SATURDAY, 11 FEBRUARY – 7.30pm
1954 | US | Musical-Drama | Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll. 95 min. Rated U.
Inspired by the BFI’s recent Black Star season, a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, Hayle Film Club is proud to present the sizzling screen version of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with an all-black cast, originally released over 60 years ago and rarely seen in the UK.
The original Carmen, which premiered in 1875, was set in Spain and tells the story of a gypsy woman who works in a cigarette factory. She falls for a soldier, but eventually transfers her affections to a bullfighter with tragic results. In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the opera as a Broadway musical. Setting it in the contemporary American South, it ran for over 500 performances. For his 1954 film version of the show, Otto Preminger gives it a wartime setting, with the heroine Carmen a worker in a parachute factory and her lover Joe, a soldier; the toreador is changed into a professional boxer.
The cast is led by Dorothy Dandridge, whose vibrant performance resulted in the first Oscar nomination for a black actress. She stars in the title role as the passionate sexy creature who lures handsome GI Joe (Harry Belafonte) away from his sweetheart Cindy Lou (Olga James). Following a brawl with his sergeant, Joe deserts his regiment with the sultry femme fatale. Carmen soon tires of him and takes up with a heavyweight prize-fighter (Joe Adams), triggering Joe’s tragic revenge. Helping to set the screen on fire are Pearl Bailey, who sings the dynamic ‘Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum,’ and Diahann Carroll. Other popular songs include ‘You Talk Just Like My Ma’ and ‘That’s Love.’
Though not the first Hollywood film to feature an all-black cast, Preminger was rigorous in his casting; even in the Chicago street scenes the only faces visible seem to be black. It was a risky and daring move in the 1950s, but by this stage in his career Preminger had become an independent producer, and welcomed the opportunity to make unusual or controversial films.
While today’s critics differ on the film’s strengths and weaknesses, Carmen Jones is a piece of cinematic history and deserves to be seen by a modern audience.