Carmen Jones

Released:  1954

Cast:  Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Olga James, Joe Adams

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actress (Dorothy Dandridge), Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (Herschel Burke Gilbert)

SUMMARY:  During World War II, Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) works in a parachute factory in North Carolina, which is guarded by a number of soldiers, including Joe (Harry Belafonte).  Joe’s longtime girlfriend (now fiancé) Cindy Lou (Olga James) has just arrived in town; Joe has gotten a 24-hour pass, and the two intend to get married during that time.  However, when Carmen gets into a fight in the factory and is arrested, Joe is given the job of transporting her to the authorities.  Carmen is famed for her ability to seduce any man she wants, and has already set her sights on Joe.  The trip, which requires taking a military jeep to a different town, provides her with more opportunities to lure him away from Cindy Lou.  Carmen tries her best, but Joe is determined to do his duty, and get back to Cindy Lou, without giving in to Carmen.  On the trip, the jeep gets stuck in a river, so Carmen suggests that they walk to her nearby hometown, and stay at her grandmother’s house for the night.  Al the while, she has continued to work on Joe, and after she cooks and cares for him at the house, Joe finally gives in.  However, when he wakes up the next morning Carmen is gone:  she has left only a note stating that she loves him, but cannot go to jail.  Joe returns to his base, and is put in the stockade for letting Carmen get away.  He reunites with Cindy Lou, but when a present is delivered to Joe from Carmen, Cindy Lou realizes that he has fallen for the other woman, and leaves.  In the meantime, Carmen has gone to Louisiana and gotten a job in a nightclub.  She has sent word to Joe of her location, and so waits for him to show up every night.  Her friends notice that she has changed:  she isn’t interested in any other man, only the absent Joe.  She is even uninterested in famed boxer Husky Miller (Joe Adams), who actively pursues her and promises jewelry and fancy clothes.  Husky is due to fight in Chicago, and is determined to have Carmen go with him, so he tells his manager to do whatever it takes to get her on the train.  The manager gets to two of Carmen’s friends, Frankie (Pearl Bailey) and Myrt, and promises them the same wealth, if they can get Carmen to go to Chicago.  The women try to do so, but are unsuccessful.  That same night, Joe finally arrives at the nightclub and reunites with Carmen.  However, he informs her that he has to report to flight school in the morning, which greatly angers Carmen.  She comes on to his superior officer, also at the cub, to spite Joe; she is so successful at this that Joe beats the man until he is unconscious.  Both Joe and Carmen know that he will go to prison for a long time for this offense, so they decide to go to Chicago with the others.

In Chicago, the two rent a small room.  For several days they are happy together, but soon their forced closeness begins to wear on them:  Joe is afraid to leave the room, because he risks being caught by MPs (for hitting the officer and then going AWOL), and Carmen cannot stand to be cooped up in a tiny room for so long.  In addition, the two are running out of money with which to pay the rent and buy food.  One day, Carmen goes to the gym where Husky is training and asks Frankie for a loan.  However, Frankie tells her that in order to get any money, she will have to go through Husky.  When Carmen gets back to Joe, she has a bag of groceries and a new outfit.  Joe, knowing that she had no money or anything to sell, is suspicious, but Carmen refuses to reveal where she got the money.  After a fight, she leaves again, and goes back to the hotel where Husky and her friends are staying.  One evening, the women decide to tell each other’s fortunes:  Carmen gets the nine of spades, which she knows is a death omen.  Believing that she will die soon, Carmen throws caution to the wind, and takes up a wild lifestyle with Husky.  Soon, Cindy Lou also arrives in Chicago in search of Joe.  She knows that Carmen has been with him, so she first seeks out Carmen.  As the two are talking, Joe himself appears and threatens both Carmen and Husky, saying that Carmen is his girl, and will be with him or with nobody.  Cindy Lou tries to calm him down, but he shakes her off and ignores her.  He draws a knife on Husky, but before anything can happen the MPs arrive at the gym, and Carmen and Cindy Lou help Joe escape out the back door.  The time for Husky’s fight arrives, and Carmen and her friends are included in his entourage and given ringside seats.  Joe also attends the fight, but spends his time watching Carmen.  Husky knocks out his opponent in the second round, and in the ensuing victory parade out of the arena, Joe grabs Carmen and drags her into a small storage room.  There, he tries again to convince her to come back to him, but Carmen insists that their relationship is over.  Joe tells her that if she will not be with him, she will not be with anybody, and strangles her.  Seconds later, the MPs are summoned, and Joe is taken away.

