinch due to television’s increasing influence and that had experienced loss of control over their theatre chains.
The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein were prime candidates, for although many of their original Broadway productions appeared in the early to mid-1940s, touring productions did not finish until 10 years later. Fox purchased the film rights to most of the Rodgers and Hammerstein work and soon thereafter, the films began to appear: Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956), and South Pacific (1958). But before any of these appeared, Fox first released Carmen Jones (1954), a film based on a 1943 Broadway musical of the same title. The original musical was based on Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” with Bizet’s music retained but placed within an updated story and set to new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Most interestingly, the play was performed by an all-black cast. The film adaptation retained all these aspects of the original musical and utilized the new Cinemascope process to open up the stage-bound feeling of the material.
Fox has now released Carmen Jones on DVD in a fine-looking transfer.
Joe is a soldier doing guard duty at a parachute factory when he learns that he has been selected to go for training as a pilot. His girlfriend, Cindy Lou, comes to visit him and see him off. One of the factory girls, Carmen Jones, also has her eye on Joe, but he is not interested. Carmen gets into a fight and Joe is assigned to escort her to jail in nearby Masonville. On the way, Carmen persuades Joe to stop at her grandmother’s house where she succeeds in seducing him. She then escapes and Joe is arrested for failing to do his duty. Carmen is truly attracted to Joe, however, and she decides to wait for him to get out of jail, even passing up a trip to Chicago offered by boxer Husky Miller, who has become interested in her himself.
Once Joe is out of jail, he and Carmen reunite. After a brawl with his sergeant over Carmen, Joe and Carmen are forced to flee in order to avoid the military police. They head to Chicago where they hide out in a rundown tenement room, but Carmen becomes bored. After an argument with Joe, she leaves and takes up with Husky Miller. Jealous and angry, Joe ventures out of the room looking for Carmen.
One of the chief items of interest about this film is the use of the all-black cast. Granted that the film is a musical with a strong air of fantasy to it, it is still evident that an effort was made to convey something of the everyday desires of the ordinary black person in America. That said, the sort of world depicted in the film doesn’t now and has never existed, even less so than did the world of white Americans as depicted in most other musicals. Accepting all that, the film provides an entertaining blend of good performances, recognizable and enjoyable music, and a vibrant story. Cinemascope and colour by Deluxe provide a large, bright canvas for conveying the proceedings.
The entire cast is black right down to the lowliest extra, a rarity at the time for the major studios. Headlining the film are Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, Harry Belafonte as Joe, Olga James as Cindy Lou, and Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll as Carmen’s friends Frankie and Myrt respectively. Interestingly, none of the principals (with the exception of Pearl Bailey) do their own singing. For example, then-young mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne provided the singing voice for Carmen. The principals are all effective in their roles, but the key to the film’s success is Dorothy Dandridge’s incandescent performance as Carmen. She provides as sexy and sultry a temptress as you’re likely to have seen in a film of this vintage and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Dandridge, then 32 years old, was probably at the peak of her career at this time, but a lack of good roles for black actresses meant only the occasional appearance during the rest of the 1950s (1959’s Porgy and Bess was probably the most memorable). She died, virtually penniless, in 1965 after overdosing on alcohol and barbiturates. The 1999 HBO film biography Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry in the title role, is well worth seeing if you have the opportunity.
Direction of Carmen Jones fell to Otto Preminger, who was wrapping up his contract with Fox at the time. Preminger had already had experience with using Cinemascope in 1954’s River of No Return and brought that effectively to bear on Carmen Jones. Notable among his various compositions are sequences where he holds medium close shots for lengthy periods (with the performer located on one side of the widescreen rather than in the middle with empty space to either side), relying on the performers’ ability to convey expressiveness through facial expression and the grip of the music. Cindy Lou’s song “He Got His Self Another Woman,” near the end of the film, is a good example. Perhaps Preminger’s success with Carmen Jones was what led to his being hired to take over the direction of Porgy and Bess (1959) from Rouben Mamoulian who had had a disagreement with producer Samuel Goldwyn.
Fox has given us a very fine looking 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer of what appears to be an almost pristine print of Carmen Jones. It might not be quite as dazzlingly colourful as some of the best Technicolor musicals, but it’s not far off it. Colours are bright and accurate; blacks are deep and smooth; and shadow detail is excellent. Edge enhancement is virtually non-existent. High marks to Fox for its efforts on an almost 50-year-old film.
We get two choices of sound mix — a somewhat curious Dolby Digital 4.0 effort and the more standard Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. The latter is clearly the better choice. It’s deeper and richer and just provides a better enveloping experience. The 4.0 mix seems little better than 1.0 mono. Age related hiss and crackle are non-existent. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Supplements are restricted to the original theatrical trailer, a poster image, and trailers for five other Fox DVD releases: The Sound of Music, The Rose, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and The Marilyn Monroe Collection. This seems like somewhat of a missed opportunity for Fox. With this quality of transfer and the entertainment value of the film itself, it would have been great to have had some sort of retrospective documentary. At least one of the principals (Harry Belafonte) is still around and could have potentially provided some perspective.
Carmen Jones is a film that deserves better than the relative obscurity it has managed to fall into. It provides an hour and three-quarters of rewarding entertainment featuring several fine performances and great music married to updated lyrics. Fox provides a very good DVD transfer, but fails to take full advantage of it with a lackluster package of supplements.