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Love goddess Rita Hayworth reached back to her Latin roots to play the tempestuous Spanish gypsy in The Loves of Carmen (1948). Although there was more of the good-hearted redheaded party girl than the devious outcast in her performance, the combination of Hayworth and "Carmen" on theatre marquees and posters was enough to send fans racing to theatres.
The Loves of Carmen marked the initial offering of Hayworth's production company, Beckworth (though she ultimately let director Charles Vidor take the only producing credit). It wasn't planned that way. Columbia and Hayworth were slated to produce Lorna Hansen, a Technicolor period piece set in New Orleans and co-starring William Holden and Randolph Scott. Audiences, however, were clamoring for a return to the femme fatale type she had played in Gilda (1946). She had gone the straight leading lady route in the musical Down to Earth (1947), and though she had taken a walk on the wild side in The Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by her husband Orson Welles, the film's box-office failure put her in need of a surefire hit. So she scrapped the New Orleans film (a story she would never film) for a more promising commercial property.
Although best known as the famous George Bizet opera, Carmen had been a screen staple since the silent era. Opera star Geraldine Farrar had scored a hit with it, under Cecil B. DeMille's direction, in 1915, the same year Theda Bara took on the role at Fox. Pola Negri had filmed it with Ernst Lubitsch in Germany in 1921, while Dolores del Rio had brought the role back to the U.S. in 1927. A 1945 French version starring Viviane Romance caused some problems for Columbia when the film's U.S. distributor sued the studio for plagiarism, citing 12 direct parallels in acting and characterization (there is no record of the suit's resolution).
At first, Columbia wanted to cast Gar Moore, an American stage actor who had scored a hit in Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (1946). Studio head Harry Cohn also used the role of Don Jose to lure Gig Young away from Warner Bros. to sign a Columbia contract. But Hayworth was adamant about reuniting the team that had made Gilda a hit. Although he felt himself miscast as the young soldier who becomes obsessed with Carmen, Glenn Ford was cast as Don Jose. Hayworth also demanded Vidor as director, despite the fact that he was embroiled in a major dispute with Cohn, actually taking the man to court in an attempt to stop his foul language and tyrannical behavior.
The studio promoted a family element on The Loves of Carmen by hiring Hayworth's father, Eduardo Cansino, as assistant choreographer, her brother Vernon Cansino to play a soldier and her uncle Jose Cansino to perform as a flamenco. Hayworth's dancing partner on-screen was the film's lead choreographer, Robert Sidney, though the star's dance steps were actually choreographed by a former dancing-school classmate, Antonia Morales. This created some tension on the set. Eduardo Cansino had been Morales' teacher and resented her suddenly taking over his daughter's staging. To keep his ego in check, Morales had to teach him the star's dance steps so he could, in turn, teach them to Hayworth. When Hayworth asked her old friend to provide her expertise to other members of the production crew, she ran into more trouble. The art direction team did not want to be told their sets were not authentic, nor did composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco appreciate her observation that his music was more Mexican than Spanish. Only costume designer Jean Louis welcomed her input, but that raised more problems with the film's technical advisor, who didn't want Morales suggesting that he didn't know his business, even though, in her opinion, he didn't.
All those problems didn't keep Columbia from making the film on a grand scale. Location shooting at Lone Pine, Calif., a popular stand-in for European locales, and Mt. Whitney was matched to lavish studio sets, including a 400 foot long Gypsy camp built on two soundstages that the studio advertised as the largest studio set in film history. Vidor used more than 1,200 extras and bit players in the film, insisting that different extras be called for every crowd scene so none of their faces would recur. He also worked with cinematographer William Snyder to develop a new style for Technicolor photography combining low-key backgrounds with bright foregrounds to create a three-dimensional effect that brought Snyder an Oscar® nomination.
When the picture finally arrived in theatres, the critics were far from impressed. Howard Barnes in the New York Times described it as "...a gaudy and colorful period horse opera marked by pompous dialog and random direction." John McCarten, in The New Yorker, complained that for all her beauty Hayworth wasn't enough of an actress to make the cold-hearted temptress more than "a girl who would regard an unchaperoned trip to Bear Mountain as devilish." But her legions of fans hardly cared. With trailers hailing the story as "The Most Violent Romance in 100 Years" and posters reassuring them that this was not a film version of the famous opera (which wouldn't reach the screen until 1983), they flocked to the film.
The Loves of Carmen would prove to be another box office success for Hayworth. She was next slated to star in the film version of Born Yesterday (1950), which Cohn had bought as a vehicle for her. Hayworth was so exhausted after the earlier film's 81-day shoot, however, that she demanded a lengthy vacation, during which she met and fell in love with her third husband, Prince Aly Khan, leading to a lengthy absence from the screen. Judy Holliday won the Born Yesterday role and the Oscar®; Hayworth got more headlines, notoriety and, ultimately, a broken heart.
Producer/Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch
Based on the story "Carmen" by Prosper Merimee
Cinematography: William Snyder
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Cary Odell
Score: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Cast: Rita Hayworth (Carmen), Glenn Ford (Don Jose), Ron Randell (Andres), Victor Jory (Garcia), Luther Adler (Dancaire), Arnold Moss (Colonel), Joseph Buloff (Remendado), Margaret Wycherly (Old Crone), John Baragrey (Lucas).
by Frank Miller