MY TAKE:  First of all, you will probably recognize at least part of this music, most likely the song Carmen sings in the cafeteria at the beginning of the movie, and the song Husky Miller sings at the club (watch the trailer and you’ll hear).  It’s actually the opera Carmen, written by Georges Bizet, with lyrics (and story) by Oscar Hammerstein II, the guy who had many successes with first Lorenz Hart and then Richard Rodgers (including my favorite, The Sound of Music).  The reason you’ll probably recognize the song, at least the music?  It’s the main theme of The Bad News Bears.  For that reason, it was a little hard for me to take this movie seriously at first.  That, and the fact that Joe is played by Harry Belafonte, who is most famous for his song “Banana Boat Song (Day O)”.  For most of the movie, every time he came on screen I internally sang, “Day O/Me say Day O/Daylight come and me wan’ go home.”  Normally, I love musicals, but I had some problems with this one.  First of all, the music was written as an opera, not as a musical, and as such, the songs don’t the structure you would expect.  Most songs, even in musicals, have some sort of a verse and a chorus, which is repeated several times.  This is what becomes recognizable to people, and gives cadence to the song.  These songs don’t have that, and it makes it hard to really get into them.  The fact that the music was not written for these lyrics also means that the phrasing is weird, so it sometimes seems like the lyric rhymes don’t match up.  In addition, some of the lyrics are rather cheesy, which doesn’t help.  I was disappointed in Hammerstein.  On several occasions, he uses vernacular, like saying “de” instead of “the”; the characters don’t talk like this when they’re just speaking, and I just have trouble reconciling poor pronunciation with an operatic voice.  It also came across to me as vaguely stereotypical, as though Hammerstein was writing how he thought black people spoke.  In reality, all of the characters are very well-spoken, so it just really didn’t mesh.  My other problem with this movie is a rather snobbish one:  neither one of the lead actors actually sang their parts.  Both Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge were singers, and were actually known for their singing, but neither had the range to sing an operatic part like the movie demanded.  They were both dubbed, and in the case of Dorothy Dandridge’s voice double, Marilyn Horne, a lot of work went into the process — Horne actually studied how Dandridge spoke and sang, so that she could make the voice match the personality.  However, I don’t see the point in (nor do I like) casting a musical with people who can’t sing.  There are enough movies for actors who don’t sing — let the musicals show off those who can.  It just seems completely counterproductive to me, to cast people that will have to have their voices dubbed.  Yes, you get the name, but you also get twice the work (and fees, probably).  Personally, I would be more impressed with a musical that featured unknown virtuosos than one with big stars who were dubbed.  Okay, I’m off my soapbox now.  As for the story of the movie, I was lukewarm about it.  I think Joe’s an idiot, first for leaving Cindy Lou for the trampy Carmen, then for getting so worked up about her that he goes and strangles her.  Possessive much?  He really should have known better.  Also, I had trouble believing that Husky Miller was a heavyweight fighter.  He doesn’t look or box like one — heavyweights are huge, and they spend a lot of time dancing and only a little punching (the power behind the punching means you don’t want to incur a lot of them).  Miller is about the same size as everybody else, and he and his opponent are constantly throwing punches during their fight.  Clearly not a heavyweight.

Fun fact:  Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actress.  She lost to Grace Kelly.

RATING:  Not my favorite.


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