December 9, 2017
Carmen Jones (1954)
Grade: 50/100

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Olga James

What it's about. Originally a Broadway musical, Carmen Jones is an African-American adaptation of the well-known French opera "Carmen". The lead role of free-loving libertine Carmen is assumed by Dorothy Dandridge; her victim / boyfriend is Joe (Harry Belafonte), a would-be military pilot formerly betrothed to his loyal goody-goody girlfriend Cindy Lou (Olga James).

Under Carmen's spell, Joe's life spirals down quickly, and it is only a matter of time until her attentions turn to a more successful rival, heavyweight contender Husky Miller (Joe Adams). Famous blacks in supporting roles include Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll.

How others will see it. Carmen Jones is best known today as a star-making role for Belafonte, whose great success as a Calypso singer came three years later. In its day, the movie was a box office smash, outgrossing more heralded films from that year such as On the Waterfront, Sabrina, and A Star Is Born.

Carmen Jones was also critically acclaimed. It won Best Musical at the Golden Globes, and was nominated for Best Film from any Source at BAFTA. Dorothy Dandridge became the first black Oscar-nominated for Best Actress, though a much different dark horse, Grace Kelly, took home the trophy.

Today, though, Carmen Jones is most forgotten. Its director, Otto Preminger, is well regarded, but certain other films of his are better regarded, especially Laura and Stalag 17. Carmen Jones has a scant 3,650 user votes at The user rating of 6.9 is somewhat high, and it climbs to a respectable 7.5 among women over 45.

User reviews at are generally positive, and focus on one-time star Dorothy Dandrige, since this proved to be her biggest film. Belafonte's singing voice is dubbed, a minor shame. The all-black cast draws notice, and opera lovers can debate the degree of success in the transition of the classic French opera to the present setting. The soundtrack, as well as the plot, is drawn from "Carmen", though the lyrics are changed and now in the English language.

How I felt about it. Most of the actors are five to ten years too old for their roles. Fortunately, they are not stereotypical, except in their annoying overuse of Dat and Dey. The boxing scene is not credible, since Husky Miller is nearly knocked out in one round, then knocks out his opponent in the next.

Carmen Jones was hardly the first black musical. That honor goes to Hallelujah, a clearly superior film from 1929. Both movies, though, have plot elements in common, including a bad girl who brings down the previously honorable male lead.

The problem with Carmen Jones is not in its cast, or its score. The motivations of the characters do seem suspect. Joe seems unlikely to strangle Carmen, Husky Miller seems unlikely to fire his manager if he cannot produce a willing Carmen, Carmen plays too hard to get with Husky Miller's manager, Cindy Lou is too loyal to Joe, and Joe seems unlikely to punch his sergeant. These things happen because the plot must be advanced, and thus the characters seem pushed through a narrow maze instead of in possession of free will. That is to say, they are cinematic instead of human.