Dandridge with Harry Belafonte
CARMEN JONES B-
USA (105 mi) 1954 ‘Scope d: Otto Preminger
Carmen Jones: I don’t account to no man.
Joe: You’re accounting to me! I love you and that give me the right–
Carmen Jones: That don’t give you no right to own me! There’s only one that does and that’s me! Myself.
Joe: You’re accounting to me! I love you and that give me the right–
Carmen Jones: That don’t give you no right to own me! There’s only one that does and that’s me! Myself.
Watching this film today is an uncomfortable experience, as it represents all that’s wrong with Hollywood studios in portraying such artificialized and dangerously inaccurate versions of blackness, taking an all-black musical yet dubbing white sounding opera voices to sing the parts, basically stripping them of their essential blackness. Black musicals enjoyed earlier successes with Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY (1943) and Andrew L. Stone’s STORMY WEATHER (1943), retaining the authenticity of the musical renditions, though they were routinely excluded from Southern theaters, which refused to exhibit “black” leading performers. Released the same year as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in public schools, the film’s most notable flaw is that it represents a black world as envisioned by whites. Yet as backwards as this may be historically, the extraordinary groundbreaking performance by Dorothy Dandridge is what puts this film on the map, as she defies historical stereotypes and literally sizzles on the screen with unbridled freedom, representing a liberated black soul the likes of which had never been viewed onscreen before. Simply put, she is magnificent, far and away the best thing about the film and perhaps all that viewers will remember afterwards, becoming the first black person to be nominated for an Academy Award in a leading role. Even novelist James Baldwin wrote about the film in his Notes of a Native Son published a year later, a book of essays tackling the subject of race in America and Europe, noting that Preminger never for one minute allows viewers to forget they are watching an opera, a supposedly highly cultivated and civilized “work of art,” suggesting the tone of the film is stifling, a Hollywood misfire, largely due to the “helpless condescension” that historically reflects Hollywood’s version of black reality, which in Baldwin’s eyes is utter fantasy, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the ordinary lives of black Americans, refusing the delve into the interior lives of the characters, instead perpetuating white myths of black sexuality, finding it distressing that erotic beauty, in the eyes of Hollywood, means lighter skinned blacks, a traditional stereotype that still exists today in the fashion world. Perhaps the most egregious faux pas is the music itself, which is modeled after Georges Bizet’s 19th century opera Carmen, with its familiar and recognizable musical themes, which shocked and scandalized initial audiences with the overtly sexual presence of Carmen, but silly rewritten words replace the original lyrics, becoming nothing less than appalling, based upon Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway musical of the same name in 1943, but expanded upon by screenwriter Harry Kleiner. Perhaps the ultimate indignity is the all-too-familiar Hollywood tragedy that forces the leading lady to sleep with the director, which happened throughout the shooting of the film and sometime afterwards, an example of the old world patriarchal system that routinely exploited women, where disrespecting and rudely violating women’s rights was the norm, which is a major theme in the film itself, as Carmen lives and operates by her own rules, subject to no one’s laws but her own, flaunting her liberation with utter abandon, with her saucy defiance her ultimate undoing, as jealousy drives the crime of passion that brings down the final curtain. Shot in glorious CinemaScope, the film made Dandridge an international star, but it caught the industry by surprise, as Hollywood was not yet ready for a black star, not knowing how to exhibit her talents in what was, for all practical purposes, a white industry, believing they couldn’t put her opposite white male leads, so they ignored her, allowing her career to languish afterwards, where it was three years before she would work on another film again.
