1954, Movies

Carmen Jones (1954, Otto Preminger)

This is a weird one: a film of a Broadway musical based upon Bizet’s Carmen, but which has only been adapted in terms of plot, not in terms of the music (really). Why is that weird? Well, an all black cast, set in North Carolina and Chicago in the ’40s, and they’re singing…French opera.

One the one hand, we can at least look at this as some kind of noble endeavour. It’s an all black cast in 1950s Hollywood. I know this is speaking from ignorance, but I don’t know of another movie cast like this from the time. The nobility of the endeavour is in the attempt to showcase talent that was getting utterly ignored, particularly Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey, who are both pretty excellent (relatively speaking).

But this is a flawed, flawed film, in many ways. 

For one thing, there’s the music itself, which is utterly foreign to the setting. As more than one critic has remarked, it’s super weird to be watching these people and then have them burst out into arias. It just doesn’t work. And there’s been no attempt to adapt the music into a blues idiom, which would have felt far more authentic.

Harry Belafonte’s voice has been dubbed out for the songs, presumably because he was too black sounding. Joe Adams didn’t sing at all, at least that’s my understanding, and someone sang for him too. Both singers sound very, very white, or at least “operatic” and once again there is great incongruity between the speaking and the singing.

And the dialogue doesn’t always seem authentic. It was written by white people, as far as I can tell, so that might be why this doesn’t feel authentic.

And the usual 1950s Hollywood film problems apply – sets and backdrops and lipsynching – though I will say that there’s more location shooting than normal, which is something.

I guess this is a notable film, for its casting in particular, but it’s giant mess.


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