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Carmen Jones

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 minutes

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey

Written by: Oscar Hammerstein II, Harry Kleiner

Music by: Georges Bizet

Directed by: Cameron Crowe

 

Studio: Fox

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Theatrical Trailer, One Sheet, Bonus Trailers

Specs: 2.55:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 4.0, English Dolby Digital 2.0, Closed Captioned for the Hearing Impaired, English and Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search (30 Chapters)

Released: January 22nd, 200

 

Making the impossible possible can describe the film that Otto Preminger adapted from Oscar Hammerstein s well-crafted stage vehicle, "Carmen Jones." For you see, Hammerstein himself was adapting a very popular opera to suit his purposes, French composer Georges Bizet's "Carmen;" which in turn was an adaptation of a classic Prosper Merimee novel about love and tragedy among the gypsies. Bizet's Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875, and has been playing opera houses ever since. Hammerstein's "Carmen Jones," on the other hand, ran on Broadway for 502 performances beginning in December of 1943. In a daring move, Hammerstein chose to create a near folk-opera with "Carmen Jones," by setting it amidst the African American population of Alabama. One major London revival followed in the 1980's, and if it weren t for Preminger's film version, it might be a forgotten musical; for you see, Preminger cast a powerhouse of an actress named Dorothy Dandridge to brilliantly portray the title character. The universal appeal of Carmen in any form, isn t difficult to fathom: the tunes are mighty memorable; the plot is very dramatic and it begins without a hint of overpowering doom.

"Carmen Jones" utilizes Bizet's own Overture under its title credits: bright, clear music representative of the sunny South, continues with the very familiar (even to non-operatic ears) Toreador Song then quickly segues into the opera s Fate Theme. Part of the joy of watching "Carmen Jones" comes from the reflective structure to its source. America is engaged in World War II Carmen Jones is a worker in a parachute factory in the Deep South (rather than a cigarette factory worker in sunny Spain's Seville), Joe (the chiseled Harry Belafonte) is the Army corporal who falls for Carmen s seductress (this remains true to Bizet; along with his country-bumpkin-like girl back home, Cindy Lou - Bizet's Micaela), and the toreador, Escamillo (say it, go on, say it out loud), becomes HUSKY MILLER, the boxer who wins Carmen away from Joe, leading to the tragic finale.

Preminger's protegee, and mistress, Dorothy Dandridge became the first woman of color to be nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as Best Actress for her Carmen. Dandridge delivers a fiery performance, making her Carmen as sexual as the Production Code would allow, and as sympathetic as the non-monogamous Carmen can possibly be. She is beautiful and earthy, and it is difficult to imagine any one else in this role, though Halle Berry proved with her HBO-telepic that she is quite admirable as well. What makes Dandridge's performance so rare, is that most of her performance is silent. That is to say, that since none of the actors could really sing the hell out of the operatic portions of the score, with the rare exception, everyone was dubbed by professional opera singers. With Dandridge, it is her body language, in addition to Marilyn Horne's incredible singing, that makes Carmen believable.

Every cast member's lip-synching is right on the mark, and only third-billed Pearl Bailey does her own singing; which is problematic, since her character is given a virtually unsingable, idiomatic number which, as talented as she is, just can t pull off. It also doesn t help that Pearl Bailey always registers Class, and her character is supposed to be gutter-trash.

Don t let the word MUSICAL detract you from watching "Carmen Jones," since (and I mean this as a compliment) the film plays like a Reader's Digest Condensed version of Bizet's Carmen. Even with occasional ventures into the real world, Carmen Jones possesses a heightened reality, a theatrically, evidenced in its mammoth sets and glorious color schemes. From the mess hall where Carmen lays her eyes on Joe to the café on the corner, where she pines away for his return; everything is larger than life. Little wonder that Preminger directed this in the widest of wide CinemaScope aspect ratios, delivered here in all its magnificent 2.55:1 broadness. "Carmen Jones" reminded me of two vastly different items as I was watching: Robert Wise's "West Side Story" (both he and Preminger know how to make theatrical cinematic ) and Warner Bros. classic Looney Tune, "What s Opera, Doc?"

 

As stated, Carmen Jones blows onto DVD with its original aspect ratio intact, and an anamorphically enhanced presentation. Although it is not mentioned anywhere, the film looks as if it had a recent restoration; either that, or this is a remarkably clean print. This fine transfer rarely disappoints: I saw no evidence of edge enhancement anywhere. Even the process shots behind Carmen and Joe's Jeep trip look splendid. The usually problematic Color by Deluxe is gorgeous here, not delving into the paler shades of pink normally associated with it. "Carmen Jones'"print is every bit as vibrant and living as its title character.

 

Gotta love this true to the era soundtrack! It is filled with that old standby of sound placement, which, in my humble opinion, brings a cinematic quality long forgotten back to the forefront. This is one wide soundstage: as characters move across the screen, their voicestruly follow. When five characters burst into song ("Whizzin' Away Along De Track" - Chapter 16) each and every voice is placed speaker wise in relationship to their screen appearance for an imaginative quintet. (I realize that this kind of soundtrack bothers quite a few people, but to me, it's imaginative, evocative and something that modern filmmakers should be doing more often instead of giving us purely mono, dead centered dialogues). Of course this wouldn t be a Fox Flix without an oddly formatted soundtrack, and "Carmen Jones" sings out in a marked 4.0 Dolby Digital format. I say marked because it is arguably an also oddly formatted 3.1 mix, with a negligible LFE channel - hey, my receiver and the packaging say 4.0, so I'll believe them. After all, come Chapter 28, there's a horde of fight-watchers cheering from the rear speakers. Whatever it is, it is most enjoyable, and barely sounds its age. The music comes out loud and clear, the lyrics are intelligible, and Dorothy Dandridge s sultry speaking voice is as sexy as they come.

 

 

Even without the forced Fox Flix up front trailer, "Carmen Jones" is a bantam-weight as far as extras are concerned. A reproduction of the film's one-sheet poster and the film's Original Theatrical Trailer are the only film-related bonuses. The trailer itself is anamorphically enhanced and narrated, but looks rather dark, and nowhere as crisp as the film itself. Promotional trailers for other Fox titles, including the misspelled Marylin Monroe Diamond Collection trailer. There s just something about Fox and its copy editors and Marilyn Monroe: nearly each of the Diamond Collection titles sported wrong aspects ratios, and now they can t even spell her first name properly; poor Marilyn, indeed. Todd-AO trailers for "South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music," as well as a 1.85:1 trailer for Bette Midler's "The Rose" also appear, and are also anamorphically enhanced. It s funny that the trailer for the most recent ("The Rose") appears to be in the worst shape.

 

Well, as I write this, it is Black History Month, and "Carmen Jones" is indeed part of Black History, even though it was conceived and directed by a battalion of non-Black creators. Dandridge's Oscar nominated performance combined with the mega-talents of Oscar Hammerstein and George Bizet and Otto Preminger make Carmen Jones an enjoyable, if slightly dated, evening of musical drama. The fact that Fox has put this much care into the creation of the DVD, with its accurate sound and picture, demonstrates that there is a market for this material outside of the month of February. Viewers who were intrigued by Halle Berry's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" owe it to themselves to check this title out, while the musical mavens among us (you KNOW who you are) will delight in the joys of fine filmmaking. Fair warning, however; once you ve heard Dat s Love, based on Bizet's Habanera, you won t get its strains out of your head.