Carmen Jones (1954)
September 18, 2020 | by Shannon
Carmen Jones (1954) made Dorothy Dandridge a star.
Based on the 1943 stage musical, with hauntingly beautiful lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and set to the music of Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen, it took the daring of director Otto Preminger to make the play into a film: Carmen Jones would be the first musical film with a completely African American cast since 1943, and the first ever filmed in color. Preminger would face opposition from other Hollywood power players who feared such a risky film was destined to lose money. But despite its meager budget, Carmen Jones proved a critical and box office success. And the biggest reason why Carmen Jones succeeded was Preminger’s leading lady, Dorothy Dandridge.
From Career High to Career Low
Dorothy’s performance would earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making her the first African American to achieve the honor.
But the whirlwind megastardom and prestige Dottie achieved with Carmen Jones would be short lived as filmmakers struggled to figure out just what to do with this woman whose beauty and talent demanded follow up leading roles that the studios just weren’t willing to give her. 1950s Hollywood would stifle Dorothy Dandridge’s success. It seemed the world was ready for a beautiful, African American leading lady, but only to a point.
If you missed Carmen Jones on Turner Classic Movies last week, you can rent or purchase the film here [aff. link].
To the plot!
The film is set in WWII era North Carolina. Dorothy is Carmen Jones, a sensual beauty who works in the local parachute factory. And as my girl Lana Turner would say, Carmen likes the boys, and the boys like Carmen. !!!!!!
Carmen can quite literally have her pick of any man who crosses her path. Any man that is, except Joe (Harry Belafonte), a handsome corporal on base preparing to leave for flight school.
Despite Carmen’s overt interest and come-ons, Joe remains true to his sweet fiancée Cindy Lou (Olga James), who he plans to marry during a 24-hour pass.
Joe’s refusal of Carmen only makes her more determined to get him. And we know that soon, Joe will succumb to her advances. We also know that after Carmen makes Joe hers, she won’t remain interested long. As Carmen warns in the film’s electric opening number—set to Bizet’s Habanera
“If I chase you then you’ll get caught. And once I got you, I go my way.”
Dorothy sings Dat’s Love, the electric opening number in Carmen Jones (1954). To say her performance here is flawless would be an understatement. Take a minute to watch. I guarantee Dottie’s performance will make you an immediate fan! If you ask me, this number alone should have won her the Oscar!
Carmen Seduces Joe
Joe’s plans to marry Cindy Lou are first thwarted when Carmen gets into a knock down, drag out, fight with a coworker, destroying “government property” in the process. Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters) revokes Joe’s pass, and orders him to take Carmen to civilian jail in far away Masonville.
You’ve probably guessed that this one-on-one time with Carmen means Joe is a goner…
Carmen succeeds in seducing Joe as they pass through her hometown, and, true to her musical warning, leaves him the next morning. Joe returns to base, and is then sentenced to time in the stockade for allowing his prisoner to escape.
But it seems that neither Carmen or Joe can forget about the other, and Carmen sends Joe her signature red rose while he’s serving time. Of course, the rose arrives during a visit with Cindy Lou, who’s forgiven Joe his indiscretion and come to see him at the stockade. But the rose seals the deal for Joe: there’s no question that he will pursue Carmen over Cindy Lou.
Meanwhile, Carmen tells her good friends Frankie (Pearl Bailey) and Myrt (Diahann Carroll) that she’s in love with Joe, and even turns down the advances of wealthy prize fighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams). It’s not in Carmen’s nature to two-time, and she tells Frankie that Husky’s “just one man too late” before refusing Husky’s offer to go to Chicago with him. Carmen will wait for Joe.
Off to Chicago
When Joe does get out of the stockade, he meets up with Carmen at a local club. It’s not the reunion Carmen planned on however, as Joe informs her that he’s leaving for flight school, and they’ll have to wait before they can be together for good. As Carmen expresses her anger and disappointment over this turn of events, Sergeant Brown joins them, and begins making a pass at Carmen while belittling Joe. The two men get into a fight, and Joe knocks Brown out. Now Joe will have to spend years in military prison. That is, unless he can escape before he’s caught. Carmen convinces Joe to run away with her to Chicago—she’s still got the ticket from Husky Miller—and the two successfully make it to the Windy City.
