100 Movie Musicals #24: Carmen Jones (1954)

Wildly uneven attempt to split the difference between Bizet’s opera and Hammerstein’s musical that does neither well. Makes the truly baffling decision to dub everyone’s singing voice despite casting Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in the lead roles.

damn, the woman who told me she wouldn’t put up with my abuse isn’t putting up with my abuse!

There’s a lot to unpack with Carmen Jones even before you get to the film itself. First and foremost, that it’s an all-Black cast, but the film was written, directed, and produced by white men, and based on a play also written, produced, and directed by white men, again. Most of the singing is dubbed, because the actors Otto Preminger cast weren’t opera singers, and Preminger was insistent on using the opera music, rather than adjusting the range of the songs the way the play had. Dorothy Dandridge—professional singer Dorothy Dandridge—is dubbed by a white opera singer imitating her voice. The two leads are silenced at every key moment by vocal doppelgangers, and it sucks. The play didn’t do this; this was specifically a cinematic decision to kneecap the lead performers. Most of the song titles are in dialect, too, which thankfully neither the actors nor the singers use, with the notable, horrifying exception of the white singer dubbing Dorothy Dandridge, who really leans into it. Because of course she does.

it does have a shirtless, glistening Harry Belafonte, at least

And for what? The film is a muddled, interminable mess. All the air is sucked out of what life the film has when the endless operatic songs start, and all of the musical numbers are noticeably being performed to something entirely different from what’s happening on the audio track. The dance numbers have no pizzazz or visual splendor at all, so whatever joy there is to get out of them is coming entirely from the audio track performed by people you can’t see. The whole movie is shot in CinemaScope, so every frame is wide as hell, but Preminger doesn’t do anything with all that extra space. It’s a format designed for huge vistas, large casts, sprawling sets, or intricate details, and Carmen Jones has none of those.

also this happens, and for a brief instant there’s some actual chemistry on screen

This is gallingly noticeable on Pearl Bailey’s big number, “Beat Out Dat Rhthym On A Drum,” where the visible performance is wildly at odds with the soundtrack—not only all all the dancers dancing to something way more uptempo, there’s no drum in the mix even as the band’s drummer goes hard on the skins. At least Bailey gets to sing her own song!


It’s also a romantic tragedy that turns on the ultimate abuse and murder of its title character, and you could maybe get away with that in the heightened surreality of an opera, but everything is so contrary and intimate here that Joe’s possessiveness and rage aren’t a sweeping tide of emotions but just a regular violent creep poisoned by his own failed masculinity. A special ACAB raspberry to the cops who show up at the end while Joe is strangling Carmen to death and politely wait for him to finish killing her before arresting him.

This isn’t the worst Otto Preminger movie on this list — we’ve still got Porgy and Bess coming up, and that makes this movie look like Singin’ In The Rain — but it’s still pretty damn bad. A huge waste of such a talented cast.


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