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Carmen Jones

Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, adapted from a successful Broadway musical, is Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen translated and updated with an African-American cast and a Southern military-base setting during World War II. The thing is, Carmen Jones was made in 1954, when "Negro" performers rarely headlined in movies aimed at white audiences. The first African-American nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, Dorothy Dandridge plays fiery Carmen, a "hot bundle" sizzling the lives of two men — pretty boy Joe (Harry Belafonte) and braggart boxer Husky Miller (Joe Adams). Slinking through director Preminger's CinemaScope widescreen in slit skirts and tight blouses, Dandridge is naturally carnal the way summer is naturally warm. She aims her sexual energy toward Joe like a sun — teasing him in the cafeteria, going down between his legs to shine his shoes as he's biting into a peach, letting him blow her toes dry — and we don't doubt her when she sings "When I love you, that's the end of you." Of course it's an opera, so expect passion and self-destruction, and forget about a happy ending.

Progressive in its time, Carmen Jones' all-black context and dialect-heavy dialogue now evoke a bygone era, so the movie today can't help but be a period piece, albeit an important one. More than 50 years later Dandridge and Belafonte are still gorgeous and appealing. Dandridge is not just a sexy femme fatale, she's beautiful and electric. Belafonte looks terrific but seems uncomfortable and flat in comparison. Too bad we're not hearing their own accomplished singing voices — only Pearl Bailey sings in her own voice, and her "Gypsy Song" is a fun highlight. All other voices were dubbed, with Metropolitan Opera star Marilyn Horne singing for Dandridge.

Preminger didn't make his name on musicals, and that shows. The uneven directing is by turns masterful, forced, vibrant, and clumsy. Don't think too hard about why characters do what they do or how they switch from down-home dialogue to robust aria without so much as pausing for breath. Oscar Hammerstein II's colloquial black lyrics ("I is your Joe") often sound shoehorned into Bizet's "greatest hits" melodies.

Still, the music's great, you can't take your eyes off Dandridge, Preminger's long takes let the performers show their stuff, and it's a Who's Who of '50s black entertainers, including the film debuts of Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Look for Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird, Star Trek VI, Deep Space Nine) in his screen debut as two-fisted Sgt. Brown and the singing voice of Rum. Legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey has an uncredited dance solo. In '55 the film won a Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy. Although it's irreparably dated for any viewing more casual than a studious "film history" appraisal, Carmen Jones remains a classic of its type, and testimony to a black cinema that might have been.

*          *          *

Fox Home Entertainment's DVD release brings a super anamorphic transfer (2.55:1) of Preminger's vast CinemaScope imagery, and it looks stunning. The print is nearly flawless, with excellent color and definition. Audio is well delivered for a film of this vintage, coming in solid Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital 4.0 options.

The only extras are the theatrical trailer (anamorphic 2.55:1) and trailers for other Fox musicals.

—Mark Bourne



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