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Carmen Jones (1954) was a rarity for Hollywood: a mainstream film with an all-African American cast. It had been done only a few times before, notably Hallelujah (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943). None of these had been a box-office success, so it isn't surprising that director Otto Preminger had so much trouble securing financing to make the film. Just coming off of United Artists' The Moon Is Blue (1953), Preminger approached U.A. executives Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin with the idea of adapting the stage show Carmen Jones that Billy Rose had done in 1943, still using the original music from Bizet's opera Carmen but with a new libretto. He was turned down. U.A. didn't think it would be commercially viable. Preminger later wrote, "I could do anything else I liked for them but not this. I soon discovered that most other companies would not touch it either." While he was in post-production on the Marilyn Monroe film River of No Return (1954) at Twentieth Century Fox, production head Darryl F. Zanuck asked Preminger to let him read his Carmen Jones script. Two days later, Zanuck committed Fox to the project and secured an $800,000 budget.
Carmen Jones is a retelling of Bizet's opera about an independent woman who lives by her own rules and discards men when she grows tired of them. The characters were changed from Europeans to African-Americans on an Army base in the deep South. Preminger admitted, "This was really a fantasy, as was Porgy and Bess. The all-black world shown in these films doesn't exist, at least not in the United States. We used the musical-fantasy quality to convey something of the needs and aspirations of colored people."
Fantasy or not, the idea created a stir amongst African-American actors both in Hollywood and New York. Dorothy Dandridge wrote in her autobiography, "Earl [Mills, Dandridge's manager] telephoned me to say that Otto Preminger was about to produce a movie adaptation of the Billy Rose stage hit Carmen Jones. For days there were rumors on the West Side about who would secure the lead, and from my informants I gathered I wasn't even being considered. There was a search for some natural Carmen, a new actress. For example, Ray Robinson's wife, an attractive girl who wasn't an actress and isn't now, was mentioned for the part. So were other Negro women based on their personal charm, looks, or the community position of their husbands. A singer Joyce Bryant and a Broadway actress Elizabeth Foster seemed to be in the running." When Dandridge met with Preminger, he admitted that he had not considered Dandridge because he thought she was too "ladylike" for the role. In real-life, Dandridge always prided herself on being elegant and conducting herself like a lady. She had gone to the interview with Preminger dressed in a fashionable but plain suit and light makeup. He wanted her to read for the part of Joe's demure sweetheart, Cindy Lou, but Dandridge refused. She pleaded for the opportunity to return the next day and read for Carmen. He reluctantly agreed. The next day Dandridge, decked out in floozy garb, wind-blown hair and heavy makeup showed up late for the interview and shocked Preminger into giving her a screen test. The test was made with actor James Edwards. In it, Carmen holds out her leg to Joe and asks him to blow on her freshly painted toenails, saying, "Blow on 'em sugar. Make 'em dry faster". Preminger called it "the best screen test I've ever seen". On May 26th, the official announcement was made. Preminger had found his Carmen. The other cast members, it was further announced, would be actor and singer Harry Belafonte, who Preminger had seen onstage in John Murray Anderson's Almanac for which Belafonte had won a Tony award; popular singer Pearl Bailey, stage actress Olga James, and two actors making their film debuts, Brock Peters and 19-year-old Diahann Carroll.
Ironically, as much as Dandridge had campaigned for the role, once she had secured it she was overcome by anxiety. For days she stayed in her apartment refusing to see anyone and seriously considered quitting the picture. One of her concerns was that the role (which in the 1950's might have been termed a 'whore') would not be a positive portrayal of an African-American. She worried over what the response from the African-American community might be. It was only after Preminger drove to her home and assuaged her fears - promising that he would support her throughout filming - that Dandridge felt secure enough to play the role.
Although the film would be released through Twentieth Century Fox, filming would take place at the RKO lot in downtown Hollywood. It was there that the cast rehearsed for three weeks on the already completed shooting sets and using the actual props. Preminger knew how important this film was to be and wanted everything worked out in advance. While both Dandridge and Belafonte were primarily known at that time as singers, their songs in the film would be dubbed. As Belafonte later remembered, "Because this was to be a black movie, and because blacks were still exotic to Europeans - and the movie had to be a financial success in Europe as well - Otto had to find a way to please the Bizet estate, which did not like what Hammerstein had done to the original work. They felt turning Carmen into a folk opera was not servicing the best needs of the opera, so Otto appeased them by hiring two opera singers to dub the main voices."
