Carmen Jones (1954) dir. Otto Preminger

CarmenShot in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is a treat for the senses. From the opening credits and the strains of Bizet’s opera, vivid colour floods the screen in this lovely restoration from the BFI.

Using Bizet’s 19th century-set opera is transposed to a Southern military base at the end of the second world war, starring an all-black cast performing an Oscar Hammerstein book and lyrics. In terms of musicality it never quite works, I mean, who dubs Harry Belafonte? However, Carmen Jones is an incredibly important film, and one that should be heralded as monumental.images-3

Carmen (played beautifully by Dorothy Dandridge) is a troublemaker. She exudes a tomboyish quality; a playful femininity which sees her climbing, running in heels, happy for rough and tumble, and an inner strength which belies her slight frame. Her arrest places her in a car with strait-laced G.I. Joe (Belafonte). He is charged with driving her to jail. Needless to say, Carmen tried to escape and after wrestling Joe to the ground, he finds himself in her childhood home, being cooked for, seduced away form his girl Cindy Lou (Olga James), and then imprisoned himself for allowing the duplicitous Ms. Jones to flee. images-4

Sultry Carmen is hedonistic, carnal and revels in her freedom whether sexual or geographical – she makes it abundantly clear – she will never relinquish it. She is the epitome of the transgressive woman, and just like those women of cinema (and in keeping with the opera’s tragic heroine), she is irrevocably punished for her transgressions. Interestingly, examining the notion of freedom, conformity, acceptability and erotic desire of Carmen is worth questioning; is she is defeated or merely defiant? Her active sexuality does not appear over-sexualised but feels liberated and yet it is the scenes in which Belafonte is shirtless that feel fetishised. As Carmen’s freedom is threatened, her frequent calling of Joe “boy” loses its affection and becomes derisive.

imgres-1Love, jealousy and tragedy are abound in this opulent and liberal affair, people of colour fill every frame, Dandridge and Belafonte are supported by Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters to name but a few.  They have agency, and are (mostly) free from stereotype. With songs entitled “Dat’s Love”, “Dis Flower” and “He’s Got His Self Another Woman”, written to Bizet’s musical score, and every effort to present a black community (albeit thought through the lens of an émigré man), it seems incredibly odd to disjoint the narrative and risk alienating the viewer by having these songs dubbed with the operatic vocal talents of Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. I can’t help but feel these songs would be more memorable, more gut-punchingly real if sung by the souls that play each character; the opera dub upsets the rhythm of the film.

Carmen Jones is wonderful but deserves to be seen on a huge screen, it loses a sense of this grandeur as a home release yet, regardless, is a gift; even an imperfect one. Its complexities certainly make for an interesting watch and one to unpick. Preminger’s use of space and incisive camerawork means there is a lot of visual charm but it feels muddled, a historical achievement for 1954, absolutely but missing something musically. The imposition of Horne’s vocals disjoints and the differences in pitch, tone and timbre seem, at times, farcical. It did, however, make an icon and Oscar-winner of Dandridge and rightly so, she is incredible in the role, and why CJ should always be hailed as “culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.”[1] imgres-2

Carmen Jones is available now on Blu-ray and screened as a part of the BFI’s Black Star season which ran from 17 October – 31 December 2016.

[1] In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress who described it as above.

Stage Fright (2014, dir. Jerome Sable)

Stage-Fright-2014

It seems almost apt that the man who declared ‘hot patootie bless my soul, really like that rock and roll’ would wind up playing the director of a musical summer camp for kids. For Meat Loaf Aday – his film roles seemingly have come full circle from his Rocky Horror days and his theatrical stage performances – as his Roger McCall nurtures and mould the little darlings for their annual show in Jerome Sable’s directorial debut Stage Fright.

DAY_001-00354.CR2The film opens with the Minnie Driver’s primadonna Kylie Swanson ending her performance in The Haunting of the Opera to rapturous applause, her twins Buddy and Camilla take a tour of the auditorium, while their mother preens in front of her dressing room mirror. She is then savagely hacked to death by an unknown assailant wearing the mask of the Opera’s villain. Ten years later, the twins work at Center Stage Camp, a place where all misfits/theatre geeks love, laugh, sing, dance and, best of all, fit in. The Haunting of the Opera is chosen to be the musical book restaged (in keeping with the tragic anniversary), albeit relocating setting to Japan and replacing the plain white mask with that of a Kabuki, complete with top-knot. Camilla (Ally MacDonald) has always wanted to perform on the stage and despite being kitchen staff and not a student is allowed to audition. As pre-production begins, one-by-one cast and crew are picked off.

Okay, so it is not extremely difficult to see what, who, or how this film was inspired, it is painting a rock-horror-musical-by-numbers. It is an extended Glee episode (although the cast is by and large far more likeable) via The Phantom of the Opera and Friday the 13th. The score and song list is, however, original and fluctuate between eye-rollingly naff and grin-inducing, especially those songs sung by the supremely camp, foul mouthed villain who is, typically, dressed heed-to-toe in black brandishing a knife and electric guitar with murderous aplomb. In fact, one criticism is that he is not on screen nearly enough and an audience has to sit through more teen-angst than is absolutely necessary; where is the slicing and dicing?StageFright-2014-1

There are enough sly allusions to other horror films to keep the seasoned genre-crowd satisfied (the sight of a twelve-year-old set designer wearing an apron whirling a hand-saw around made me chortle) and for those with a hatred or largely indifferent view of musicals there is a splendid rock and roll slayer to empathise with. Anyone with a sense of humour and a 90-minute window to fill should enjoy Stage Fright. It does exactly what it sets out to do, perhaps not quite frighten but it certainly entertains for the most part.