Carmen Jones (1954) made Dorothy Dandridge a star.
Based on the 1943 stage musical, with hauntingly beautiful lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and set to the music of Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen, it took the daring of director Otto Preminger to make the play into a film. Preminger’s Carmen Jones would be the first musical film with a completely black cast since 1943, and the first ever to be filmed in color. It was a risky venture, and Preminger faced opposition from other Hollywood power players for taking the film on. But despite this opposition, Carmen Jones proved a critical and box office success.
And most of the film’s success can be attributed to Preminger’s leading lady, Dorothy Dandridge.
From Career High to Career Low
Dorothy’s performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making her the first black woman to achieve the honor.
But the whirlwind megastardom and prestige Dottie achieved with Carmen Jones was short-lived. Filmmakers struggled to figure out just what to do with this woman whose beauty and talent demanded follow up leading roles; leading roles that the studios wouldn’t give her. 1950s Hollywood stifled Dorothy Dandridge’s future as a leading lady. Her precarious position in the industry seemed to prove that the world was ready for a black leading lady, but only to a point.
If you missed Carmen Jones on Turner Classic Movies last week, you can rent or purchase the film here [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
It’s WWII-era North Carolina. Dorothy is Carmen Jones, a sensual beauty who works in the local parachute factory. Carmen can quite literally have her pick of any man who crosses her path. Any man that is, except Joe (Harry Belafonte), a handsome corporal on base preparing to leave for flight school.
Despite Carmen’s overt interest and come-ons, Joe remains true to his sweet fiancée Cindy Lou (Olga James), who he plans to marry during a 24-hour pass.
Joe’s refusal of Carmen only makes her more determined to get him. And we know that soon, Joe will succumb to her advances. We also know that after Carmen makes Joe hers, she won’t remain interested long. As Carmen warns in the film’s electric opening number—set to Bizet’s Habanera:
“If I chase you then you’ll get caught. And once I got you, I go my way.”
Take a moment to watch Dorothy sing Dat’s Love, the electric opening number in Carmen Jones (1954). It’s easy to see from this scene alone why Dottie was nominated for Best Actress.
Carmen Seduces Joe
Joe’s plans to marry Cindy Lou are first thwarted when Carmen gets into a knock down, drag out, fight with a coworker, destroying “government property” in the process. Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters) revokes Joe’s pass, and orders him to take Carmen to civilian jail in far away Masonville.
This one-on-one time with Carmen means Joe is a goner…
Carmen succeeds in seducing Joe as they pass through her hometown, and, true to her musical warning, leaves him the next morning. Joe returns to base, and is then sentenced to time in the stockade for allowing his prisoner to escape.
But neither Carmen or Joe can forget about the other, and Carmen sends Joe her signature red rose while he’s serving time. Of course, the rose arrives during a visit with Cindy Lou, who’s forgiven Joe his indiscretion and come to see him at the stockade. But the rose seals the deal for Joe: there’s no question that he will pursue Carmen over Cindy Lou.
Meanwhile, Carmen tells her good friends Frankie (Pearl Bailey) and Myrt (Diahann Carroll) that she’s in love with Joe, and turns down the advances of wealthy prize fighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams). It’s not in Carmen’s nature to two-time. She tells Frankie that Husky’s “just one man too late” before refusing Husky’s offer to go to Chicago with him. Carmen will wait for Joe.
Off to Chicago
When Joe does get out of the stockade, he meets up with Carmen at a local club. It’s not the reunion Carmen planned on however, as Joe informs her that he’s leaving for flight school, and they’ll have to wait before they can be together for good. As Carmen expresses her anger and disappointment over this turn of events, Sergeant Brown joins them, and begins making a pass at Carmen while belittling Joe.
The two men get into a fight, and Joe knocks Brown out. Now Joe will have to spend years in military prison. That is, unless he can escape before he’s caught. Carmen convinces Joe to run away with her to Chicago—she’s still got the ticket from Husky Miller—and the two successfully make it to the Windy City.