Le Vern Hutcherson, who had starred onstage in Porgy and Bess, dubbed Belafonte. Dandridge was initially to be dubbed by Katherine Hilgenberg, but when she failed to please Preminger she was replaced by 20 year old USC student and future opera mega-star Marilyn Horne. Horne (known as "Jackie" in those days) was putting herself through college as a singer with Tops Records, a company that made copy-cat recordings of popular hits using the same arrangements and hiring singers who could imitate the singer on the hit record. She recalled, "Even though I was at that time a very light lyric soprano, I did everything I possibly could to imitate the voice of Dorothy Dandridge. I spent many hours with her. In fact, one of the reasons I was chosen to do this dubbing was that I was able to imitate her voice had she been able to sing in the proper register." Marvin Hayes dubbed Joe Adams' character Husky Miller, and Brock Peters, who played Sgt. Brown, dubbed fellow cast member Roy Glenn. Pearl Bailey, herself famous as a singer, and Olga James were allowed to sing their own parts. Soundtrack recording began on June 18th at Twentieth Century Fox and filming commenced at RKO on June 30th.
Otto Preminger was a brilliant director, but he had a well-earned reputation for being a bully on the set. As Geoffrey MacNab wrote, "No one could deny that Otto Preminger had a temper. When he was displeased, his eyes would bulge, his cheeks swell, his veins pop, his face turn puce, and you could imagine that steam was about to come out of his ears and nostrils. What made it worse was that his dressings-down were always given in public, and he invariably picked on the most vulnerable. The bigger the audience, the more vicious the invective. Some actors at the receiving end of one of his tirades claim never to have recovered from the experience."
"With him, I became a nervous wreck, crying and jumping when the phone started ringing, incapable of walking calmly across a room," said Jean Seberg, having been plucked out of Iowa obscurity to play the martyred heroine in his 1957 film, Saint Joan. Lana Turner, meanwhile, walked out of his 1959 production, Anatomy of a Murder, telling the press that she couldn't cope with his domineering personality. Turner was also quoted as saying "I thank God that neither I nor any member of my family will ever be so hard up as to have to work for Otto Preminger".
The cast of Carmen Jones were not spared the wrath of Otto. Dandridge, who had become Preminger's lover shortly after they met, wrote in her autobiography, "Otto had a way of screaming at the performers. He did this with almost everyone except me. [...] I was sharp with him about one person in particular. I said, "If you scream at Glennet any more, I'll leave the set." "Why?" he asked, in consternation. He had no view of himself at all. "Because Glennet can't defend himself. He's a simple man who needs a job. When you scream at him, he falls apart, and I want to leave the set." Two days later, Otto screamed at Glennet. I left the set. Everything halted. The cameras came to a stop. The actors went off to the side. There was a hush...Otto came to the dressing room, "Darling, what's the matter?" "For God's sake, there must be another way of coping with people without batting them on the head and making them feel stupid in front of other people! I can't stand it!" Otto was flustered, "I know," he said, "I promised I would not, but this man is an idiot....Once more Otto calmed me. He promised again to be kind to the actors. I walked back to the set. Once more everything was fine...if anything in the making of Carmen was fine." The calm didn't last long. One day it nearly led to blows. Brock Peters and Preminger got into an argument. Peters remembered, "He chewed me out in front of a lot of people. Crew, cast and extras. He said something about, 'This New York actor...' Some disparaging things. And, of course, I was on the spot. It was my first picture. I was wanting desperately for it to work. I lost my temper. And I went for him. And Pearl Bailey and somebody else grabbed me." Bailey warned Peters that he would never work again - and later told him "Honey, I just saved your life." Joe Adams received his share from Preminger during the "Stand Up and Fight" sequence. After several takes, Preminger screamed over a megaphone, "Mr. Adams. What exactly is it you call yourself doing? I've got a milkman that's a better actor than you." Again, it was Pearl Bailey who held back an angry actor, telling him, "Now, honey, you just be cool. You're being paid a whole lot of money to do something that a whole lot of people would pay money to do." Adams, who was ready to walk off the set, did one more take, which Preminger loved. Adams thereafter believed that this was Preminger's way of goading an actor into a good performance.
Preminger did indeed get good performances from his actors and from Dorothy Dandridge in particular. When the film was premiered on October 5, 1954, her portrayal of Carmen Jones made her an overnight sensation with the public and both the black and white press. Not only was Dandridge the first African-American actress to be ranked among the world's top beauties, but she was also the first African-American to be nominated as Best Actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner, Prosper Merimee (novel)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Art Direction: Edward L. Ilou
Music: Georges Bizet
Cast: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Harry Belafonte (Joe), Olga James (Cindy Lou), Pearl Bailey (Frankie), Joe Adams (Husky Miller), Nick Stewart (Dink Franklin).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Geoffrey MacNab "Otto Preminger: The Method in his Madness " The Independent, Mar 25, '05
Dorothy Dandridge, Earl Conrad "Everything and Nothing : The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy"
Otto Preminger "Preminger, An Autobiography"