October 28, 1954 Fox 105 minutes
It’s a tale as heartbreaking as many an opera. We all know the tragedy of Jonathan Larson who died at 35, on the eve of Rent‘s opening and wild acclaim. Georges Bizet similarly died young, but tho he lived to see his Carmen premiere at the Paris Opera-Comique in 1875, initial reaction from public and critics alike was anything but rapturous, and by the time of his untimely death, a mere 3 months later, he would never know the ultimate success of his achievement. 135 years later Carmen must be among the five most world-renowned operas; familiar to even those who know little of the form. Oscar Hammerstein II became enchanted with it one night in 1934 at the Hollywood Bowl. Eight years later, at a low point in his career, he set out to rewrite it in an American idiom. Setting Bizet’s Carmen as a Negro folktale in the Deep South seems an obvious transposition now, but Oscar had a hard time selling any producer on the concept, until an unlikely candidate took interest: showman Billy Rose.
"Popularizing” classical works has long been a practice on Bway and Tin Pan Alley. (Robert Wright & Chet Forrest built a whole career on the principle.) So why not a jazzed-up, pared-down, “popera” with an all black cast? The big challenge was finding that cast. Blacks weren’t much welcomed on opera stages yet, and so few were trained. Ultimately they were culled from a variety of wartime labors, and all but one had never performed on the legit stage. Against all odds it was a huge hit in 1944, and had some after-life. But the show hasn’t taken its place among the great ‘40s Bway classics, perhaps because the original opera stands ever popular, and is itself ever re-invented.
The contemporary Negro folk-play that was Carmen Jones is today a period piece--and one that hasn’t aged too well. Hammerstein’s “down-home” dialect, not much evolved since Show Boat, seems a little patronizing now. Odd, too, is the story’s insular, segregated universe. Even tho we travel from South Carolina to Chicago, it’s an all-black world here. But with America facing a real civil rights crisis in ‘54, particularly in the South, a hermetically sealed black community was nearly as much a fairyland as Brigadoon. Yet Hlwd director Otto Preminger thought to impose a naturalistic milieu on the musical, stripping the score down further, and delving into the underbelly of the underclass. There’s little that’s glamorous or enchanting in this movie; from the first frame of a bus pulling up to a rural army post to the last gruesome moments in a janitor’s closet there’s a succession of drab locations: a mess hall, a shantytown, dusty back-country roads, fleabit hotels,, boxing gyms & Chicago tenements—not your picaresque Catfish Row sort of poverty. Tho shot on locations in California, not in the South, it was certainly well scouted for verisimilitude. There’s some welcome visual relief at Billy Pastor’s Café—a swank hideaway country club—and, not incidentally, one of the few sets in the film. The club’s exterior oozes with weeping willows like an art director’s wet dream for a Tennessee Williams melodrama. But little else has much visual punch—this makes Call Me Mister look exotic. Preminger hired screen-writer Henry Kleiner coming off assignments on two lurid Rita Hayworth vehicles: Salome & Miss Sadie Thompson, to milk the dramatic action. Boy, does he! There are catfights and fistfights, brawls, and even a chase on top a moving train (amazingly, the second one in a musical this year—following Living It Up.) It’s all a sordid affair really, with rowdy scenes of seduction, jealousy, confrontation, pimping and whoring. Hard to believe only two years earlier Otto had defied the Catholic Legion of Decency by releasing The Moon is Blue without their approval; and all because a young woman spoke openly and defensively of her (gasp) virginity! Preminger wanted less interference with Carmen Jones, so he produced the film himself, independent of studio dictates. Even so, Darryl Zanuck at Fox came thru with financing & distribution. (But Fox’s searchlight logo is noticeably absent from the start of the reel—were they hedging their bets? I wonder how much of a platform the film received in the South.)
It was a significant move for Preminger. (I’m not sure I understand why he’s so casually dismissed today. Yes, he fell off a cliff at the end of his career, but he had a solid middle-streak with Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and The Cardinal, among others. He’d also made a musical before; Jerome Kern’s final work, Centennial Summer—which unfortunately I’ve still not seen. Recently I’ve come to find Bonjour Tristesse a complete revelation—it’s one of those movies I can watch over & over.) His career was lagging since the promise he’d shown in the early 40s, with Laura. Here he was coming off a Marilyn Monroe western (and her most forgettable role) for Chrissakes. What next, a Betty Grable sci-fi pic? No, a more daring project: a famous opera embedded in a tawdry drama of sex and murder among Negroes. Of course it can’t really come off as anything but a gimmick, for the characters are twisting to accommodate Bizet, rather than the music expressing their true character and locality. Bosley Crowther, then chief film critic of the NY Times said as much: “Whatever illusions and exaltations the musical eloquence might remotely inspire are doused by the realistic settings in which Mr. Preminger has played his film . . . There is nothing wrong with the music—except that it does not fit the people or the words.” Nothing demonstrates this better than “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” which sounds less of African origin than Dietrich in Blonde Venus singing “Hot Voodoo” in a gorilla suit. (Kitty Carlisle sings it on a bonus track of the original cast CD—need I say more?)
