DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Carmen Jones, Blu-ray (1954/2014)

Dorothy Dandridge got an Oscar nomination for this all-black film version of the opera Carmen.

Published on May 25, 2014

Carmen Jones, Blu-ray (1954/2014)

Carmen Jones, Blu-ray (1954/2014)

Cast: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Dianne Carroll
Director & Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: Oscar Hammerstein II, Harry Kleiner
Titles: Saul Bass
Studio: 20th Century Fox Studio Classics series [12/3/13]
Video: 2.40:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 color (Cinemascope/Technicolor)
Audio: English PCM stereo; French or Spanish mono
Dubbed: French, Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Theatrical trailer
Length: 105 minutes
Rating: ****1/2

Over six decades old now but this still stands up as one of the successful filmic adaptations of Bizet’s opera. I saw it originally when it first came out, and I think I was put out then and am also now by the fact that nowhere in the opening titles is George Bizet mentioned at all. The second thing that bothered me then and still bothers me is that both Belafonte and Dandridge—who each had fine singing voices—were dubbed in by Preminger. Marilyn Horne was the voice for Dandridge. And it is very noticeable, especially if you’re wearing headphones, as I was this time. Reminded me of the dubbing of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Funny Face. 

This is an epic work, with most of the main Bizet arias still heard musically but Hammerstein has written new lyrics for this all-black production which moves Carmen from the cigarette factory to a parachute factory during WWII, and Jose becomes Joe, who is a soldier just starting flight school. The transfer of bullfighter Escamillo into prizefighter Husky Miller is an easy one, but Jose’s younger sister Michiela gets changed into the girl next door who is his sweetheart from back home. And instead of going off smuggling, the characters take a train to exciting Chicago. Of course poor Joe is swept up in Carmen’s anarchy. Most of the arias make the switch fairly successfully, but some fall flat, such as the quartet prior to Carmen’s aria about her death being presaged by the cards. That just doesn’t work, especially with the dubbed vocals.

Dandridge is a perfect Carmen in her leonine sexuality, and Belafonte is terrific too. The final confrontation between Joe and Carmen unfortunately doesn’t have nearly the impact of the actual opera. This was an important film for Black American talent at a time of great racial discrimination. There wasn’t anything else like it at this time. But somehow it still seems somewhat racist, which the film of Porgy and Bess wasn’t. It still is a passionate and colorful alternate version of Bizet’s opera, beautifully restored in Blu-ray quality. (There’s even been a hip-hop version of Carmen starring Beyoncé, titled a “Hip Hopera.”)

—John Sunier




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