Carmen Jones movie poster

1955 - what a great year for musicals! In those days the Hollywood Foreign Press offered no nominations but they certainly had an impressive list choose from – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, A Star Is Born, just to name two. And the surprising win? Otto Preminger’s groundbreaking Carmen Jones.

Based on Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 Broadway success, channeling Bizet’s opera, the story was transposed to the American South and featured an all-Black cast, three of whom who would become big stars, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey. Preminger had bought the rights to the Broadway musical and offered it to United Artists who had released his previous hit movie The Moon Is Blue. Deeming the film uncommercial they rejected the offer. But then out of the blue Darryl Zanuck, who had had a checkered relationship, with Preminger came to the rescue.

The film ended up a financial success although it had more appeal in foreign countries, where it played for more than a year in exclusive engagements. Its only American recognition was the Golden Globe, but it won prizes at the Berlin and Locarno film festivals. Later critics have not been kind to the movie calling it “a relic from the gruesome social straitjacket that was segregation.”

But in its time it was a huge step forward and established a foothold for African American actors. Political activist Belafonte never disparaged his participation in the film, but two decades later he refused the lead in Sam Goldwyn’s screen version of Porgy and Bess calling it demeaning to African Americans. Carmen Jones holds up well thanks to Bizet’s score, Hammerstein’s lyrics, and the vibrant performances of Dandridge and Belafonte.

Incidentally, the film features the first opening credits designed by Saul Bass who went on to international acclaim for his work on Vertigo, Psycho, and others too numerous to mention.