Thursday, February 25, 2016

Carmen Jones

I talk jus like yor Maw... and that's the last time I use phonetic spelling. It's about time I get to one of the few films on the List that could qualify in any way for Black History Month. If any of my readers are teaching high school theater or history, this is definitely one to check out. This picture is, in a word, odd. Not because there is not a single white person anywhere to be seen in the film (seriously, nowhere. Not in crowd scenes, not in background shots, nowhere). Every single person on screen is black in every scene. This had to have been an interesting casting call when it was made in 1954 - any black backlot actors who would wait around for work could be guaranteed work at least in crowd or street scenes. That's not the weird part, considering how many films on the list have only white people in them. The weird thing in this movie is the soundtrack. It is, as the title suggests, taken entirely from the opera Carmen. The plot is Carmen in WWII, and the soundtrack is Carmen in Very Exaggerated AAVE. It's very odd to hear character's suddenly start saying "dat" and "maw" and "I is", when they don't talk like that in the rest of the movie. Some of the dubbing is badly done, since neither Dorothy Dandridge nor Harry Belafonte were trained in operatic singing. Dorothy Dandridge's singing voice, a woman named Marilyn Horne, apparently worked very hard to approximate her voice, and doesn't do too bad a job. However, if you're used to Harry Belafonte's singing, it's quite peculiar to hear him suddenly singing in a vibrato tenor. Again, it was determined that there was nothing wrong with his voice, he just couldn't sing opera. The plot of the film is... really complicated. If you're familiar with Carmen, then you've got a vague idea of the plot of this movie. But the driving force of the plot is that the titular Carmen is only interested in men who are uninterested - so the engaged soldier Joe is a prime target. A series of various hijinks end up with them in Chicago, him hiding from the military police, and Carmen being pursued by a rich champion boxer. The movie ends like the opera and like the stage musical - with Joe murdering Carmen for ruining his life. Man, I review a lot of films where a sexy woman ruins a wholesome young man's life. Though Theda Bara got away with it. Does that mean that 1915 was more progressive than 1954? I have no idea. Dorothy Dandridge does look stunning throughout this film, Pearl Bailey's singing is great (and she is allowed to skip the weirdly exaggerated AAVE), and it's definitely a curiosity as a film. For teachers looking for some sort of lesson on black history in film that's not blaxspoitation, this may be one to check out. I won't say it doesn't have problematic elements, because it definitely does. This is one of those films that's more interesting as a study of segregation in film, maybe of sexism in film, or any number of elements like that rather than a strictly enjoyable film experience. But the film being so jam-packed with discussable items either makes it must-watch cinema, or must-avoid, depending on your personal preferences.

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