This is one of those movies that you may end up wanting to like more than you actually do. The idea — updating Georges Bizet’s Carmen with new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and an all-black cast — is certainly intriguing and even daring, though it’s perhaps not the “breakthrough” some modern writers would like to think it is.
While Preminger’s 1954 film is something of a landmark, it was hardly the first effort to adapt a classic to a black milieu (Orson Welles did it onstage in the ’30s with his so-called “Voodoo Macbeth“), nor was it the first all-black movie (films including Hallelujah!, The Green Pastures, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather got there first in mainstream cinema). It is perhaps the most ambitious attempt of its kind, up that time.
And as a concept, the film almost works. Moving the action to a modern-day American South is a more or less workable step, and re-monkeying the opera’s lyrics to suit the setting is not unreasonable. Unfortunately, not all of the lyrics are particularly inspired, and turning the famous “Toreador Song” into “Stand Up and Fight” was plainly a bad idea. The tune has been parodied so often (“The Tale of a Shirt” in The Cocoanuts, for example) that it’s almost automatically comical. Worse, the script for Carmen Jones relies too much on dialogue to carry the story, and the injection of a song — especially this one — is jarring.
That said, there are numerous great moments in the film and a standout performance from the legendary Dorothy Dandridge (even if her vocals are dubbed by Marilyn Horne). The overdubbing of operatic voices damages the film somewhat, though both Dandridge and (especially) Belafonte do a good job of appearing as though they’re actually singing, rather than merely lip-synching. Still, it’s not coincidental that the best performance in the film comes from Pearl Bailey, who was allowed to do her own singing.
Perhaps a director more in tune with musicals — say Rouben Mamoulian or Vincente Minnelli — could have done a better job smoothing over the rougher edges of the movie than did the generally flat-footed Preminger, but that’s hard to say. The wide-screen Cinemascope format that the film was shot in had only been in use for about a year at the time, and the “experts” had a list of all sorts of things they claimed couldn’t be done with the format (all of which were ultimately proved to be doable). Unfortunately, the studios tended to stand by their judgment.
The results are certainly flawed, but rarely less than fascinating — and any movie that boasts Madame Sul-te-wan in its cast has something going for it. See for yourself when hosts Jerry Crouch and John Bridges present the film at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, in Lord Auditorium at Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke