Quiz Call: Carmen Jones

You’ll kick yourself for not guessing Carmen Jones in Quiz Call‘s musicals category, alongside classics like Boney M musical Daddy Cool and not really a musical Animal Crackers.

This 1954 film of Oscar Hammerstein’s musical based on Bizet’s Carmen stars Dorothy Dandridge as the titular factory worker who craves independence and for people to respect her authority. Sorry I might be getting it mixed up with Bizet’s Cartman.

Stop! Hammerstein.

The production is notable for its all-black cast (early anathema for the #NotMyAriel brigade) which, together with Carmen’s free-spirited noncomformity, makes this a progressive interpretation. Dandridge is devastating in a role not unlike Bess whom she also played on screen, becoming the first African American nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actress, which wouldn’t be won by a black woman until Halle Berry in 2001 for Monster’s Ball and then… actually that’s it.

Hammerstein’s (sans Rodgers) updated lyrics to Bizet’s music modernise matters melodiously, with highlights including ‘Dat Love’ (Habanera) and ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum’ (Les tringles des sistres tintaient), while Harry Belafonte gives a committed performance as Carmen’s hopelessly devoted lover Joe (about whom the ’60s song ‘Hey Joe’ could have been written).

As a combination though, the light musical frivolity undermines the heavy operatic melodrama, robbing the tragic ending of its intensity and failing to swell the emotion of the opera. This makes Carmen Jones an enjoyable romantic musical and ideal vehicle for Dandridge, even if it doesn’t exactly leave you jonesing for a rewatch.

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