Despite using professional singers in the lead roles, Hollywood preferred to dub their voices with opera singer’s voices, with a young Marilyn Horne (only twenty at the time, originally intended to be Leontyne Price, but she fell ill),) singing the part of Dorothy Dandridge, while Harry Belafonte was dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson, a black opera singer, yet Pearl Bailey was allowed to sing her own songs transposed to a lower register. Similarly, WEST SIDE STORY (1961), one of the most iconic of all American musicals, continued the standard practice of dubbing the voices of professional singers over the lead players, which is simply a strange aspect of Hollywood history, erasing some of the personality of the actual performers, who are quite capable singers in their own right. The actors themselves were under no illusions about the opportunity at hand, where it could open doors that would otherwise be closed, as black feature films were a stark departure from the norm, where Dandridge in particular was helped immensely by an extensive prerelease publicity campaign, which included being on the cover of Life magazine just days before the film opened in theaters. Set in the American South with no reference to the war and no existing white presence, becoming a segregationist fantasy, literally denying the problem of race relations or any larger social context, as if living in a vacuum, where Carmen works in a parachute factory on an army base, though at least initially the story is centered around Joe (Harry Belafonte), a Corporal with his eyes set on flight school. His sweetheart Cindy Lou (Olga James) comes to visit him on the base, which becomes a daring and provocative opportunity for Carmen, suddenly throwing herself in his face, making herself available, even while seated next to Cindy Lou, doing a beguiling dance of seduction before all the troops in the cafeteria, Carmen Jones (1954) Clip | Out on BFI Blu-ray 19 September | BFI YouTube (1:35). Despite the attention, Joe proposes the idea of marriage to Cindy Lou while he’s on a 24-hour pass, yet he gets sidetracked when his commanding officer, Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters), orders him to transport a prisoner into town, who turns out to be Carmen (arrested for fighting with another woman), with Cindy Lou seeing the two leave together in an Army Jeep without so much as a word. What follows is an adventure through the countryside, with Carmen continuing to flirt, ridiculing his seriousness and overall standoffishness, though her interest lies in what she can’t have, so she pursues him relentlessly, eventually breaking his spirit, falling rapturously in love with her, though he’s sent to prison work detail for failing to carry out his assigned mission. Meanwhile Carmen takes a job working as a hostess in a Louisiana nightclub, along with Pearl Bailey as Frankie and Diahann Caroll in her debut role as Myrt, where they are wooed by boxing champion Husky Miller (Joe Adams) and his manager Rum Daniels (Roy Glenn), who promises diamonds and furs and an expensive hotel for the women if they accompany them on the train to Chicago, taking a particular interest in Carmen, as her beauty is unsurpassed. But she’s not interested, preferring to wait for her sweetheart to get out of the stockade, but she’s given a ticket anyway, should she change her mind. When Joe finally arrives, she’s eagerly surprised, but quickly grows angered when he has to report to flight school immediately, having little time for her, so she decides to accompany Sergeant Brown instead, angering Joe, thoroughly knocking him out, all but ruining his promising career, with Carmen convincing him to desert the army and run away with her, so together they flee to Chicago.
Cooped up in a shabby hotel room overlooking the el trains in Chicago, all sexual imagery has been removed from the film other than a little flirtatious behavior with Carmen’s extended leg waiting for her nail polish to dry, asking Joe to blow on her toenails, relying upon mythical white stereotypes where blacks are routinely associated with sexuality. In this imprisoned environment where Joe is afraid to step outside, as he’s AWOL from the Army, subject to immediate arrest, Carmen quickly grows tired of this stranglehold, enjoying more and more her freedom away from the claustrophobic confines of a hotel room, eventually leaving him for Husky Miller, ignited by an ill-fated fortune reading, with Joe having to fend for himself, growing more desperately alone and jealous. The sexism on display here is blatantly dramatic, with Joe overcome by the idea that Carmen belongs to him, that she’s basically his property, as that’s how he views love, with an insane amount of possessiveness. Adding to that, the racist lyrics of the songs are mangled with de’s and dat’s right out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet come a hundred years after the Civil War, sung by whites using a fake Negro inflection, suggesting little has changed, a method that truly dates this film, as the makers were clueless how offensive this stereotypical practice actually is, as it accentuates the mythical slavery perception that blacks are undereducated, portraying them as inferior to whites. A few years later it was actor Sidney Poitier who refused to utter this “Negro dialect” in PORGY AND BESS (1959) and the practice ended. These were some of the most talented black stars in the business, where one can only imagine how cringeworthy they must have felt singing these inflammatory lyrics to earn a living. The film also resorts to typical black stereotypes, with Rum Daniels literally pimping girls for the champ, who himself is viewed along the lines of a traditional hustler, glorifying his masculinity by surrounding himself with girls wearing ornate trinkets and jewelry that he bought, while there are also exasperating examples of black femininity, with only Carmen openly defying any concept of submissiveness, operating and existing in her own universe. Cindy Lou’s virginal presence reminds Joe of his mother, always prim and proper, while Frankie is a personified gold-digger with Rum Daniels her “sugar daddy,” where she inherently views men as an opportunity for easy money. What she’s willing to do for it, with suggestions of sexual favors, remains unspoken and under the surface, yet that’s also a line Carmen’s not willing to cross initially, fully aware of the sexual undertones, which plays into the idea of a white male fantasy where black women are viewed as sexual objects, and have been since the days of slavery when the masters kept their favorites inside the home with them. What’s exceedingly clear is that Carmen is viewed throughout as a sex object, certainly by the director, amusingly nicknamed “Heatwave” in the film, where the bright color of her clothes and the tightness of her skirts stand out from the rest, as does her markedly aggressive behavior, yet she’s able to transcend these limitations with such a powerful performance. As described by Dandridge’s biographer Donald Bogle:
In past eras, black women like Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and even dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham were seen as powerfully sexy and desirable women. Yet they were rarely openly acknowledged as such by the American press. Patrons didn’t see them as female ideals of above-the-table goddesses, to be fawned over like Rita Hayward, Hedy Lamarr, or Betty Grable. Rather, in the dominant culture and market mainstream, the Negro goddess was only to be appreciated and desired on the sly…Things began to change in the fifties, though, as the Black women making an impact in show business [like Dandridge and Eartha Kitt] found themselves openly saluted as sex goddesses.