Joe Gets Needy, Carmen Gets Restless
But once in Chicago, their happiness is short-lived. The military policy are hot on Joe’s trail, so he can’t leave the crumby room he and Carmen have rented. And Carmen, never one to do well when her freedom is stifled, begins to sour on the relationship as Joe becomes more and more needy and obsessed with her. When Joe accuses Carmen of being unfaithful after she returns to their room with more groceries than he believes she had money for, it’s the last straw: Carmen decides to go have fun with Frankie and Myrt, who are also in Chicago with Husky Miller and his crowd.
Carmen meets up with her friends at a party, and her outlook on life—to live each day to the fullest—becomes even more exaggerated when Frankie pulls the 9 of spades, the death card, as she reads Carmen her fortune. Right then and there, Carmen decides she’s through with Joe, and begins a romance with Husky Miller.
Joe can’t take it, and confronts Carmen the next day while she’s with Husky at his training gym. Joe tells Carmen that if he can’t have her, no one can, and he gets into a losing fight with Husky just as the military police enter the building. Even though she no longer wants to be with Joe, Carmen helps him escape.
The End of Carmen and Joe
Joe still can’t accept the end of their relationship, and follows Carmen to Husky’s big fight. After Husky’s triumphant victory, he and Carmen get separated in the crowd of fans at the stadium, and Joe snatches Carmen away, forcing her into a broom closet amidst all the pandemonium.
Joe pleads with her once more to take him back, but Carmen won’t lie about her feelings. She turns him down flat. Once more, Joe tells Carmen that if he can’t have her, no one can—he’d kill her before letting her be with another man. Carmen confidently challenges Joe’s threat, and begins to walk out of the closet.
But now it’s Joe’s turn to make good on his words. He takes Carmen by the neck, and strangles her to death. A maintenance man witnesses the scene, and informs the military police, who are never far away. Now Joe will die for his crime. Their mutually destructive love is the end of both Carmen and Joe.
And that’s the end of the film.
Otto Preminger Takes a Risk
The 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones had a lasting impact on Otto Preminger. For nearly a decade, Preminger, the respected director of such classic films as Laura (1944) and later, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), remained intrigued by what he saw on stage, and wished to tackle the unique challenges of making Carmen Jones into a film. In his autobiography [aff. link], Preminger would inaccurately call the stage production of Carmen Jones a “revue,” with
“A black cast [that] performed skits which were loosely based on the opera Carmen. The score by Bizet was simplified and changed so that the performers who had no operatic training could sing it.”
While the play actually wasn’t a revue, and it was sang as an opera, Preminger’s memory of what he saw on stage is perhaps indicative of how unique he felt his film version would be:
“I was fascinated by the idea of transposing the story of Carmen into present-day American life with an all black cast…Except for the lyrics, we did not use the text of Hammerstein’s revue or the libretto of the original opera…but went back to the original story……I had decided to make a dramatic film with music rather than a conventional film musical.”
Making it Happen
With his vision firmly in place, Preminger went about to find a studio that would finance the film. But it wasn’t easy. As Harry Belafonte would remember in his autobiography [aff. link],
“…Preminger was taking on a considerable challenge…In Hollywood, all-black-cast movies were viewed as sure money losers, after a brief vogue for them in 1943 with Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both of which had earned praise but no profits. Preminger, one very scrappy guy, was raring to prove that wisdom wrong.”
Meager Budget, Thoughtful Preparation
It was ultimately Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox who shared Preminger’s enthusiasm for the project. Though Zanuck’s support was the ultimate irony—Preminger had just bought himself out of his contract at Fox for $150,000—it was Zanuck alone who agreed to finance Carmen Jones, with Preminger as independent producer and director.
After much stalling from Fox’s vice-president in New York, Otto Preminger was finally allotted $750,000 to make the film. In Preminger’s own words, this was a “almost impossibly low budget for a musical.” But it was the only financing offer he could get, and so Otto accepted.
