The music to Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” unmistakably draws from Spanish musical traditions so the concept of keeping the music and transplanting the story to the black America is a mismatch. Yet when the 1948 stage musical was translated into a 1954 musical film, the movie provided Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) a chance to play a female lead, earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Otto Preminger directed “Carmen Jones,” using the libretto of Oscar Hammerstein II and a few of his own ideas. Preminger would also direct Dandridge opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1959 “Porgy and Bess.” Because of the difficulty of both scores, Dandridge’s voice was dubbed in both films.
Set in World War II, the story begins with the innocent Cindy Lou (Olga James) arriving at a parachute factory in North Carolina. She’s looking for her boyfriend, Joe (Harry Belafonte with his singing voiced dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson). The soldiers are stationed and training in the same closed area where the factory is.
One of the parachute workers, Carmen (Dandridge with her singing dubbed by Marilyn Horne) is clearly attracted to Joe, but he ignores her until his sergeant orders him to take her to the authorities in another town for fighting with co-worker. Carmen seduces Joe and then escapes to avoid jail time.
Joe ends up locked up for allowing her to escape and Cindy Lou leaves him. Carmen waits for his release while working at a Louisiana nightclub where she catches the eye of a big-time boxer, Husky Miller. When Joe finally shows up, Carmen, angered when he learns he must report to fight school, decides to leave with Joe’s sergeant. Joe and the sergeant fight. Although Joe beats his superior up, he knows he’s in real trouble now and flees with Carmen to Chicago.
In Chicago, Joe and Carmen are out of money and Carmen asks Husky for some money. When Joe demands to know where she got the money for groceries, Carmen leaves Joe for Husky’s hotel suite.
Carmen has ruined Joe’s life, but in desperation, he finds her at one of Husky’s fights and kills her only to be arrested for being AWOL.
Besides Dandridge and Belafonte, the cast includes Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters (Tom Robinson in the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Joseph Sisko in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”),a pre-“Julia” Diahann Carroll.
Dandridge became the first African American featured on the cover of Life magazine (November 1954) as a result of this movie. Under the advice of Preminger, she declined featured roles in other films, holding out for leads. She later regretted that decision.
Halle Berry played Dandridge in the 1999 HBO biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” and Berry dedicated her Best Actress Oscar win for the 2001 “Monster’s Ball” to Dandridge as well as Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll.
The idea of bringing Carmen’s story into an American black community was revisited more recently. Beyoncé Knowles starred in an updated “Carmen”: “Carmen: A Hip Hopera.” Produced by MTV and directed by Robert Townsend, the movie involves an aspiring actress, Carmen Brown (Knowles), and her relationship with a police officer, Sgt. Derek Hill (Mekhi Phifer). The acting is stiff and the movie itself, forgettable.
Unless you are Knowles or Phifer’s biggest fan, stick with “Carmen Jones” and imagine what Dorothy Dandridge could have done if she had had the opportunities. “Carmen Jones” and “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” are available to stream on Amazon Video.