Joe Gets Needy, Carmen Gets Restless
But once in Chicago, their happiness is short-lived. The military police are hot on Joe’s trail, so he can’t leave the crumby room he and Carmen have rented. And Carmen, never one to do well when her freedom is stifled, begins to sour on the relationship as Joe becomes more and more needy and obsessed with her. When Joe accuses Carmen of being unfaithful after she returns to their room with more groceries than he believes she had money for, it’s the last straw: Carmen decides to go have fun with Frankie and Myrt, who are also in Chicago with Husky Miller and his crowd.
Carmen meets up with her friends at a party, and her outlook on life—to live each day to the fullest—becomes even more exaggerated when Frankie pulls the 9 of spades, the death card, as she reads Carmen her fortune. Right then and there, Carmen decides she’s through with Joe, and begins a romance with Husky Miller.
Joe can’t take it, and confronts Carmen the next day while she’s with Husky at his training gym. Joe tells Carmen that if he can’t have her, no one can. He gets into a losing fight with Husky just as the military police enter the building. Even though she no longer wants to be with Joe, Carmen helps him escape.
The End of Carmen and Joe
Joe still can’t accept the end of their relationship, and follows Carmen to Husky’s big fight. After Husky’s triumphant victory, he and Carmen get separated in the crowd of fans at the stadium, and Joe snatches Carmen away, forcing her into a broom closet amidst all the pandemonium.
Joe pleads with her once more to take him back, but Carmen won’t lie about her feelings. She turns him down flat. Once more, Joe tells Carmen that if he can’t have her, no one can. He’d rather kill Carmen than see her with another man. Carmen confidently challenges Joe’s threat, and begins to walk out of the closet.
But now it’s Joe’s turn to make good on his words. He takes Carmen by the neck, and strangles her to death.
A maintenance man witnesses the scene, and informs the military police, who are never far away. Now Joe will die for his crime. Their mutually destructive love is the end of both Carmen and Joe.
And that’s the end of the film.
Otto Preminger Takes a Risk on Carmen Jones
The 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones had a lasting impact on Otto Preminger. For nearly a decade, Preminger, the respected director of such classic films as Laura (1944) and later, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), remained intrigued by what he saw on stage, and wished to tackle the unique challenges of making Carmen Jones into a film. In his autobiography [aff. link], Preminger inaccurately called the stage production of Carmen Jones a “revue,” with
“A black cast [that] performed skits which were loosely based on the opera Carmen. The score by Bizet was simplified and changed so that the performers who had no operatic training could sing it.”
While the play actually wasn’t a revue, and it was sang as an opera, Preminger’s memory of what he saw on stage is indicative of the unique vision he had for his film version of Carmen Jones:
“I was fascinated by the idea of transposing the story of Carmen into present-day American life with an all black cast…Except for the lyrics, we did not use the text of Hammerstein’s revue or the libretto of the original opera…but went back to the original story……I had decided to make a dramatic film with music rather than a conventional film musical.”
Making Carmen Jones Happen
With his vision firmly in place, Preminger went about finding a studio to finance the film. But it wasn’t easy. As Harry Belafonte later remembered in his autobiography [aff. link],
“…Preminger was taking on a considerable challenge…In Hollywood, all-black-cast movies were viewed as sure money losers, after a brief vogue for them in 1943 with Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both of which had earned praise but no profits. Preminger, one very scrappy guy, was raring to prove that wisdom wrong.”
Meager Budget, Thoughtful Preparation
It was ultimately Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox who shared Preminger’s enthusiasm for the project. Though the two men had a complicated history—Preminger had just bought himself out of his contract at Fox for $150,000—it was Zanuck alone who agreed to finance Carmen Jones, with Preminger acting as both independent producer and director.
After much stalling from Fox’s vice-president in New York, Otto Preminger was finally allotted $750,000 to make the film. In Preminger’s own words, this was an “almost impossibly low budget for a musical.” But it was the only financing he could get, so Otto accepted.
In preparation for Carmen Jones, Preminger directed an opera for the New York City Opera, Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Sensitive to issues of race, and realizing that Carmen Jones could have a lasting influence on society’s perception of African Americans, Preminger also sent the film script to then-NAACP president Walter White, hoping to get his seal of approval, or suggested changes, before proceeding with the picture.
