Thursday, July 12, 2012

What's Opera, Doc?

Film: Carmen Jones
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Okay, folks, strap in. This is going to be bumpy.

Carmen Jones is an updated, entirely African-American version of the opera Carmen. I state that straight out because, unlike most film musicals, this is opera. Operas don’t end well. That’s a part of what makes them opera. If you’re looking for smiles and happy endings that normally accompany musicals, you’d best look elsewhere, because you won’t get it here. If you didn’t know that going in, I apologize for the news flash, but really, you should know that this film is based on a larger work. And that’s the way operas work.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here it is. Joe (Harry Belafonte) is a Corporal in the Army right around the time of World War II. He’s just been accepted for pilot training. He’s got a girl named Cindy Lou (Olga James) who is crazy about him. He wants to marry her during his 24-hour leave before he deploys to flight school. But there’s a problem. Standing in his way is Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge).

Carmen is a wild woman and a bit man-crazy. In fact, her real introduction is a song in which she essentially claims to be a mankiller. She tells us in no uncertain terms that any man who pursues her will not catch her, but that she will inevitably set her sights on any man who plays hard to get with her. Naturally, this means that she has set her sights on Joe. And she gets him, after a fashion. She has a fight with a co-worker in the parachute factory she works in and is arrested for destroying a parachute and for possible sabotage. And naturally, Joe is assigned to take her to prison, but it has to be civilian prison because she’s not military.

Of course, in the process of taking Carmen to the civilian prison, things go off the track, in part because Carmen is a “free spirit” and doesn’t want to go to prison. That, and she’s still on the make for Joe, and naturally this is going to happen and Joe is going to forget (at least temporarily) all about Cindy Lou. After their passionate little fling, Carmen runs out, leaving Joe in the lurch. He can’t get his leave or get to flight school until he turns over Carmen. And he quite naturally ends up in the stockade for letting her get away.

Cindy Lou gets a rude shock while Joe is in prison (thanks, of course, to Carmen) and she runs off. Joe eventually gets out. Meanwhile, Carmen has attracted the attention of Husky Miller (Joe Adams), a prize fighter who she naturally has no interest in. Joe finds her, but says he needs to head to flight school, and because Carmen isn’t getting her way, she decides to leave with Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters). Joe puts a beat down on the sergeant, realizes that this will earn him a long stay in prison, and immediately goes AWOL, following Carmen to Chicago. Debauchery, scandal, crime and death follow, all in the classic operatic tradition.

So let’s talk about what the film gets right. First, and importantly, it legitimately updates the Carmen story, bringing it into a new era. The Joe character is still in the military, while the toreador has been replaced (and intelligently, mind you) with a boxer. Additionally, as the film is based not only on Carmen but on the stage version of Carmen Jones, it uses Bizet’s original opera score, and does it to great effect.

But I don’t like the story. I really don’t. I can’t fault the film for this because the film is absolutely true to the source material, and does it well. Dandridge is tremendous as Carmen because she really sells it. But I still don’t like the source material, and so I have a difficult time with the film. Carmen is a truly hateful character, and it’s worth saying that we get a very different story if we do a little gender reversal. If a man acted like Carmen does, he’d be a borderline rapist. But, it’s true to the source, and I have to give it credit for that. I may not like the story, and thus not like the film, but that’s not really a reason to be angry at the film.

You know what is? We have a film that stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and the studio, in its infinite wisdom, decided to dub their voices with other singers. By all that might be deemed holy in the world of film, that is a horrible, horrible crime. There’s not a single good reason to prevent Dandridge from singing, and keeping Belafonte off the mike absolutely infuriates me.

If you’re a fan of opera, or a fan of the stage version of Carmen Jones, this is a brilliant adaptation of it. For me, the story is unpleasant and filled with unpleasant characters, so despite the spectacle, I don’t enjoy it. But even though the spectacle is there, it really feels like our cast could have been better used, dammit.

Why to watch Carmen Jones: The music is pretty special.
Why not to watch: Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge aren’t allowed to sing their own songs, which borders on heresy.