In preparation for Carmen Jones, Preminger would direct an opera for the New York City Opera, Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Sensitive to issues of race, and realizing that his film could have a lasting influence on society’s perception of African Americans, Preminger also sent the script to then-NAACP president Walter White, hoping to get his seal of approval, or suggested changes, before proceeding with the picture. As Otto would write in a memo to Darryl Zanuck, while Walter White indicated that he generally opposed films with completely white or completely black casts,
“because their [the NAACP] fight is for integration as opposed to segregation in any form, he likes this particular script very much and has no objection to any part of it.”
With White’s blessing on the script, Preminger set out to cast his groundbreaking film.
A Talented Cast
The African American film and theater communities buzzed with excited anticipation over the casting of Carmen Jones. As Brock Peters, who would earn the role of Sergeant Brown in the film, shared
“Film to a black performer back then seemed a long way away—the very thought of Hollywood was so remote, and so unattainable for black youngsters. We all felt we needed some kind of magic to make happen.”
To these talented and underutilized performers, Carmen Jones seemed to be a bit of that magic they’d been waiting for.
Fresh from his success and Tony award for John Murray’s Almanac, the handsome Harry Belafonte was a shoe-in for the role of Joe, Carmen’s tortured love. Popular Broadway actress and singer Pearl Bailey was easily cast as Carmen’s best friend Frankie, with newcomer Diahann Carroll wining the role of Carmen’s other friend, Myrt.
Former WWII Tuskegee Airman Joe Adams, who, ignoring the naysayers, successfully worked his way up from a job as a Hollywood truck driver to become one of LA’s most popular disk jockeys—Adams would also later become the manager behind Ray Charles’ success, right up until Charles’ death in 2004—was cast as Husky Miller. And Brock Peters, today best known for his stellar performance as Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), was cast as the mischievous Sergeant Brown. The operatically trained Peters would also lend his singing voice to Roy Glenn, who played one of Husky’s sidekicks in the film.
The only two lead roles Preminger seemed to have difficulty casting were Cindy Lou, Joe’s sweet, good-girl fiancée, and the title character, Carmen Jones. Though Dorothy Dandridge was determined to win the role of Carmen, Dottie, at this point in her career established as a sophisticated and successful nightclub singer, was shocked to discover she wasn’t even being considered for the part.
Dorothy arranged a meeting with Preminger to convince him she should play Carmen. But Dottie, dressed to the nines in a conservative outfit, complete with gloves and a Peter Pan collar, was told by Preminger that though he would consider her for the role of Cindy Lou, Carmen was out of the question. As Dorothy shared in her autobiography [aff. link], Preminger bluntly stated that,
“You have a veneer, my dear. You look the sophisticate…I’ve even seen you walking down Fifth Avenue, with a red coat flying. When I saw you I thought, ‘How lovely, a model, a beautiful butterfly…but not Carmen’…”
Dorothy left the meeting frustrated and disappointed, with an appointment to come back and test for Cindy Lou.
It took the honesty of her sister Vivian for Dottie to get her game plan together. Vivian told Dottie that Preminger probably could only envision her as Cindy Lou
“Because of the way you look….He couldn’t imagine you, with the way you probably talked to him and the way you went and sat down with this—THIS dress like a schoolteacher’s. Or like you’re going to church or something…”
What Vivian Dandridge was telling her sister was that she needed to go back to her next meeting with Preminger and be sexy.
The suggestion embarrassed the always very ladylike Dorothy, but she knew Vivian was right. So the Dandridge women united and got to work!
The Dandridge Women Unite!
Mother Ruby taught Dorothy how to swing her hips when she walked, while Vivian suggested that she try to create a “trollopy look.” Dottie perfected the hip swinging walk, and hurried over to Max Factor’s studios, where she put on heavy lipstick, found a disheveled wig, an off the shoulder top, and a provocative skirt.
And then just before her next meeting with Preminger, Dottie added the final touch to her Carmen Jones character:
“I needed one thing more: a tired look as if I had worn out a bed. I went to the gym and deliberately tired myself before going to see him.
As a final bit of staging I arrived a little late…I presented him with the most startling switch of personality he might ever have seen.”