But what is genuine and exciting about the movie is its showcasing of black talent, a generous display for 1954. Contrary to common belief, Harry Belafonte wasn’t some exotic mid-century import, like Carmen Miranda, to introduce Americans to the Caribbean beat. He was actually a native New Yorker who sang at first only to support his acting ambitions—much as Streisand later would. He studied with Erwin Piscator at the New School with Brando, Poitier, & Matthau, and had already won a Tony for his part in a 1952 Bway revue: John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. Here he’s still 2 years away from the iconic “Belafonte”—forever more labeled the King of Calypso. (It seemed like every household—but mine—had this 1956 album.) Preminger cast him coming off his film debut; MGM’s Bright Road (something about a school bully & a swarm of bees), which also happened to co-star his future Carmen. But it was his acting, not musical skills that got him the role. In fact he didn’t have the operatic chops for the part and was dubbed. So, too, was Dorothy Dandridge, tho she’d been singing since early childhood on the Chitlin’ circuit, and later in radio and demo recordings in Hlwd. Otto thought her too soft originally (a “beautiful butterfly” he called her), until she made one of those apocryphal uninvited auditions, showing up in costume & character to the delighted shock of all. She tore into the role like a tigress, with Preminger playing a besotted Svengali right up to the Oscars, and beyond. Reportedly they had a four year affair. (What a mysterious charmer this pug-ugly bloke was! Unbeknownst to him, he already had a secret love child with Gypsy Rose Lee).
But Prince Charming or not he made a real Cinderella story: Dandridge was not only the first African-American woman nominated for a leading actress Oscar (only Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters had been acknowledged before, and then in supporting roles), she also had the distinction of being the first performer of any race or sex nominated for a Bway musical role. (Yes, Mickey Rooney got a nod for Babes in Arms back in 1939—but that was a pale shadow of the Bway show, and a wholly new character). Of course she didn’t have a chance at the Oscar—if only because this was the year of the great Garland/Kelly battle; Judy making a comeback on Harold Arlen as thrilling as Grace playing against type in Clifford Odets. (The other nominees were Audrey Hepburn fresh off her princess victory and emeritus Jane Wyman milking blindness for tears.) It was a thrilling group to be part of. She was a Star now, but only within the limited means Hlwd had for sexy, black women in the '50s—which is to say, practically not at all. She was offered the part of Tuptim in Fox’s King & I, but Preminger advised against it, thinking it beneath her. She was said to have later regretted passing up the role. And tho Otto moved on to Jean Seberg as his next star-making experiment, he reunited with Dandridge on Porgy & Bess five years later. Carmen’s singing voice was dubbed by a 20 year old Marilyn Horne, her first professional job. Horne made careful study of Dandridge to simulate her voice in the operatic register—quite successfully. She was on her way, reaching the top of the opera world in another decade. Belafonte was dubbed by Le Vern Hutcherson. But it’s obvious the singing experience of both leads helped their performances considerably in matching pre-recorded tracks.
Marilyn Horne wasn’t the only fresh talent in Carmen Jones. Here’s Diahann Carroll, all of 19 years old in her first professional role, paired with no less a force than Pearl Bailey—herself a novice to Hlwd, at age 36. Here’s dancer Alvin Ailey in the crowd at Billy Pastor’s; dancing steps by first-time choreographer Herbert Ross (The whole lot would be quickly scooped up by Saint Subber for House of Flowers on Bway.) This was also the start of a distinguished career for Brock Peters (here billed as “Broc”). For innocent Cindy Lou, Otto cast Julliard graduate, Olga James—who seemed to disappear after co-starring with Sammy Davis on Bway in Mr. Wonderful, two years later. And a disc-jockey from LA named Joe Adams was plucked to play the champion boxer, Husky Miller. (He was also dubbed, as was Diahann Carroll—It seems only Pearl Bailey & Olga James were allowed to use their own singing voices.)