Walter White liked what he read. As Otto wrote in a memo to Darryl Zanuck, while Walter White indicated that he generally opposed films with completely white or completely black casts,
“because their [the NAACP] fight is for integration as opposed to segregation in any form, he likes this particular script very much and has no objection to any part of it.”
With White’s blessing on the script, Preminger set out to cast his groundbreaking film.
A Talented Cast for Carmen Jones
The black film and theater communities buzzed with excited anticipation over the casting of Carmen Jones. As Brock Peters, who earned the role of Sergeant Brown in the film, shared:
“Film to a black performer back then seemed a long way away—the very thought of Hollywood was so remote, and so unattainable for black youngsters. We all felt we needed some kind of magic to make happen.”
To these talented and underutilized performers, Carmen Jones seemed that bit of magic they’d been waiting for.
Fresh from his success and Tony award for John Murray’s Almanac, the handsome Harry Belafonte was a shoe-in for the role of Joe, Carmen’s tortured love. Popular Broadway actress and singer Pearl Bailey was easily cast as Carmen’s best friend Frankie, with newcomer Diahann Carroll wining the role of Carmen’s other friend, Myrt.
Former WWII Tuskegee Airman Joe Adams, who, ignoring the naysayers, successfully worked his way up from a job as a Hollywood truck driver to become one of LA’s most popular disk jockeys—Adams later became the manager behind Ray Charles’ success, right up until Charles’ death in 2004—was cast as Husky Miller. And Brock Peters, today best known for his stellar performance as Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), was cast as the mischievous Sergeant Brown. The operatically trained Peters also lent his singing voice to Roy Glenn, who played one of Husky’s sidekicks in the film.
The only two lead roles Preminger had difficulty casting were Cindy Lou, Joe’s sweet, good-girl fiancée, and the title character, Carmen Jones. Though Dorothy Dandridge was determined to win the role of Carmen, Dottie, at this point in her career a successful, sophisticated nightclub singer, was shocked to discover she wasn’t even under consideration for the part.
Dorothy arranged a meeting with Preminger to convince him she should play Carmen. But Dottie, dressed to the nines in a conservative outfit, complete with gloves and a Peter Pan collar, didn’t strike Preminger as sultry enough to play Carmen Jones. Preminger told Dottie he would consider her for the role of Cindy Lou, but Carmen was out of the question. As Dorothy shared in her autobiography [aff. link], Preminger bluntly stated that:
“You have a veneer, my dear. You look the sophisticate…I’ve even seen you walking down Fifth Avenue, with a red coat flying. When I saw you I thought, ‘How lovely, a model, a beautiful butterfly…but not Carmen’…”
Dorothy left the meeting frustrated and disappointed, with an appointment to come back and test for Cindy Lou.
It took the honesty of her sister Vivian for Dottie to get her game plan together. Vivian told Dottie that Preminger could only envision her as Cindy Lou:
“Because of the way you look….He couldn’t imagine you, with the way you probably talked to him and the way you went and sat down with this—THIS dress like a schoolteacher’s. Or like you’re going to church or something…”
Vivian Dandridge told Dorothy that at her meeting with Preminger the next morning, she needed to be sexy.
The suggestion embarrassed the always very ladylike Dorothy, but she knew Vivian was right.
So the Dandridge women united and got to work.
The Dandridge Women Unite for Carmen Jones
Mother Ruby taught Dorothy how to swing her hips when she walked, while Vivian suggested that she try to create a “trollopy look.” Dottie perfected the hip swinging walk, and hurried over to Max Factor’s studios, where she put on heavy lipstick, found a disheveled wig, an off the shoulder top, and a provocative skirt. And then just before her next meeting with Preminger, Dottie added the final touch to her Carmen Jones character:
“I needed one thing more: a tired look as if I had worn out a bed. I went to the gym and deliberately tired myself before going to see him.
As a final bit of staging I arrived a little late…I presented him with the most startling switch of personality he might ever have seen.”
And it did the trick.
As soon as Preminger saw Dottie in her getup, he exclaimed,
“‘My God, it’s Carmen!’”
