Carmen Jones, a film musical of1954, doesn’t sound as though it should work when you first hear it described. The classic opera of Carmen is moved from Seville in the early 1800s to North Carolina in the 1940s, and the original score by Bizet reinterpreted by Oscar Hammerstein. And instead of being a gypsy, Carmen is a worker in a parachute factory. It could be a ridiculous disaster.
But, it is completely and utterly brilliant. The modern lyrics work fantastically well with the updated (but not bastardised) music, Harry Belefonte is great as the slowly unravelling Joe, and Dorothy Dandridge is smouldering as Carmen. The styling is also fabulous, and the credits were designed by Saul Bass (famous for his iconic work on the credits and posters of such films as Vertigo).
The clothes Carmen wears designate her as a bad girl through and through. Tight-fitting skirts and wiggle dresses, bold colours, low cut tops, sequins, furs, big gold earrings and racy underwear. No wonder Harry Belafonte is dazzled. Meanwhile, his poor childhood sweetheart Cindy Lou pales in comparison wearing her pastel cotton dresses with round necks and peter pan collars. Her innocence but inherent dullness next to Carmen couldn’t be made clearer.
The director Otto Preminger had to seek private funding to get this film made, as at the time the studios in Hollywood would not produce a film with an all black cast. Not long into filming, he and Dorothy began an intense affair. Critics gave mixed reviews of the film, but Dorothy was nominated for an Oscar and the film won the Golden Globe for best musical.