Dorothy Dandridge is so wonderful in Carmen Jones (1954) that it makes up for any number of the movie’s other deficiencies. Her slinky, self-assured performance is so raw and winning, so seductive and lethal that she dominates every scene she’s in, and her specter looms over nearly all the ones she isn’t. Those deficiencies are still there but to notice them you have to actively quit being swept up in Dandridge’s presence, and life is too short to watch Carmen Jones and try to do that.
The movie is the film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II’s theater musical, itself an adaptation of Bizet’s immortal 1875 opera Carmen. All the music is Bizet’s, though there’s less of it and more spoken dialogue, and Hammerstein wrote new words and translated the story from 19th century Spain to World War II-era America, trading in the cigarette girls and soldiers of the opera for parachute factory workers and airmen. Gypsies become floozies. Bullfighters become boxers. And instead of “The Toreador Song” and “The Habanera,” we have “Stan’ Up an’ Fight” and “Dat’s Love.” Same music, different words.
We have Carmen Jones (Dandridge), a fiery vixen who works in a North Carolina parachute factory, who starts a fight with a co-worker and is taken into custody by soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte), who is training to be a pilot. Joe is supposed to deliver Carmen to the authorities, and despite his initial resistance and loyalty to his betrothed Cindy Lou (Olga James), Carmen successfully seduces him during the two-day trip. The morning after their tryst Joe finds a note from Carmen that says she loves him but loves her freedom more and thus had to escape.
After losing Cindy Lou and spending time in the stockade, Joe finds Carmen working in a night club in Louisiana with her friend Frankie (Pearl Bailey). He also finds he has romantic rivals, not the least of which is Husky Miller (Joe Adams), a prizefighter who wants to take Carmen to Chicago. Joe gets in a fight with a superior officer who mocks his attempts to win loyalty from the transient Carmen and knocks him cold, a crime the punishment for which will include jail time and an end to his plans to be an airman. Joe and Carmen run to Chicago where Carmen leaves Joe for Miller and the ruined Joe enacts a terrible, meaningless revenge.
Carmen is one of the great operas, which probably has more culturally identifiably numbers than any other (including its outstanding overture, shortened but still glorious to open the movie here), and the snob in me wants to criticize the often inelegant way Hammerstein’s words feel saddled upon music that was written for others in another language, but half of the fun of the movie is watching these highlights of the operatic repertoire be squished into the world of musical theater. Carmen Jones doesn’t improve upon its source material, but Hammerstein was wise not to touch the music, which is strong enough to brush aside any lyrics issues. And many of the big numbers still satisfy, especially Carmen’s “Dat’s Love” and Miller’s “Stan’ Up an’ Fight,” but also Carmen’s seduction of Joe, “Dere’s a Café on the Corner” (“Séguedille” in the opera) and Frankie’s “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum.” Joe, though he’s the central male figure, is competently played by Belafonte but, like his forebear Don José, is a naïve and rather boring character, whose numbers are excellent but aren’t showstoppers (though a good Don José should come alive in the last few moments, which Belafonte isn’t quite up to).
Like the opera, the musical and movie is an excuse to display the beguiling danger of its leading lady, and Dandridge sashays and struts so easily that it’s amazing the putty-like Joe makes it ninety minutes before she chews him up and spits him out. This is such a headstrong performance that only Bailey in the “Beat Out Dat Rhythm” number can fully peel our attention away from it. Dandridge’s devilishly fun and energetic turn breaks some of the boredom of Otto Preminger’s direction, which is largely staid and uninspiring, cloying even, and it smooths over some of the narrative difficulties that Hammerstein’s updating started and Harry Kleiner’s screenplay’s truncation for the screen complicates, making some of the more nonsensical action seem like a part of Carmen’s whirlwind impulsiveness. She is so impressive that each whim seems not only believable but also that they would be followed by those who worship her seems expected. There’s a scene in which Dandridge casually changes out of her dress in front of Joe, which is shocking for 1954, revealing stunning leopard print underwear, making the audience wonder just what other secrets this Carmen Jones can reveal as more layers get stripped away.
It’s not the movie’s fault that it was born of a time when a movie could be made with an all-black cast only if that cast was doing the acceptably non-threatening activities of singing and dancing. That singing and dancing is excellent and shows off the wealth of black talent (notice Alvin Ailey as a dancer) but Carmen Jones can be faulted for romanticizing the plight of the black community in mid-century America (Jones follows a long line of Hollywood race musicals like A Cabin in the Sky  and Stormy Weather [1943, which gets a sly shout out in Jones]. These movies are exceptional in the level of talent on screen but they present a decidedly rosy outlook on pre-King black life when we know it to be otherwise). Further, if something dampers Dandridge’s performance it’s that her singing voice is not her own (Marilyn Horne, who sings for Dandridge, was at the beginning of a career as the greatest mezzo-soprano of her generation and she was a definitive Carmen on the opera stage). Only James and Bailey use their own singing voices, but except for Dandridge, the other actors are given black voices to go with their performances. It’s obviously not Horne’s fault for being who she is (and her dazzling voice deserves at least some of the credit for Dandridge’s Oscar nomination for the role, the first given to a black woman in the leading actress category), but I can’t shake the feeling that the casting of a white voice to sing the title role is a head nod by the filmmakers to Bosley Crowther’s claim in The New York Times that the classical music was above the performers. “The tempos are alien to their spirits, the melodies are foreign to their moods, but they have at those classical numbers as though they were cutting rugs,” he writes. “There’s nothing wrong with the music—except that it does not fit the people or the words.” It’s sad to think that it would be his damnation of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that finally deemed Crowther out of touch, thirteen years after that drivel and others like it.
Carmen Jones is an excellent screen musical, one that looks great and is presented well (from an art direction and costume design standpoint, not from its direction and composition, which is largely stale). It has a perfect lead for a lustful man-eater in Dandridge who brought to life what Production Code director Joseph Breen feared was in the script as excessive sexuality. Breen wrote to Preminger before production began, grousing about the script’s dearth of “any voice of morality properly condemning Carmen’s complete lack of morals.” Mr. Breen would not enjoy most operas, I think (the NAACP, for its part, showed more contextual perspective and approved the project). By the time the movie was released, Breen was out at the Production Code Association, and most of the more salacious moments of the movie were retained. It’s better for it. Carmen is one of the most larger-than-life characters in stage history; Carmen Jones should be the same.