Dandridge was quite aware of her reputation within the black community, conscientiously attempting to keep an unblemished reputation, yet her empowered sexuality put her in the distinguished company of other screen icons like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, or Elizabeth Taylor. This screen persona allowed her a certain freedom that was unavailable to her in her less glamorized personal life, where the emboldened publicity stills for the picture (designed by infamous Hollywood graphic designer Saul Bass) can be viewed alongside other screen legends of the era. What is remarkably transparent in the film is how Dandridge rises above the limited stereotypes of the other characters, particularly co-stars Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. In the case of Belafonte, the opera voice may be the most disjointed and out of whack with his character, who is always hiding or in confinement, while Bailey sang her own songs with a down-to-earth style, yet she remains a caricature, as if stuck in the earlier all-black musicals of the 40’s, especially urging on drummer Max Roach in “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” Carmen Jones (1955): "Beat Out dat Rhythm on a Drum ... YouTube (3:53), featuring famed choreographer Alvin Ailey as an uncredited dancer, yet never transcending the racial and sexual boundaries like Dandridge did, literally soaring above the rest, exhibiting a star persona from the moment she hits the screen, making her the primary reason to see this film, which is otherwise flawed in more ways than one can imagine, yet is a well-studied example of its historical significance.
A versatile actress who could also sing and dance, Dandridge began performing with her mother and sisters with “The Wonder Children,” eventually going on the road as “The Dandridge Sisters,” performing at The Cotton Club and at the Apollo Theater, while her first screen appearance was a small, uncredited role in the Marx Brothers film A DAY AT THE RACES (1937). Following CARMEN, however, the flame of Dandridge’s public acclaim was brief, reduced to making bad films, usually starring opposite white male co-stars, where she was cast as a beautiful exotic woman coming from an often vague interracial background. Succumbing to the pressures of the studios, she was refrained from kissing or establishing any intimacy with her co-stars. Unfortunately her personal life mirrored her screen persona, usually finding herself in unhappy relationships, marrying young at the age of 19 to Cotton Club dancer Harold Nicholas, the younger half of the Nicholas Brothers, but their marriage deteriorated from his habitual womanizing, leaving her stranded without a car while in labor to go play golf, significantly delaying her arrival to the hospital, where the emergency use of forceps may have caused brain damage to her daughter Harolyn, requiring lifelong care afterwards, leaving Dandridge guilty and distraught about the circumstances, with her husband eventually abandoning her after a few years. Somewhat under the publicity spotlight, Dandridge sought refuge, usually in the company of white men who offered the promise of financial security, including a four-year relationship with Otto Preminger, who advised her on career matters, insisting upon only starring roles, but she later regretted following his advice, including the trauma associated with what some have claimed was a studio-mandated abortion when she became pregnant, ending the affair when she realized he would never leave his wife. Dandridge’s earnings were largely accumulated by an ongoing nightclub act, working steadily in Las Vegas, integrating many of the “White only” night spots, earning a quarter of a millions dollars annually in the late 50’s. When she finally remarried in 1959 to Jack Denison, a white Vegas club maître d rumored to have mob connections, he turned the tables on her by expecting her income to support them, as he was riddled with financial problems, which included disastrous investments gone wrong. Among allegations of domestic violence, she was also swindled out of some of her earnings and sued by multiple creditors, leading to a large debt owed in back taxes, requiring her to sell her Hollywood home and place her daughter in a state mental health facility. Forced to file for bankruptcy, Dandridge underwent some lean years professionally, never really getting her career back on track, dying at age 42 under mysterious circumstances, found naked and unresponsive after what was initially ruled an accidental overdose of antidepressants, though a subsequent medical exam revealed an embolism lodged in her brain and lungs from a recent foot fracture. Even Lena Horne, a star of great beauty and talent, and a diva in her own right on the stage and screen for decades, never rose to the superstar status of Dandridge, whose allure of brazen sexuality may be unmatched, electrifying both black and white audiences, offering one of the great performances in the history of film, especially significant considering the time in history when it was made, as not only were blacks still viewed as inferior to whites, but they weren’t allowed to eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels, with some states retaining laws that prohibited blacks and white from lawfully cohabitating, even as man and wife, as depicted in the Jeff Nichols film Loving (2016). Adding to that, women in movies in the 50’s were viewed as dutiful onscreen submissives, often viewed as glorified male fantasies, where the screen persona is all an illusion, rarely the equal of any man, but Dandridge literally shreds that misconception, as the entire film revolves around her strength of character and fiery independence, proving to one and all that she’s any man’s equal. While her acclaim is largely associated from a single picture, the influence of Dorothy Dandridge on today’s actresses is profound, receiving tributes from Cicely Tyson, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé, covering the entire spectrum of black culture.