And it did the trick, for as soon as Preminger saw Dottie in her getup, he exclaimed,
“‘My God, it’s Carmen!’”
That day Preminger ordered a test for Dorothy as Carmen, not Cindy Lou. But the test seemed hardly necessary. The role was Dorothy’s.
It’s hard to believe after viewing Dorothy’s seemingly effortlessly sensual performance in the film, but after her casting as Carmen Jones was announced, many in the industry were surprised that the elegant Dorothy Dandridge had won such a sexy role. Like Preminger, with his initial reaction to Dorothy in her “schoolteacher” dress, many believed Dorothy incapable of projecting such overt sexuality. Phoebe Brand, an instructor from Dottie’s years at the Actor’s Lab, would go so far as to say
“Dorothy was beautiful, startling so, but very fragile….We were surprised when she was cast as Carmen: who would have thought of casting her that way?”
Screen Image vs. Reality
Cast member Olga James would even observe during the filming of Carmen Jones that the sexy image Dottie projected so expertly in the film truly was acting:
“Looking like she did was a sensual thing in itself. But the kinds of things that she did as the character Carmen, I always thought was acting, which makes the acting all the more remarkable, because I don’t think that THAT was her personality from what I observed. I don’t think that innately was her personality.”
In fact, the sensuality of Carmen Jones deeply worried Dorothy, who briefly told Preminger after she won the part that she could not accept it.
“I tried to tell him how it was being bruted about that I was the wrong choice for the part. I had been compared with others purportedly with more sex appeal, or more dramatic talent.”
Otto Preminger’s assurance that Dorothy was the best choice for the part, and his confidence in her abilities, restored Dottie’s own confidence, and marked the start of a romance between the two that would last the next four years.
An Oscar Worthy Performance
Despite the rapid pace of filming over the summer of 1954, Dottie turned in a nuanced performance, and Preminger correctly predicted that she would earn an Academy Award nomination for her work. Though Carmen Jones is not a perfect film, Dorothy makes every one of her scenes come to life. There’s something so incredibly timeless about her vivacious Carmen, and you quite literally can’t watch anyone else when Dorothy is on screen. It’s Dorothy’s performance that elevates the film to classic status.
Even in her lip syncing during the film’s musical numbers, Dorothy’s work is perfection. According to Harry Belafonte, the Bizet estate demanded that in Carmen Jones,
“nothing of the operatic structure or score could be changed.”
As such, all the characters requiring an operatic range in the film were dubbed—with the exception of Olga James, who, operatically trained at Juilliard, did her own singing as Cindy Lou. Belafonte would call the lip syncing embarrassing for singers like Dorothy and himself, who had beautiful voices, but not the operatic range the film required.
Dottie would put her famous discipline to work, and, as Dandridge biographer Donald Bogle [aff. link] would note, deliver some of “the finest lip syncing in history of the American movie musical.” Twenty-year-old Marilyn Horne, not yet an international opera star, would provide Dorothy’s singing voice in Carmen Jones. According to Dottie’s manager, Earl Mills, Dorothy would watch Marilyn sing so she could imitate the movement of Marilyn’s neck muscles and facial expressions on each note. Marilyn herself would applaud Dorothy for not falling prey to the usual lip syncing faux-pas of over-exaggerated mouth movements. Dottie kept it natural, and the result, as Horne would say, “was sensational.”
Harry Belafonte and Dottie were not in the same league when it came to their acting abilities in the film: Dottie could quite literally act circles around him, and it shows! But Belafonte would shine at the same level as Dorothy in their final scene together, where Joe, so overcome with passion, strangles Carmen. I love this anecdote Harry shares in his autobiography [aff. link] that shows the mechanics behind making such a rawly emotional scene such as this look good on film.
Harry, completely overcome with the emotions of the scene, went for a passionate strangle hold of Dottie, but the action was quickly stopped by director Otto Preminger:
“‘Cut! Cut!’ Otto shouted, clearly very annoyed. I looked up to see him on top of the boom-shot crane.”
Then Preminger continued to instruct Harry:
“‘Mr. Belafonte,’ he said in his thick German accent, ‘When you choke the leading lady in the movies, you do not put wrinkles in her neck.’
