Carmen Jones (1954): Otto Preminger’s All-Black Musical Starring Dorothy Dandridge

Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, a controversial all-black movie musical, was released 11 years after the successful all-black reworking of Georges Bizet’s opera by Oscar Hammerstein II had opened on Broadway.

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most beloved operas of all time, was composed in 1875, based on the 1845 Prosper Mérimée novella “Carmen” by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.

The screenplay by Harry Kleiner is based on the lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II, from the 1943 stage musical.

In this modern-day story, parachute factory worker Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) and her stalwart G.I. Joe (Harry Belafonte) are about to go to a flying school. Husky Miller (the Escamillo) is the prize-ring champ who captures the favor of Carmen after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go A.W.O.L.

Dorothy Dandridge excels as a flamboyant, passionate siren, who seduces a man from his duty, and after getting him into serious troubles, goes away with another lover. She turns in a tense and intense performance as a sexy, slinky, hip-swinging, cool and calculating temptress interested only in good time.

The simplistic narrative was criticized by some black intellectuals (James Baldwin among them) and for the parallels that the movie draws between the amoral gypsy and amoral black woman

Even so, this all-black musical drama also features good performances from Pearl Bailey, who delivers the song “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” in her own song, and Diahann Carroll and Broke Peters, who also do their own singing.

Not so the leads: Dandridge was dubbed by the young opera singer Marilyn Horne, Harry Belafonte by La Vern Hutcheson, and Joe Adams by Marvin Hayes.

Oscar Nominations:

Actress: Dorothy Dandridge Scoring of a Musical: Herschel Burke Gilbert

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

Dorothy Dandridge became the first black actress to be nominated for the lead Oscar. The winner, however, was Grace Kelly for the melodrama “The Country Girl.” It would take another 47 years for a black woman to win Best Actress, Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” (2001).

Adolphe Deutsch and Saul Chaplin won the Scoring Oscar for the popular MGM musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

Commercial Hit

Hugely successful at the box-office, Carmen Jones was made on a budget of less than $1 million, grossing close to $10 million at the box-office.

Carmen Jones was released in October 1954, one year and one month after Fox’s first CinemaScope feature, the Biblical epic The Robe.

Cultural Status
In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Cast

Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, voice dubbed by Marilyn Horne
Harry Belafonte as Joe, voice dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson
Pearl Bailey as Frankie
Olga James as Cindy Lou
Joe Adams as Husky Miller, singing voice dubbed by Marvin Hayes
Brock Peters as Sergeant Brown
Roy Glenn as Rum Daniels, singing voice dubbed by costar Brock Peters
Diahann Carroll as Myrt, voice dubbed by Bernice Peterson

Credits:

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger
Screenplay by Harry Kleiner, based on Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Georges Bizet
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Edited by Louis R. Loeffler
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date: October 28, 1954
Running time: 105 minutes
Budget: $800,000
Box office: $9.8 million