Once upon a time – this is a true story – there was a poor old woman who loved opera to death, and who probably was not rich enough to afford herself the luxury of a whole production. Consequently, throughout her entire old ladyhood, the women who ushered saw her arrive just before the curtain went up on the final act; she took advantage of the seats that were left empty, and explained in embarrassment, “I come for the death.”
– Catherine Clément (1)

The power of a pop culture myth can be measured, perhaps, by the number of ways it has been reinvented by cinema. Carmen – the free-spirited and seductive gypsy who dies rather than submit to a possessive lover – was invented by the French author Prosper Mérimée in a 1845 novella, and immortalised by Georges Bizet in an opera 30 years later. On film, she has appeared in every genre and every decade since the silent days. Geraldine Farrar, Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Raquel Meller, Dolores del Rio, Imperio Argentina, Viviane Romance, Rita Hayworth, Sara Montiel, Tina Aumont, Maruschka Detmers, Julia Migenes and Paz Vega have all played her, to varying artistic and ideological ends.

Some of these interpretations are too bizarre to go unmentioned. In Carmen la de Triana (Florián Rey, 1938) – an infamous co-production between Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany – a reformed gypsy kneels in prayer to the Madonna, as her soldier lover marches off to do his duty for the nation. In the soft-porn Carmen, Baby (Radley Metzger, 1967) her dance of seduction involves an intimate liaison with a gallon-size bottle. In the bank robbery gone wrong of Prénom Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983) she and her lover copulate energetically on the floor, while a cleaning lady impassively mops up the blood. In the biographical fantasy Callas Forever (Franco Zeffirelli, 2002), she becomes part of a film-within-a-film for the retired diva’s ill-fated comeback. Like the gypsy herself, the uses (and misuses) of Carmen defy all boundaries and transcend all limits.

Yet none of these films has had the impact of Carmen Jones (1954), the all-black musical version directed by Otto Preminger. The action is relocated from 19th century Seville to the American Deep South during World War II. Instead of working in a cigarette factory, Carmen makes parachutes to help the war effort. Her soldier boyfriend Joe (renamed from José in the original) has ambitions to become a fighter pilot. His rival, the bullfighter Escamillo, is now a boxer called Husky Miller, who lures Carmen to Chicago with jewels and fancy clothes. The plot, however, is the same. Joe may desert the army for Carmen, but she will not give up her freedom for him. Her independence, and his jealousy, will lead both lovers to their death.

In his autobiography, Preminger recalls: “I had decided to make a dramatic film with music rather than a conventional film musical” (2). Just as well, perhaps, because as a musical Carmen Jones is largely a failure. The film was based on a 1943 Broadway revue by Oscar Hammerstein II, who adapted Bizet’s melodies to the singing style of his African-American cast. Preminger’s perverse decision was to cast two black nightclub soloists in the lead roles – Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, Harry Belafonte as Joe – but then hire white opera singers to dub their musical numbers. (Marilyn Horne, the 18-year-old voice student who dubbed Dandridge, would become a famous stage Carmen in her own right.)

Musically, the result is awkward and inauthentic. Only one black singer is allowed a solo of her own – Pearl Bailey with “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” – and her song, as she sings it, springs briefly but gloriously to life. Outside this one scene, the vocal compromise deadens both the performers and the score. “Throughout the rest of Carmen Jones”, writes Chris Fujiwara, “the absence of jazz, blues, gospel, or contemporary popular music styles accentuates the artificiality of the film. Bizet’s music becomes an element of stylization, a metaphor, a foreign idiom.” (3) In trying to be both opera and all-black musical, Carmen Jones succeeds as neither.

It may be that adapting the story to an all-black cast was, in itself, problematic. Gone is the crucial division between the nomadic gypsies and the white Spaniards, a schism that persists in Spain to this day. As David Schroeder points out:

Instead of being a white oppressor (the group Don José belongs to in the opera), Joe, who wishes to get ahead in aviation, represents a church-going element of the African American community which not only has high moral standards but aspires to be like whites. Carmen represents a very different kind of black culture, one which many whites fear since it strikes them as hovering at the edge of crime, loose morals, and perhaps even primitivism. (4)

This notion of “primitivism” may account for the relative sexual frankness of Carmen Jones. In her initial seduction scene, Dandridge throws herself at Belafonte with a blatant carnality that no white actress would have dared in 1954. In his solo “’Dis Flower” – when a shirtless Belafonte sings of his love for Carmen – the camera runs languidly over his naked, gleaming torso. Such homoerotic display had no precedent in the ’50s, outside of an Italian peplum with Steve Reeves. Moments like these bear out James Baldwin’s complaint about the film’s “sterile and distressing eroticism” by which “Negroes are associated in the public mind with sex” (5).

