Eye For Film >> Movies >> Carmen Jones (1954) Film Review
"When I love you, dat's the end of you," factory worker Carmen proclaims to corporal Joe, in this reworking of Bizet's Carmen, and never a truer word was spoken. Oscar Hammerstein's version sees a relocation of the original opera to an American wartime setting. Add to that an all-black American cast, a few tweaks to the narrative and some brand new lyrics and you have Carmen Jones, a musical that could have been one of the best adaptations of all time. But it falls short of the mark, way short.
All the ingredients are present for a masterpiece: an outstanding score by a musical genius, a narrative filled with love, passion and uncontrollable jealousy, and talented, popular actors. However, somehow the power and heat just aren't there. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then Carmen Jones seems half-baked.
The tale itself is engaging. Free-spirited Carmen, played by a sublime Dorothy Dandridge, seduces boy-next-door soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte) away from his fiancée and they run away to Chicago. However, once there, Carmen's eye starts to rove and falls on professional boxer Husky Miller who becomes the new object of her affection.
Joe is eaten up by passion for Carmen and an uncontrollable jealousy, which has tragic consequences. The power of the Spanish version comes somewhat from the setting - the fire and heat of Spain, the passion of bullfighting and the gypsy tradition that Carmen hails from. However, in Hammerstein's adaptation this passion just doesn't translate, the American Deep South is slower and more lazy than it is passionate and heated, there is no "gypsy tradition" and although boxing is a charged sport, it is no substitute for bullfighting.
Harry Belafonte successfully portrays Joe in an Othello-esque vein, charting his demise from upstanding American soldier to love-crazed killer with aplomb. But it is Dandridge with her sultry langour and sensual fire that steals the show. It is a shame, however, that both actors, known to have good singing voices, had to be dubbed, as this creates an uncomfortable jarring in the narrative that prevents you from being able to wholly believe in and relate to the characters.
And it is on consideration of the singing that more problems with the film arise. The lyrics are questionable to say the least. Hearing a character sing "I 'is' your Joe" is uncomfortable to begin with, but sung in an operatic tenor? It's just plain wrong. On top of that, littering the songs with "dis'es", "dat's" and "dem's" in an attempt to get across the fact that it is set in the American south is cringeworthy. If the aim is to create a convincing setting through dialect, it is rendered useless because the characters are singing opera in the first place. Unfortunately no amount of colloquialisms will make the amalgam of opera and the Deep South seem believable.
Preminger's film of Carmen Jones could have been a great. For its status as one of the first all-black films ever made and its efforts to bring opera to the American masses it should be applauded. However, regardless of the quality of the acting and the power of the narrative themes, the music (and by that I mean the lyrics and the dubbing) let it down, and for a musical, that just won't do. Overall it was disappointing, but if you have a rainy day, fancy some glorious Technicolor and aren't put off by appalling accents you could do worse than watch it, if only to see Dorothy Dandridge light up the screen.Reviewed on: 25 Mar 2004