Passionate but not out of control, furious, but not homicidal—somehow, I got the balance right on the next take.”
A Critical and Box Office Success
Carmen Jones premiered at New York’s Rivoli Theater on October 28, 1954. With Vivian in attendance, it was an emotional experience for the two sisters, who recognized the significance of Dottie’s achievement. Vivian would even cry when, before the premiere, the two sisters witnessed Dorothy’s image being put up above the theater to advertise the film. As Vivian would share,
“I was crying and she LOVED it….She told EVERYBODY! She’d pick up the phone and say, ‘ You know Vivi was crying when she saw my body going up in front of the theatre.’”
Overall, Carmen Jones was a critical and financial success. Dorothy Dandridge would uniformly receive praise and accolades for her performance, including the revered Best Actress Oscar nomination, making her the first African American actress to do so. (The Oscar that year would ultimately go to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954).)
In addition to the awards, nominations, and praise, Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck offered Dottie a dream three-year-contract. She would earn $75,000 a film to start, and $125,000 by the final film. As a non-exclusive contract, Dorothy could continue with her nightclub engagements, or even make films at other studios, if she desired. Perhaps best of all, the contract guaranteed that her name would appear above the title of each film she made for Zanuck. It was an unprecedented contract for an African American actress.
Dandridge mania continued to grow both in the US and abroad. Dorothy was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1955, where Carmen Jones would be shown in a special screening. Copyright issues with the Bizet estate meant the film could not compete in the festival, and could not be shown on French soil, so Carmen was screened on a US aircraft carrier in the waters surrounding the resort town. Festival attendees, anxious to get a glimpse of Dorothy in real life and see the film, made the Carmen Jones screening the showstopping, sold out event at the festival that year.
Take a moment to watch this candid footage of Dorothy at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. I can’t get over her gorgeous walk! Dottie was so popular at the festival that even her strolling at the beach was news!
In an interview at the time, Dorothy would credit her daughter Lynn as being the motivator behind the success she now enjoyed:
“I think it was really the heartache over my child and the failure of my marriage that forced me to make a success of my career. I had to keep busy, I threw myself into my work. It’s wonderful therapy. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself.”
But ultimately, the career success that Dottie worked so hard for, that she’d made her second dream, was hollow:
”All of it was satisfying in a peculiar way. I felt vindicated for my years of frustration in marriage, love, and motherhood…But having achieved whatever I did, I found that inside me there was this vast hollow of private frustration. Where was the right love and marriage and home life? If I didn’t have that, all the rest was semirealization and chimera…
…Work is nothing. A child, that’s a creation. Several children, that can be a beautiful thing. A family life that works, that’s the idea. That’s what I wanted; and inside somewhere I was still hellbent on securing it.”
Dorothy hoped that Otto Preminger was the man who would give her this steady home life. Preminger’s infatuation and involvement in every aspect of Dottie’s career made her dream seem an eventual reality.
But ultimately, marriage to Otto Preminger wasn’t to be, and Dorothy would once again find her heart and dreams of a happy home broken.
The career high Dottie experienced in the year after Carmen Jones also wouldn’t last:
“In these accolades I was to reach a high and also the beginnings of a decline inevitable for a Negro actress for whom there was no place else to go, no higher or better role to play, no new story available, no chance to play roles meant for white only.”
As Darryl Zanuck interpreted his contractual obligation to mean providing Dorothy feature roles as exotic beauties, not necessarily leading roles as African American characters, Dorothy found it hard to accept the routinely disappointing parts she was offered. Dottie even feared she offended Zanuck when she understandably turned down the role of an Asian concubine slave in the very successful 1956 film, The King and I.
Despite the success of Carmen Jones and Dottie’s ensuing stardom, it would be three years before Dorothy Dandridge made another film.
More Dottie Next Week!
And that’s it for Carmen Jones!
Be sure to join me next week for our last week with the lovely Dorothy Dandridge, as I review 1958’s Tamango, the only one of Dorothy’s films that allowed her to kiss her white leading man, and cover the tragic last years of her life.