Bizet’s Carmen is known for its many famous arias, but perhaps even more for its thrilling and assertive overture, possibly the single most famous piece of music in the score. Preminger uses it for the credits, natch, over some decidedly modern titles: a hand-drawn rose backlit with a scarlet flame—and a startlingly modern typeface. It’s as if graphic design had suddenly taken a ten year leap. This is designer Saul Bass’s first assignment in film—beginning a lifelong association with Preminger, but also a body of work and influence greater than anyone else in his field to this very day. He designed fantastic credit sequences as well as posters and streamlined logos that managed to strike the eye with real impact. (Case in point: West Side Story’s, brilliant fire-escape lettering which seems so inextricable from the title that even Arthur Laurents, for all his loathing of the film, couldn’t refuse using for the current Bway revival.) Modern, too, is the sassy, sexualized black girl; this hot & cold running seductress who Husky Miller dubs “Heatwave.” When Dandridge enters the gray cafeteria she’s like a neon sign in her not merely red, but flaming tangerine skirt. She launches into “Dat’s Love” like a cat in heat. Criticism of musicals these days is often about the disconnect between naturalistic situations and out of context song. “Dat’s Love” makes a good example. Who’s this harpy marching thru the lunch-crowd, singing of her temperament’s code? How does this entire cafeteria back her up in chorus? It’s screwy, unless you’re willing to walk into the musical universe. Preminger’s on board, but he also wants his gritty social drama. They weren’t making musicals like this back in the ‘40s. Otto films Carmen’s temptation song, “Dere’s a Café on the Corner,” on a fast moving jeep; Joe’s aria “Dis Flower” is sung at the riverbed with a prison gang taking a break from laying pipe—Belafonte’s shirtless body glistening sweat in the noonday sun. The final arias lead into murder. Remember, this is the decade of Nancy Goes to Rio and I Love Melvin, not Sweeney Todd.
The liveliest section of the film starts with Carmen’s arrival at Billy Pastor’s Club. The drab hardscrabble realism gives way to a plush Hlwd set and a trio of lively numbers. Pearl Bailey leads off with “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” inside the bizarrely formal nightclub. The song’s a dandy, sort of, and Pearlie Mae struts her stuff, but it’s the background that screams for attention. I find myself utterly hypnotized by a certain dancer, and no it’s not Alvin Ailey. Strikingly mature for a chorus boy (he’s 40), but given prominence is one Archie Savage, veteran of Katherine Dunham’s troupe and choruses of South Pacific & Beggar’s Holiday on Bway. He was probably most known for a wartime Hlwd short called Jammin’ the Blues where his Lindy Hop sequence quickly became the iconic default footage for that athletic style of dance; seen in countless historic & documentary films. Here he’s placed (presumably by Herbert Ross) near or behind Pearl, to flash his beaming countenance in our direction (when Pearl adds “Maybe I do,” to the lyric, “I don’t need nuthin’ else,“ she’s looking at Savage). He moves well too. And here’s the problem: the song is great and we see flashes of excitement in the dancing behind Miss Bailey, but when she finishes the vocal and the dance music takes over we do not get that dance. The camera pulls in sharply for a dialogue scene at the bar, and the vibrant excitement we were all primed up for, simply dribbles to a stop. Fortunately the action quickly shifts to Husky Miller’s arrival in a Rolls convertible, and the rousing aria “Stan’ Up and Fight.” Joe Adams does a fine lip-synch job, but he’s more compelling in the following scene where he tries to pick up Carmen. “Hello, Heatwave…Introduce youself.” “You talk like you know me already,” she spits back. He asks if she noticed him (after his pompous arrival). Her words drip with contempt: “Why no, you was acting so bashful I didn’t hardly know you was there.” And like that she’s got him in her web. He commands his minions to bring her to Chicago, which leads to the chirpy quintet, “Whizzin’ Away Along de Track.” Much as in Show Boat, the story loses steam in Chicago, and there’s some long patches without music. The Big Fight is the film’s 11 o’clock number, but even the joyous “Dat’s Our Man” (which frames the famous overture) is somewhat abbreviated here, as Preminger rushes the story along to Joe’s final confrontation with Carmen; a little singing—a little strangulation. Maybe on stage such passions make for great climaxes in opera, but here it’s just abrupt and discomforting. A little something to pull us back, perhaps, to view a wider perspective would’ve done it. But Otto doesn’t let us out of that janitor’s closet. End title.
The Cinemascope-touted production opened in New York on October 28, 1954 at the Rivoli Theater. That fall Times Square was throbbing with goodies: at the Royale a 19 year old British girl was making her Bway debut in a gentle spoof of 1920s British musicals, The Boy Friend—little knowing the heights to which she would soon rise. David Merrick was bringing his first musical in from Philly, Josh Logan’s massive production of Fanny, to join the other hot-ticket musicals: Pajama Game, Can-Can & Kismet—all headed for Hlwd, along with no less than 10 plays currently running on Bway, including The Caine Mutiny which already was on screen. Lloyd Nolan’s Queeg nightly battling Humphrey Bogart’s on screen. You could also slip into On the Waterfront at the Astor, Barefoot Contessa at the Capitol, or Sabrina at the Criterion. Over at the Paramount, A Star is Born was packing in the Judy fans, and Radio City was breaking records with White Christmas, starting momentum that would make it the #1 film on the year. Carmen Jones did well at first in the largest cities, but was only a modest performer in the long run. It’s a strange mash-up after all, and the decades have only added to its strangeness.
Next Up: Wonderful Town
Next Up: Wonderful Town