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Case Number 26800: Small Claims Court

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Carmen Jones (1954) (Blu-ray)

Fox // 1954 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 6th, 2014

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All Rise...

Clearly, Appellate Judge Tom Becker doesn't have the qualifications to work at a parachute factory.

Editor's Note

Our review of Carmen Jones, published February 5th, 2002, is also available.

The Charge

All I want to do is love you like I used to.

The Case

When the hit Broadway musical Carmen Jones was transferred to the screen in 1954, it marked the first time a major studio (20th Century Fox) backed an "all-black" musical since 1943, when Stormy Weather and the Vincent Minelli-directed Cabin in the Sky (both of which featured Lena Horne) were released.

A lot had changed in America in those 11 years, politically, culturally, and socially. Besides the end of World War II and the post-war economic boom, civil rights was making its way to the forefront of society's consciousness. Courts had begun striking down segregation laws; athletes like Jackie Robinson and Earl Lloyd were playing professional sports alongside white teammates. The climate of the country was decidedly different when Carmen Jones premiered than when Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky were in release.

Carmen Jones was an update of Georges Bizet's popular opera, Carmen. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote new lyrics to Bizet's music, setting the tale of obsessive love during the Second World War and featuring an all-black cast. The musical opened on Broadway in 1943, ran for over a year, and had two brief revivals in 1945 and 1946.

Directing the film version of Carmen Jones was Otto Preminger. While Preminger was no stranger to controversy, he was a novice when it came to directing musicals. Unfortunately, it shows. While its story is decidedly downbeat, the film lacks the kind of exuberance that generally marks a musical. Oddly, the non-singing scenes often progress more smoothly than the musical ones, as though Preminger's comfort zone didn't extend beyond the film's dramatic arch.

The plot of Carmen Jones is fairly flimsy (not unlike many musicals). Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge, Porgy and Bess) works in a parachute factory at a military base. When she gets into a fight, she is arrested and ordered to be incarcerated a few miles away. Young soldier Joe (Harry Belafonte, Kansas City) is assigned with driving her. Since Joe is due to go to flight school, he needs to get his duty and done and return in hurry—plus, he's planning on marrying childhood sweetheart Cindy Lou (Olga James, The Vampire Lovers) immediately.

Carmen, who cannot stand the thought of being locked up, seduces Joe, but leaves him the next morning. He turns himself in to the MPs and is put in the stockade. He's about to be released, and Cindy Lou comes to see him, when he gets an unsigned letter with a rose in it—Carmen's calling card.

Joe goes to find Carmen, and after an altercation with a military officer, the two end up on the run. In the meantime, Carmen has caught the eye of a high-living boxer, Husky Miller (Joe Adams, Ballad in Blue). Being trapped in a squalid hotel room with Joe is no better than prison for Carmen, and soon she's become Husky's girl, wearing fine clothes, and eating and drinking like a celebrity.

But Joe, whose passion for Carmen has ruined his life, is now out of his mind and seeking revenge.

Dandridge became the first African-American to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role here, and she is devastating as the sultry, doomed heroine. The entire cast is very good—particularly Pearl Bailey as one of Carmen's good-time friends—but no one can hold a candle to Dandridge.

One problem is that, aside from Bailey, all the actors' singing voices are dubbed. Although Dandridge and Belafonte were accomplished singers, they were not accomplished opera singers, so LeVern Hutcherson sang Joe's part and Marilyn Horne sang Carmen's part. It's here that the film becomes problematic: Horne's voice is stunning, but there's something politically uneasy about a Caucasian singer filling in for an African American. Also, the dubbing itself is less-than smooth. Hammerstein's lyrics range from brilliant to slightly awkward.

But whatever flaws the film sports, the performances—as well as Bizet's lively music (there's a reason Carmen is one of the most popular operas ever written)—make this worth seeing.

Fox's Carmen Jones (Blu-ray) offers an outstanding presentation. The 1080p image is vibrant, with rich colors, a good level of depth, and a fine, filmic grain. The audio is an immersive four channel DTS mix, and it sounds great. If only they'd included some supplements. Dandridge, who died of an accidental overdose at age 42, was a fascinating individual and a pioneer amongst black actresses; Halle Berry's career was kickstarted when she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe playing Dandridge in an HBO biopic. Dandridge and Preminger, who was married (albeit in name only), began an affair during the making of the film, an affair that lasted four years. While it might not be a landmark film, it's an important film of its era with plenty of interesting backstage stories. Not including any kind of meaningful supplement just seems like a missed opportunity.

Flawed but engrossing, Carmen Jones is certainly worth seeing, and the excellent tech on this Blu-ray is the way to go.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 82

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 4.0 Master Audio (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English (SDH)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Blu-ray
• Classic
• Concerts and Musicals
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb

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