Friday, March 20, 2009

Jones-ing Over Carmen

Fig.1 Turn this poster on its side, and you almost have the CinemaScope aspect ratio; Saul Bass' design always works, whether vertically or horizontally

Two of the best things about director Otto Preminger are: 1. He knows how to handle a camera, and 2. His fearlessness. John Huston said, 'Time and again (Otto) has demonstrated his courage, his morality and his fearlessness.' He was also famous for shrieking at people on set, but that needn't concern us here.

Preminger's 'Carmen Jones' (1954) has guts, integrity and high quality in its every aspect. Based on Bizet's opera (with new lyrics by consummate Broadway man Oscar Hammerstein II), the settings are WWII North Carolina and Chicago, and what's more, the whole thing works.

All-black cast musicals were nothing new, but 'Carmen Jones' is an entirely different kind of vehicle: mature, nuanced, and generally non-stereotypical, because its drama transcends race. If it is a novelty it is because its drama possesses equalizing forces, yet the talent who realize them happen, in this case, to be African-American. Otto facilitates, but the work is transformed by the ensemble cast.

That said, the film itself is exceptional. Every performance is excellent. Harry Belafonte is somewhat restrained, due to Otto's choices to keep him relatively static, but on the other hand, nothing gets in the way of Dorothy Dandridge's completely dynamic Carmen. She is wholly engaging in the most intimate and invitational ways, and though we may be intimidated by her initially, her humanity becomes embraceable and ultimately moving.

In a later era, Dandridge would have been allowed to become a great star, but we should feel fortunate to have what we have of her.

The immediately recognizable Brock Peters kicks off his illustrious career with a supporting role of consequence, and Olga James, in a gem of solid performance, creates a strong presence as an alternative to the fiery Carmen.

Sam Leavett's camerawork, guided by Otto's fluid style, is particularly elegant and logical and displays some of the most exciting use of the wide screen, even when seen fifty-some years later. CinemaScope was at its widest (2.55:1 - before it was squared off to 2.35:1), and instead of balking about it, Otto takes advantage of its real estate with quasi-expressionistic narrative purpose.

The musical direction by Herschel Burke Gilbert, ably assisted by Jester Hairston and even Dimitri Tiomkin, is Hollywood professional musicianship at its best. Bizet is well served, with all dramatic flames lighted full blast, all the way through.

One thing about Preminger as a director: he delivers the goods, and with 'Carmen Jones' the delivery is high-powered, and as a consequence, becomes cinematic time well spent.


  1. who!killed!big!pink!fuzzy!bunny!lake!March 21, 2009 at 6:04 AM

    What drew me into investigating OP ('Laura' my introduction) was via John Water's film 'Cecil B Demented' wherein the title character and his renegade henchpeople 'the Sprocket Holes' all sported tats of various auteurs - of which, Cecil himself sported Preminger in a baronial font. I made a vow to check out something by each one represented (as of now I have Warhol & Spike Lee to go).

    Also, the historic theater used in the beginning 'abduction scene', the Senator (, is about to be pried from the owner (whom I'm acquainted with) via foreclosure -
    couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Though the city is eyeing up remodeling the place as a non-profit.

    Back to Otto, I'm jonesin' to see 'Skidoo' in which there were allegedly a lotta hallucinogens goin' around while in production.

  2. big!pink!fuzzy!bunny!lake!is!missing!March 21, 2009 at 8:50 AM

    Ugh. Hit me later that the above should've been my initial sign-in moniker. Saturday morns without Scottie must be breakin' me up... (noooooot!) ;-)

  3. I am only so glad that you were lost by the Simonizer, but found lakeside by Otto - or Olivier (who happens to be doing happy-face representation for yrs trly).

    Dandy stuff you mention.

    - Haven't seen any Watersian product since, well, 'Pink Flamingoes', which he'll probably never top. I'll certainly have to check out 'C.B. DeM.'

    - I liked Spike's 'X', but haven't bothered with his sell-out stuff.

    - Andy as director is a kick, but he is more 'accessible' as exec producer, a la 'A.W.'s Frankenstein' and especially 'A.W.'s Bad', which is as hilarious as vintage Waters. The evil Twins steal the show.

    (I actually met Andy once at a big party and got him to say four words into my tape recorder: 'Hello, hello' and 'No comment'.)

    I dig Otto because many of his pictures are Events, and they don't really know how to make Event Films any more. 'The Cardinal' is a genuine epic, but wholly intimate at the same time ('rambling', they branded it back in '63). He was also a funny 'n fascinating talk show guest, and my brothers and I did Preminger imitations, which were easy to do. As an aging baldo hipster, he was a barrel of fun, for sure.

    'Skidoo'. Wow - I've never seen it, but it's got to be a classic. I've got the LP soundtrack, and the titles are sung by Nilsson!

    - The Senator. Boy, some kind of splendid! From the climax year of '39, to boot. I've witnessed so many theatre closings that I hardly know what to say, except, to paraphrase Abe Lincoln: THE SENATOR MUST AND SHALL BE PRESERVED!

  4. big!pink!fuzzy!flamingo!March 23, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    Nifty response to find, PM, and fun tales to tell. Checked the library database - they have 'Carmen' in their holdings which I've just requested - so am pleased to pursue your recommendations! Annnd don't forget OP as Mister Freeze...

    Aye on the Senator - it's, like, the crown jewel in the Belvedere Square section of Balty-more, right at home with the upscale wine shop/bar, farmers market, clothing boutiques (in short, idyllic yuppie-mom shopping). Mr. Kiefaber had taken an integral role in that neighborhood's revitalization (for a good many years he'd host free Earth Day weekend screenings of the incredible 'Baraka' as one example) and I hope the place can still keep its 'vibe' - eventual outcome be damned.

    'Cecil B' good fun indeed, would highly recommend - you could say it's a bit more 'polished' than, say, PF ("Eggs! Eggs!"). Had become a fun scavenger hunt for me - not only for sourcing the directorial name-dropping but I'm also making an effort to patronize all the half-dozen or so Balt movie-houses featured therein (Lawd above & economic straits willin')