Based on the 1943 Broadway musical, Carmen Jones is an updated version of the George Bizet opera “Carmen” in an African-American setting. When director Otto Preminger decided to adapt it for the big screen, his goal was to make a dramatic film with music rather than a conventional film musical. Realizing that movies with an all black cast didn’t enjoy mainstream box-office success, Preminger knew no major studio would provide financing, and decided to produce the project independently. When Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox studios, read the script, two days later he provided Preminger with a budget of $750,000.
While Carmen Jones opened to mixed reviews in 1954, Dandridge and Belafonte became overnight sensations. Dandridge would grace the cover of Life Magazine, and be ranked among the world’s top beauties.
Dandridge would make history as the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actress by the Academy (she lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl). Carmen Jones won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, and Preminger won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. Three decades later in a stroke of perfect symmetry, Halle Berry would star and produce the HBO biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” for which she would win Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards for her portrayal of the tragically fated actress.
Carmen Jones was unique in portraying a more contemporary spin on African-American life. Instead of the happy or the ‘woe is me’ Negro seen in most black film, the characters were worldly and self-aware, and motivated by universal forces such as lust, love, and greed.
The Urban Daily lists the five reasons Carmen Jones stands the test of time as one of cinema’s sexiest and tragic love stories.
Dorothy Dandridge—Dandridge turns up the sizzle as doomed temptress Carmen Jones. Carmen unapologetically wields her sexual power upon the men unlucky enough to be in her path. Even though Dandridge would earn an Oscar nomination and critical acclaim for the role, Hollywood wasn’t ready to fully embrace Dandridge’s biracial heritage. While white actresses like Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, and Rita Hayworth would go on to bank on their beauty and sex appeal, Dandridge’s star began to fade soon after, culminating in her death in 1965 at the age of 43 from an apparent drug overdose.
Harry Belafonte—Before Denzel, Morris, or Shemar, there was Harry Belafonte. With his matinee idol looks, Belafonte was one of our first bona fide Black Hollywood heartthrobs. His character Joe is a handsome soldier, engaged to virtuous country girl Cindy Lou, and has plans of signing up for pilot training. Joe’s perfect life is derailed once Carmen casts her sexual spell on him. However, his romanticism and naiveté are no match for Carmen’s cold and worldly ways. Joe’s sanity begins to unravel, and Belafonte takes the audience along with him down into his slippery descent into madness. It is to Belafonte’s credit that you empathize with Joe in spite of his shocking and final act to break free of Carmen’s siren hold.
Diahann Carroll—Carmen Jones was the big screen debut of a then 19–year-old Carroll. Even though she had a small supporting role, Carroll would blaze her own trail with a successful career in film, television, and theatre. Besides a 1962 Best Actress Tony win for her performance in the Broadway play “Strings”, she would star in her own TV series “Julia”, score a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Claudine, and play glamourous jet setter Dominique Devereaux on the 80’s primetime sudser, “Dynasty.”
The Story behind the Story—The drama that unfolded behind Carmen Jones was just as juicy and scandalous as that of the actual movie. When Dandridge auditioned for the lead role, Otto Preminger found her to be too proper and reserved, and cast her in the good girl role of Cindy Lou. Undeterred, Dandridge came back the next day, dressed provocatively, and persuaded Preminger into giving her a screen test. Dandridge and Preminger began a four year love affair, which ended disastrously when Preminger refused to leave his wife.
Musical Score—Believe it or not, with the exception of Olga James (Cindy Lou) and Pearl Bailey (Frankie), the cast of Carmen Jones had their singing parts dubbed by professional opera singers. Although Dandridge and Belafonte were talented singers in their own right, they weren’t trained in singing the operatic score. Marilyn Van Horne and LeVern Hutcherson were hired to record their vocals. In an interview Van Horne recounted how she spent hours with Dandridge to learn how to imitate her voice. The final product is a seamless mix of drama and music that never detracts from the story unfolding.