Carmen Jones (Blu-ray Review)13 Jan, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll.
There had been, of course, King Vidor’s 1929 all-black Hallelujah! plus those two star-heavy musicals from 1943: Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather — all still with their moments (or more) when you see them today. But 1954’s Carmen Jones was something else: Color, CinemaScope (at almost exactly the one-year anniversary of the form’s introduction), Bizet melodies, Oscar Hammerstein lyrics and a sexy cast headed by a tragic actress who might have been as big a star as anyone had she come along a decade or two later. Oh, and Harry Belafonte, too, though the monster career breakout spurred by his 1956 Calypso album was still a couple years away.
Having by coincidence just seen Centennial Summer for the first time, I’m not exactly shaken by my long conviction that director Otto Preminger wasn’t exactly to musicals born; the blocking and camera movements in that one are notable, but the actors are a bit off-pitch and the women’s makeup mighty tart-ish for 1876 Philadelphia. Carmen, though, was The Otto’s first widescreen movie — and like Cukor, Kazan, Nick Ray and Anthony Mann, he displayed a natural affinity with the form that either directors George Stevens or Fritz Lang (or maybe both) said was most suited to photographing boa constrictors. Visually (including lead Dorothy Dandridge’s costuming) the movie rocks, though rock music was a year away from catching on with the masses, and Bizet wasn’t exactly Chuck Berry or Fats Domino.
Set in its early going on an army base where the femme civilian employees making parachutes sometimes get a little frisky and certainly confrontational with each other, CJ opens with the arrival by bus of a sweet young thing (Olga James, who doesn’t look like a jazz wife but was later married in real life to Cannonball Adderley until his death). She is sweet but unable to compete with what is coming down. Dandridge’s Carmen gets into a scuffle, must be transported The Last Detail style to a facility for her incarceration and proceeds to one-up Belafonte (assigned the task) on the way to their destination. In other words, he really takes his eye off the ball, and the movie hasn’t been on screen too long before you figure that one way or another this guy is going to lose a stripe. At minimum.
You weren’t going to see anyone voice-dub the great Pearl Bailey here, honey, but Marilyn Horne and others supply assists to other cast members — Belafonte amazingly included (though, yeah, this is an opera of sorts, necessitating a uptake in “pipes” intensity). Unfortunately for the pacing, which only some high-grade blocking keep from becoming too langorious, the two best numbers come early in the film. The story’s early and then later sections are a showcase for some of the more ubiquitous African-American character actors of the period, including Brock Peters (eight years pre-To Kill a Mockingbird), Roy E. Glenn and, of all people, Nick Stewart from the TV incarnation of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (he played “Lightnin’”). There’s one bare-chested shot of Belafonte that shows he must have been keen on the weights even before he entered his open-shirt Day-O stage — though in the concluding scenes, when his character has gone to seed, it’s notable to see how diminished in stature he becomes simply by Preminger having decked him out in a hat.
The movie’s great claim to fame is for having given Dandridge her best screen showcase, and she became the first African-American (after Hattie McDaniel’s Gone With the Wind supporting win) to earn an Oscar nomination in a lead performer category (Halle Berry later won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing her in 1999’s HBO drama Introducing Dorothy Dandridge). CJ is real glamour stuff for one of screendom’s most unrealized potential superstars. Without question, the glamour shot of her on historian Donald Bogle’s definitive Dandridge bio has made for the single most striking jacket of any book I have ever owned.
Sandwiched between Preminger’s small-screen Code-busters The Moon Is Blue and The Man With the Golden Arm, this is really the first movie from the filmmaker’s second and final period, which mostly meant widescreen and color more often than not — with those greatest-of-great Saul Bass title credits (Carmen was his first screen assignment). Fox Video and Twilight Time have both done marvelous Blu-ray tinkering to make Fox DeLuxe Color look splendid in ways that the labor-intensive work by others on WarnerColor and MGM Metrocolor have never been able to do. CJ cinematographer Sam Leavitt obviously took to CinemaScope in a blink; he shot 1954’s A Star Is Born as well.