That day Preminger ordered a test for Dorothy as Carmen, not Cindy Lou. But the test was hardly necessary. The role was hers.
Because of Dottie’s seemingly effortlessly sensual performance in Carmen Jones, it’s hard to believe that the annoucement of her casting sent shock waves through Hollywood. Many in the industry were surprised that the elegant Dorothy Dandridge had won such a sexy role. Like Preminger, with his initial reaction to Dorothy in her “schoolteacher” dress, many believed Dorothy incapable of projecting such overt sexuality. Phoebe Brand, an instructor from Dottie’s years at the Actor’s Lab, went so far as to say that:
“Dorothy was beautiful, startling so, but very fragile….We were surprised when she was cast as Carmen: who would have thought of casting her that way?”
Screen Image vs. Reality
Cast member Olga James (Cindy Lou) observed during filming of Carmen Jones that the sexy image Dottie projected so expertly in the film truly was acting:
“Looking like she did was a sensual thing in itself. But the kinds of things that she did as the character Carmen, I always thought was acting, which makes the acting all the more remarkable, because I don’t think that THAT was her personality from what I observed. I don’t think that innately was her personality.”
In fact, the sensuality of Carmen Jones deeply worried Dorothy. Not long after winning the role, Dottie, despite her initial excitement, told Otto Preminger that she could not accept the part:
“I tried to tell him how it was being bruted about that I was the wrong choice for the part. I had been compared with others purportedly with more sex appeal, or more dramatic talent.”
Preminger’s assurance that Dorothy was the best choice for the part, and his confidence in her abilities, restored Dottie’s own confidence.
It also marked the start of a romance between Dottie and Otto that would last the next four years.
An Oscar Worthy Performance
Despite the rapid pace of filming over the summer of 1954, Dottie turned in a nuanced performance, and Preminger correctly predicted that she would earn an Academy Award nomination for her work. Though Carmen Jones is not a perfect film, Dorothy makes every one of her scenes come to life. There’s a timelessness about her vivacious Carmen, and it’s impossible to watch anyone else when Dorothy is on screen. Even her lip syncing in the musical numbers is perfection. Dorothy’s is the performance that elevates Carmen Jones to classic status.
The Dubbing in Carmen Jones
According to Harry Belafonte, the Bizet estate demanded that in Carmen Jones,
“nothing of the operatic structure or score could be changed.”
As such, all the characters requiring an operatic range in the film were dubbed—with the exception of Olga James, who, operatically trained at Juilliard, did her own singing as Cindy Lou. Belafonte called the lip syncing embarrassing for singers like Dorothy and himself, who had beautiful voices, but not the operatic range the film required.
For her lip syncing, Dottie put her famous discipline to work. As Dandridge biographer Donald Bogle [aff. link] notes, in the film, Dorothy delivers some of “the finest lip syncing in history of the American movie musical.”
Twenty-year-old Marilyn Horne, not yet an international opera star, provided Dorothy’s singing voice in Carmen Jones. According to Dottie’s manager, Earl Mills, to prepare for the musical numbers, Dorothy watched Marilyn sing so she could imitate the movement of Marilyn’s neck muscles and facial expressions on each note. Marilyn herself applauded Dorothy for not falling prey to the usual lip syncing faux-pas of over-exaggerated mouth movements. Dottie kept it natural, and the result, as Horne said, “was sensational.”
Harry Belafonte and Dottie were not in the same league when it came to their acting abilities: Dottie could quite literally act circles around Belafonte, and it shows in the film. But by the end of filming, Harry’s acting had improved considerably, and he shines at the same level as Dorothy in their final scene together, where Joe, so overcome with passion and jealousy, strangles Carmen.
In his autobiography [aff. link] Harry honestly shared the mechanics behind making this rawly emotional scene look good on film.
Harry, completely overcome with the emotions of the scene, went for a passionate strangle hold of Dottie, but the action was quickly stopped by director Otto Preminger:
“‘Cut! Cut!’ Otto shouted, clearly very annoyed. I looked up to see him on top of the boom-shot crane.”
Preminger then continued to instruct Harry:
“‘Mr. Belafonte,’ he said in his thick German accent, ‘When you choke the leading lady in the movies, you do not put wrinkles in her neck.’