At the same time, this central divide within African-American culture – between “respectable” blacks, who emulate white middle-class values, and those “rebel” blacks who do not – gives Carmen Jones a force and fascination that have little, if anything, to do with Bizet’s music or Belafonte’s pecs. Although it fails as a musical, Carmen Jones is one of the defining film melodramas of the 50s. The tension between freedom and conformity, between social acceptability and erotic desire, is mapped out as poignantly here as in any of the films of Douglas Sirk. (It’s no accident that one of the greatest of these, All That Heaven Allows (1955), would be remade by Todd Haynes in 2002 as Far From Heaven, with a black male protagonist.)

The questions implicit in Preminger’s film – “How white can we be?” and “How white do we want to be?” – point to the choices faced by the black mother and daughter in Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Indeed, Joe’s demure childhood sweetheart, Cindy Lou – with her white gloves and her buttoned-up blue gown – looks like an eerie African-American copy of Sandra Dee. This same dilemma confronts Yvonne De Carlo as the Southern belle in Raoul Walsh’s brilliant and underrated Band of Angels (1957). Finding out that she has mixed blood, De Carlo falls from the pinnacle of white society, to be sold as a slave to the randy Clark Gable. Neither a black nor a white identity will ever give her the freedom she craves.

Freedom – whether sexual, emotional or geographic – is everything to Carmen. “The freedom to travel, faremen in the Rom dialect, is the freedom to exist”, says Catherine Clément. “A sedentary nomad no longer exists, and Carmen fights for the right to live.” (6) Dandridge – in her low-cut flesh-pink gown, iridescent amid the drab pastels of the factory canteen – embodies this sensual freedom in a way no African-American actor had ever dared before. (Her only precedent, Josephine Baker, made her films exclusively in France.) It was this, and not her dubbed vocals, which put Dandridge on the cover of Life magazine and made her the first person of colour to be nominated for an Academy Award in a leading role.

Like no other screen Carmen before or since, Dandridge is a walking challenge to the prevailing ideology that surrounds her – with its deadening emphasis on respectability and repression, on settling down and moving up. She is a subversive in the classic Carmen mould, as Camille Paglia explains:

Carmen is structured very much like Euripides’ Bacchae. The working-class gypsy is, like the populist god Dionysus, and anarchic alien associated with music, dance, and the pleasure principle. Both Carmen and Dionysus lure a representative of the social order away into the archetypal forest. (7)

Her death would seem to be inevitable, if the values of the 1950s are to be preserved, but Carmen Jones works hard to subvert the misogyny implicit in this set-up. Her drive for freedom at all costs is what gives the film its power, and it plays out spatially in Preminger’s inspired use of CinemaScope. “The dislike of confinement expressed by Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen cries out for the wide screen”, writes Chris Fujiwara, “and Preminger obliges her with a generous and elastic mise-en-scene, staging scenes as unfurling ribbons of movement, gesture and reaction” (8).

The achievement of Preminger and Dandridge is not to save Carmenfrom death. That would betray the story beyond all recognition (in a way that Florián Rey’s Nazi franquista version, in fact, does). Rather, it allows her to take death and turn it into a triumph – a cry of defiance, not one of defeat. “Dying because you must die, you might as well choose the stakes, and the moment”, says Catherine Clément. “Carmen is the sombre and revolutionary proclamation of a woman who chooses to die before a man decides it for her.” (9)

In some ironic but essential way, Dandridge – like any great Carmen on stage or on screen – seems to survive her own death. In the same way, Carmen Jones survives its director’s own best efforts to stifle his gifted singers and butcher his melodious score. Its failure is massive, but far less so than its success.

ENDNOTES

1. Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing, Virago Press, London, 1989, p. 49.
2. Otto Preminger, Preminger – An Autobiography, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1977, p. 133.
3. Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Faber and Faber, New York, 2008, p. 171.
4. David Schroeder, Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure – The Operatic Impulse on Film, Continuum Books, New York and London, 2002, p. 251.
5. Baldwin quoted in Fujiwara, p. 170.
6. Clément, p. 50.
7. Camille Paglia, “Gypsy Tigress: Carmen”, Vamps and Tramps, Penguin, London, p. 310.
8. Fujiwara, p. 173.
9. Clément, p. 53.

Carmen Jones (1954 USA 105 mins)

Prod Co: Carlyle Productions/Twentieth Century-Fox Prod, Dir: Otto Preminger Scr: Harry Kleiner, based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II, the opera Carmen by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée Phot: Sam Leavitt Ed: Louis R. Loeffler Prod Des: Edward L. Ilou Mus: Georges Bizet Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II Mus Dir: Herschel Burke Gilbert

Cast: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Olga James, Joe Adams, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll

About The Author

A writer, lecturer and critic, David Melville teaches Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of nine, he heard Maria Callas sing Carmen and has not been the same since.