Your reviewer can sometimes be guilty of dancing around the less quantifiable aspects of enjoying a movie, so let’s talk about star presence. As soon as she appears on screen in Otto Preminger’s 1950 musical – reissued for the first time on Blu-Ray by the BFI – Dorothy Dandridge has it. Her movements are nonchalant, yet somehow clearly purposeful. Every other character’s eyes are on her, and you imagine that even if Preminger hadn’t directed them to watch her the scene would look exactly the same. Her piercing, controlled falsetto is dubbed by the opera singer Marilyn Horne, yet there’s no doubt that Dandridge embodies that sound. And what is she singing? ‘Dat’s Love’, an adaptation of Bizet’s ‘Habanera’, whose chillingly fatalistic repeated line is “If you love me, that’s the end of you”.
In that one song, you have something of the nexus of the good and bad of Carmen Jones, as well as the rough and smooth of Dandrige’s career. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics and the original stage play Preminger’s film is based on, has a terrific turn of phrase, and he carries off the bizarre high concept – the music of Bizet’s Carmen, with lyrics and an all-black cast – as if it were the easiest task a writer had ever set themselves. On the other hand, he does rely on a kind of dese-and-dem dialect for his black characters, which the BFI’s subtitles wisely tone down. I also has to be asked why, when you have accomplished singers like Dandridge and Harry Belafonte leading your cast, are the voices mostly dubbed.
Unlike Porgy and Bess, the other African-American musical Preminger directed, Carmen Jones was never particularly controversial. Its racial politics are much easier to swallow because they don’t exist. Every cast member is black; there is never any danger that Dandridge or Belafonte could walk into the white sector of town, because there aren’t any white people. This can be read as a safe option, a way for Hammerstein and Preminger to avoid tackling the racism of 1950s America directly. It can also be read as a criticism; even this grand tragedy, inspired by one of the most prestigious jewels of Western high culture, can comfortably take place without any white people noticing. Scenes are set in army barracks, run-down shacks or backwater bars, and the only character you can imagine rubbing shoulders with the well-off is Joe Adams’s boastful boxer Husky Miller.
As the third point of the love triangle, Miller is less interesting than Dandridge’s Carmen and Belafonte’s Joe. Once you’ve heard him sing about his boxing prowess to the tune of Bizet’s ‘Toreador’, you’ve got the point. And yet Carmen Jones remains fascinating. Preminger, best known at the time for his film noir work, turns out to be a natural at Technicolour and Cinemascope, and Sam Leavitt’s cinematography reaffirms that 1950s musicals made better use of the colour pink than any films before or since. There is a vein of compassion to his film that makes the tragedy palatable. He really loves Carmen – an on-screen trace, perhaps, of his real-life affair with Dandridge.
In years to come Dandridge would blame this for her career never igniting as it initially seemed like it would. After Carmen Jones made her the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, she was offered a supporting part in The King and I. Preminger gave her the well-meaning but fatally naive advice to always hold out for leads, without recognising that lead roles for black women were thin on the ground. Yet she made her mark, celebrated on film by Halle Berry and in song by Janelle Monaé. Carmen: A Hip Hopera, a 2001 MTV curio starring Beyoncé in one of her first artistic ventures outside Destiny’s Child, was presumably inspired by it. So, perhaps is every race-swapped retelling of a classic story.
That said, Preminger and Hammerstein haven’t introduced race into Bizet’s opera. Rather, they’ve re-racialised it. Prosper Mérimée’s original novella was inspired by his study of Roma communities, and while Bizet’s opera preserves this setting the sheer prestige of it eventually blinded people to its racial aspects. Hammerstein’s score and Herschel Gilbert’s musical direction preserve the operatic character of the music, but the singing occasionally introduces subtle accents of jazz and blues. And then there is the movie’s most irresistible number, ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum’, whose frenetic celebration of the beat’s supremacy over melody harks ahead to the next black musical style which would overtake America by the end of the decade: rock and roll.