Following the success of "Oklahoma," his first undertaking with composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein interrupted their collaboration to focus on his own adaptation of Bizet’s "Carmen." He updated the opera to the modern era, setting it in a military base, where the sultry heroine worked as a parachute-maker. Hammerstein kept Bizet’s music largely intact, but fashioned his own English libretto. And, like Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess" of eight years earlier, the entire cast was African-American.
Produced by Broadway entrepreneur Billy Rose, "Carmen Jones" opened in December 1943, playing to enthusiastic audiences for two years. However, Hollywood felt that such an operatic story with an entirely African-American cast was risky box-office fare, so the 1954 movie was produced independently by its director, Otto Preminger. The notorious autocrat selected a young, talented cast, including Dorothy Dandridge as the free-loving Carmen. Harry Belafonte played Joe, a possessive aviator who turns to violence when Carmen shifts her affections to a prizefighter. Considering the operatic genre, the two were dubbed, Dandridge by a newcomer named Marilyn Horne. Supporting players included singer/comedienne Pearl Bailey, and youthful starlet Diahann Carroll. The film was shot in the new widescreen, Cinemascope process.
Despite the excellent cast and high-profile production, "Carmen Jones" fails to convince. Bizet’s music is unassailable, yet hardly representative of his best work; Hammerstein’s lyrics are often sappy and dated. The film’s stilted artificiality is partially due to the obvious dubbing, some stagy sets, and patches of bad acting from the lesser players.
Though it doesn’t ring true, "Carmen Jones" is entertaining, and looks great on the Blu-ray just released by 20th Century Fox. A significant 1992 restoration resulted in much-improved picture quality, enhanced by the new high-def transfer. The colors are fresh and intense. The letterboxed format preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio. There are no extras except the theatrical trailer.
Though not among the greatest of film musicals, "Carmen Jones" is worth owning as an interesting bit of African-Americana. Offering the best overall quality to date, Fox’s new Blu-ray is definitely the way to go.