Passionate but not out of control, furious, but not homicidal—somehow, I got the balance right on the next take.”
That he did. Belafonte’s perfection in the last scene of Carmen Jones makes up for his woodenness earlier in the film.
Carmen Jones: A Critical and Box Office Success
Carmen Jones premiered at New York’s Rivoli Theater on October 28, 1954. With Vivian in attendance, it was an emotional experience for the two sisters, who recognized the significance of Dottie’s achievement. Vivian even cried when, before the premiere, the two sisters witnessed Dorothy’s image being put up above the theater to advertise the film. As Vivian shared,
“I was crying and she LOVED it….She told EVERYBODY! She’d pick up the phone and say, ‘ You know Vivi was crying when she saw my body going up in front of the theatre.’”
Overall, Carmen Jones was a critical and financial success. Dorothy Dandridge uniformly received praise and accolades for her performance, including the revered Best Actress Oscar nomination, making her the first black actress to do so. (The Oscar that year ultimately went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954).)
In addition to the awards, nominations, and praise, Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck offered Dottie a dream three-year-contract. She would earn $75,000 a film to start, and $125,000 by the final film. As a non-exclusive contract, Dorothy could continue with her nightclub engagements, or even make films at other studios, if she desired. Perhaps best of all, the contract guaranteed that her name would appear above the title of each film she made for Zanuck. It was an unprecedented contract for a black actress.
Carmen Jones & Dandridge Mania!
After the premiere of Carmen Jones, Dandridge mania continued to grow both in the US and abroad. Dorothy was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1955, where Carmen Jones was shown in a special screening. Copyright issues with the Bizet estate meant the film could not compete in the festival, and could not be shown on French soil. So Carmen Jones was screened on a US aircraft carrier in the waters surrounding the resort town. Festival attendees were anxious to catch a glimpse of Dorothy in real life and see the film, making the Carmen Jones screening the showstopping, sold out event of the festival that year.
Take a moment to watch this candid footage of Dorothy at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Dottie was so popular at Cannes that even her taking a stroll at the beach was news.
In an interview at the time, Dorothy credited her daughter Lynn as the motivator behind the success she now enjoyed:
“I think it was really the heartache over my child and the failure of my marriage that forced me to make a success of my career. I had to keep busy, I threw myself into my work. It’s wonderful therapy. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself.”
But ultimately, the career success that Dottie worked so hard for, that she’d made her second dream, was hollow:
”All of it was satisfying in a peculiar way. I felt vindicated for my years of frustration in marriage, love, and motherhood…But having achieved whatever I did, I found that inside me there was this vast hollow of private frustration. Where was the right love and marriage and home life? If I didn’t have that, all the rest was semirealization and chimera…
…Work is nothing. A child, that’s a creation. Several children, that can be a beautiful thing. A family life that works, that’s the idea. That’s what I wanted; and inside somewhere I was still hellbent on securing it.”
Dorothy hoped that Otto Preminger was the man who would give her this steady home life. Preminger’s infatuation and involvement in every aspect of Dottie’s career made her dream seem an eventual reality.
But ultimately, marriage to Otto Preminger wasn’t to be. Once again, Dorothy found her heart and dreams of a happy home broken.
Stiffled Potential After Carmen Jones
The career high Dottie experienced in the year after Carmen Jones also did not last:
“In these accolades I was to reach a high and also the beginnings of a decline inevitable for a Negro actress for whom there was no place else to go, no higher or better role to play, no new story available, no chance to play roles meant for white only.”
Darryl Zanuck believed that offering Dottie exotic beauty film roles, not necessarily leading roles as black characters, was a fulfillment of the contract between Dottie and his studio. But Dorothy was disheartened by the routinely disappointing parts she was offered, and feared she offended Zanuck by (understandably) turning down the role of an Asian concubine slave in the very successful 1956 film, The King and I.
Despite the success of Carmen Jones, it would be three years before Dorothy Dandridge made another film.
More Dorothy Dandridge Next Week!
And that’s it for Carmen Jones.
Join me next week for all about 1958’s Tamango, and Dorothy’s tragic last years.