  1. First of all - it is completely untrue that all operas end badly. Opera has genres, just like film. There are comedies, tragedies, experimental operas, historical operas, even political operas. The grand sweeping epics that pop culture thinks of when they think "opera" tend to be the tragedies; in much the same way, the grand sweeping film epics tend to be tragedies. So I kindly and gently correct your rather gross misstatement there.

    Second of all (as an opera fan), I've seen both Bizet's "Carmen" and Carmen Jones. I prefer "Carmen" by a longshot. I did feel like Carmen Jones paid due homage to the source material, wisely using Bizet's music. What I felt was lacking was the sizzle. "Carmen" is all pure unadulterated sexuality; when I saw it performed (Elina Garanca rocked my socks as Carmen, by the way), this was very clearly portrayed. Perhaps 1954 was not the best year to try to bring such a damn sexy opera to the screen. "Carmen" lost its heat when it transitioned to Carmen Jones.

    And lastly, to respond to your comment of hating Carmen because she's mean and aggressive, I agree with you that she is those things, but I like Carmen. I see her as the operatic equivalent of Phyllis Dietrichson, and I just LOVE Phyllis Dietrichson. They are both wicked and cunning and conniving, but there's a thrill to be gotten (at least for me) from watching someone play so fast and loose with the rules. While I don't doubt that you didn't enjoy the film, I see some similarities between "Carmen" and film noir, and I know that you (like me) love film noir. Noir is full of unpleasant characters in unpleasant stories.

    Oh, the other thing that struck me about "Carmen" was that Michaela, the equivalent of Cindy Lou, is a total and complete drip. I would much rather watch Carmen than Michaela.

    Yes, the fact that Belafonte did not sing is utterly incomprehensible. Why did they get a singer and then not use him? Why did they squander that opportunity to use THAT voice???

    1. I'm not a fan of opera.

      We had a rule when I was growing up that we had to try foods five times--five times over a range of months. If we didn't like it after the fifth try, we didn't have to eat it any more. I figured that was a decent rule in general. I've seen five operas over the course of my life and I haven't liked them, so opera and I are quits.

      That said, I prefer Bizet's Carmen over this film. Carmen Jones the movie pays homage to the opera, but also sticks to the source of the staged version, and I respect that, but still, I don't like the source material (after all, not an opera fan, or a fan of stage musicals in general), so I knew pretty much going in I probably wouldn't like this film.

      I see the noir angle. I still don't like Carmen as a character. I do go back to the idea of switching genders here. A guy who acted like Carmen (particularly when they're in the Jeep) would be arrested for sexual assault. And again, I can live with this.

      It's a damn crime that Belafonte couldn't sing his own role, though. To me, forgiving my dislike of opera and all that becomes a minor issue. Had Preminger allowed Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte the opportunity to use the talents that made them famous, I still wouldn't have liked the story or the film that much, but I'd have at least not felt cheated by it, and that more than anything is what disappoints me here.

    2. If anything, the fact that their voices weren't used speaks volumes as to the casting. "We used Dandridge and Belafonte because they were the most famous African-Americans we could think of, not because they're singers and we're making a musical."

      Part of my setback in this discussion is that I've only seen Carmen Jones once and it was about four years ago and I remember little of it. I remember far more about the opera. I don't even remember the jeep scene you mentioned - it sounds important. Hence me mostly mentioning the opera and not the movie. So to be completely honest, my memories of the film are hazy at best. (Which, by the way, is also why I decided to start my blog - I realized I had seen all these great movies, but some of them, I just plain didn't remember. By rewatching and blogging about them, I'm creating a catalogue so I can remember them a lot better.)

      See, now you've gotten me curious about which five operas you've seen. Care to share? Personally, I adore bel canto. I can't get enough of it. "Barber of Seville" is, push comes to shove, my favorite opera, but I also really really love "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "La Sonnambula." I fell in love with bel canto tenor Juan Diego Florez. I will watch/listen to him sing in anything.

  2. I'm wracking my brain now. I know I've seen Die Fledermaus, Carmen, and Aida. I know I've seen a more modern one (Salome, I think). I know there's another, but it would have been from years and years ago. It simply doesn't appeal to me as a form--I can respect the craft and the dedication. I simply don't enjoy watching it (although I've found I don't terribly mind listening to it). But, to the point, I have tried, and over a period of years.

