Monday, January 23, 2012

Carmen Jones (1954)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Dorothy Dandridge
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Herschel Burke Gilbert

Just a year after Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge first appeared together in Bright Road, which was Belafonte's first film appearance and Dandridge's first leading role, the two reunited in a highly ambitious film, Carmen Jones. The film was an adaptation of the 1943 Broadway musical of the same name, itself an adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen. The 1954 film, directed by the great Otto Preminger, featured an all African-American cast, and in addition to Belafonte and Dandridge also featured an early performance from Pearl Bailey.

Carmen Jones is a frustrating movie to watch. For everything in the film that is unique and brave, there is something equally insipid or hackneyed. The music of Bizet instantly feels relevant and alive in the more modern setting of the film, yet all of the electricity of the music evaporates the moment that singing begins. Not only are the lyrics severely lacking, but the leads of the film are overdubbed by more classically trained singers, and its impossible to focus on anything but the poor overdubbing during these scenes. Additionally, Preminger, known for his strong visuals - his Anatomy of a Murder is one of the most visually creative films of its time - completely misses the mark here. The film ranges from poorly lit interiors to oversaturated exteriors. Carmen Jones would have likely benefited from the black-and-white treatment, which might have given the film a more timeless quality.

Though Harry Belafonte is a legend, and speaking of him negatively is practically heresy, he was completely miscast in this film. Though he had won a Tony Award, Belafonte was largely new to acting at the time of Carmen Jones, and he is out of his weight class on this film. He delivers his lines with little conviction, and his character degrades into little more than a mealy, unthreatening prop. A stronger actor in the role could have electrified the film, but Belafonte shrinks into the background. Belafonte is a dignified, graceful man, and he's unconvincing as a jealous, angry, and broken man.

The highlight of the film is Dorothy Dandridge, who unlike Belafonte, completely shines in one of her first starring roles. I have heard quite a bit of hype surrounding Ms. Dandridge since the mid-1990's, but before Carmen Jones had not seen any films starring Dandridge. After watching this film, I am beginning to understand the respect that many hold for Dandridge, and am anxious to see her other films. She is full of energy, and completely commands each scene she is in from the very start, despite working with several actors who had no business appearing on screen with her. Due to her untimely death and a lack of bravery on the part of the studios in finding her suitable roles, Dandridge was never able to capitalize off of the promise she demonstrated in Carmen Jones, and thus this film offers the best opportunity to understand why so many hold Dorothy Dandridge in such high regard.

Though Carmen Jones is a severely flawed film, it is absolutely worth watching. Aside from the opportunity to watch Dorothy Dandridge at her finest hour, it is notable for its bravery during the final days of the Breen Code and its historical significance. The film could have been much, much more, but it is absolutely worth watching despite its flaws.

Remaining: 3141 films, 869 Oscars, 5404 nominations

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