Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Carmen Jones (1954)

Truth be told, I wasn't a huge fan of Carmen the opera. Great music, but the story isn't very good and I was probably too young for it when I saw it. Then in high school when we performed highlights from the score in orchestra, I got all the repetitive, unnecessarily complicated parts because I played a bass instrument. So really the main good feelings associated with it come from the Hey! Arnold episode.

In this 1950's-set re-imagining of the classic, Dorothy Dandridge stars as Carmen, a seductive escort who falls in love with straitlaced soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte). He falls for her, convinced to leave both his fiancee and the army to run away with her to Chicago. A famous boxer is instantly transfixed by her and manages to lure her away from Joe, who's made her feel imprisoned in their dingy hotel room. Jealousies and catchy tunes abound.

Like the original, Carmen Jones has a pretty stupid story. It's an unconvincing romance with heaps of melodrama and poor pacing. Most of the characters are flat caricatures: the wide-eyed, goodie-two-shoes fiancee, the staunch but naive "good" guy, the macho, possessive guy, etc. The narrative takes a long time to kick into gear and then drags itself out at certain places while speeding up at others, resulting in a haphazard plot that comes to an end quite suddenly. The script is based on a stage version, which I haven't seen, so I'm not sure if the issues lie in the source material or the adapted screenplay.

Luckily, the excellent cast and bombastic musical score keep the film afloat. Dandridge, who became the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role, is fantastic as Carmen. She's brash and sexy with just the right amount of vulnerability to be sympathetic. The character could easily become a harsh, sexist portrayal of a "tramp" (indeed, that's what I seem to recall in the opera), but Dandridge imbues her with a likable independent spirit. Belafonte is pretty one-note as Joe, but then his character doesn't get much of interest to do. He does a good job going crazy at the end, though. Pearl Bailey as Carmen's friend Frankie was my favorite. She's super cute and funny and is one of the only actors who wasn't dubbed in her awesome musical number.

The music in this film is so good. Impressively, the filmmakers took the instrumentation of the opera version and added new lyrics, with most of the actors dubbed by operatically-capable singers. I had expected an updated score to suit the time period, perhaps something more jazzy, so it was a surprise to hear the much more classical score. Sometimes some of the modernized, slangy lyrics don't quite match up to the music, but it's still a really cool idea and not really typical for a mainstream 50's musical. Plus I've been walking around with Carmen's version of "Habanera" caught in my head all week.

I completely appreciate that a movie in 1954, written and directed by white dudes, portrays African Americans as beautiful and successful (if sexed-up) people, and it's cool to see a fairly large-scale all-black cast for the period. Otto Preminger had to produce it independently because he knew no major studio would go for the idea, and it's great he was able to provide opportunities for black actors who would be struggling for roles in Hollywood. It's definitely historically interesting. But the script and characterization kept me from really loving it.


Pair This Movie With: Is The Wiz too obvious? Or how about John Waters' Cry-Baby- another look at a 1950s subculture that features two dubbed musical leads and a love triangle!

1 comment:

  1. I agree about the story although the ending surprised the hell out of me! Definitely worth seeing for the music though.