    I feel the same way about musical theater, and I've seen highly acclaimed shows with great casts and been pretty unmoved by them--original London cast of The Lion King, Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, etc. It simply doesn't appeal to me in general, although there are always exceptions. I'm more apt to enjoy a filmed musical than a live one, and there are actually plenty I really like.

    And it can obviously change. With my daughter's involvement in ballet, I've become much more knowledgeable about ballet and dance, and I do enjoy it more now than I did 10 years ago. So I am still capable of change.

    You and I started blogging for similar reasons. Part of why I do this is to have a concrete place for my thoughts about what I watch.

    Ultimately, I can respect Carmen Jones as a piece of musical theater without liking it. I can even enjoy the songs without liking the story. But I can't get past not getting the voices I really want to hear and should hear when seeing this. That, to me, is an unforgivable sin.

  3. I'll just add to siochembio's clarification on what opera is - this movie, although based on an opera, is not an opera itself. It is a musical. A musical has people periodically breaking out into song; an opera has most or all of its dialogue sung, too. That's the distinction between them, not that one ends happily and the other ends sadly. As siochembio writes, though, the most famous examples of each do fit those profiles.

    I guess you're not counting Bugs Bunny's What's Opera Doc among the five, even though you used it for your title. "Kill the wabbit. Kill the waaabbit. Kill the waaaabbit!" :-)

    I liked this movie, but didn't love it. I found the Carmen character too inconsistent, but this may be true to the original opera, which I have not seen. I also got a bit of a noir feel from it, with the "she done him wrong" angle.

    By the way, I knew right away that that was not Belafonte singing, but I didn't know Dandridge was dubbed, too. In regards to Belafonte, I just figured they still wanted the "operatic" sound in the singing and that his voice wasn't best suited for it. He's great at the smoky, smooth songs. Also, back then they routinely dubbed people's voices and didn't think anything of it. At least they acknowledged it in the credits, something most movies did not do.

    1. Oh, I know it's not opera, but it is operatic in many ways. And I know that not all operas are tragedies, but the bulk of them, or at least most of the famous ones, are.

      I'm sure you're right about the operatic style. Still, I don't really care if they got Maria Callas and the resurrected corpse of Enrico Caruso to sing the tracks--Dandridge and Belafonte should be singing those songs. I would have still disliked the film and the story, but I'd have had a lot more respect for it.

      Side note: Elmer Fudd singing "Kill da wabbit" is my ringtone for when my older daughter calls me. I have, of course, seen that cartoon. I've also seen the Hey Arnold opera cartoon, "What's Opera, Arnold," based in large part on the same story, containing the awesome lyric:

      My name's Don Arnold, please have a caramel.
      Your hair is lovely. Do you like my pants?
      They're made of satin; the cape's pure Latin.
      I had it tailored in the south of France.

      The south of France! Your satin pants!
      Why don't you ask the lady for a dance?
      It's time for your decision.
      It's almost intermission.
      Hey Arnold, you better ask her to dance.

    2. Here's the opera part of that particular cartoon. It helps to know the characters, but it's not essential.

    3. Thanks for sharing those things. I don't know the Arnold characters, but you're right that it must have been inspired by the Bugs Bunny skit.

      I have a forty year old memory of another Bugs Bunny skit where he's massaging Elmer Fudd's scalp to the Barber of Seville music and one where he's conducting an opera singer to hold a note so long he practically explodes.

  4. Well, isn't this a case of a story that just should not be made into a movie? I think we need at least a few likable characters. In the theater watching an opera the story does not really matter. Most of the words are in an incomprehensible language (even if you knew the language per se) and the cast is selected for the singing qualities, not their acting qualities. Instead you just lean back and enjoy the music. Who cares if it is a tragedy if the music is awesome? We just do not have this luxury watching a movie, not even a musical and so this movie stinks no matter what else they did to it.

    1. I don't disagree in general. There are plenty of musicals that have much better songs than this one, and with no characters worth sympathizing with, the music just isn't enough.