“Love’s a baby that grows up wild and he don’t do what you want him to – Love ain’t nobody’s angel child and he won’t pay any mind to you” – “Dat’s Love” (Habanera)
Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954) was an African-American version of the story of Carmen, set to music from the opera by Bizet with a contemporary libretto and an all-black cast.
Set in the early 1950s at a time when racial segregation was only just starting to relax and American troops were fighting in Korea, the film makes reference to the political issues of the time but the main theme is the classic story of doomed love.
Dorothy Dandridge plays Carmen as a hard-eyed, hip-swivelling good time girl who plays with men’s affections. Setting her sights on handsome but already-spoken-for Joe, played by Harry Belafonte, Dandridge’s Carmen gradually twists and twirls him around her little finger until he abandons his faithful fiancee, his army career and his reputation for the love of her – only to be thrown aside for a richer and better connected suitor. A typical femme fatale, except that she is black – something not really explored in Hollywood films before, where the black girl usually played the maid.
It’s a film that has always divided critics – some hated the fact that Carmen’s singing voice was dubbed, a la Singing in the Rain, by the opera singer Marilyn Horne – some felt it was trying too hard to be politically correct (although Otto Preminger had already embarked on an affair with his star, at a time when interracial relationships were still quite scandalous) but as a steamy tale of love gone wrong it’s pretty hard to beat – and of course with some magnificent tunes.
And Dorothy Dandridge is wonderful as Carmen – utterly insouciante and seductive from her first entrance, in this part it’s hard to take your eyes off her. One of the best scenes is the card scene, where her defences suddenly drop as time and again she gets the Death card in a fortune telling game, and then pulls herself together again to declare, “I’m going to run out every second I’ve got left – until he mows me down! – I’m going to laugh and sing and use up all my breath – before he throws me down! I’m gonna keep on livin’ – until the day I die…”
So, in some ways the classic femme fatale and in others, breaking the mould. She never did anything else as good, but she made the role, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else getting that combination of steeliness, sadness, and pride in her race and beauty quite so perfectly.