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Thursday, October 18, 2012

CARMEN JONES (1954)

After twelve uneven years in Hollywood, Otto Preminger found the signature shooting style (long unbroken ‘takes,’ fluid camera movement, ‘invisible’ staging) that would set him up for a decade’s worth of his still under-rated work. Working in CinemaScope for the second time, the addition of Sam Leavitt’s lensing (just off George Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN/’54), the uncredited choreography & general stage movement of Herbert Ross and a typically arresting credit sequence from debuting Saul Bass bring a level of visual sophistication that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. Just look at those opening reels! The mosey texture of military camp life; the crisscrossing character introductions; the serpentine tracking as Carmen stalks Joe in the lunchroom: all the work of a master. The show, taken from Oscar Hammerstein’s clever adaptation that reformatted Bizet’s opera as a B’way ‘numbers’ musical finds unexpected power out of the segregated military traditions of WWII, nicely balanced against some outstanding comic support, especially from Pearl Bailey. Pearly Mae ‘steals’ one of Carmen’s arias for ‘Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum’ and does all her own singing, as do her fellow conspirators, Diahann Carroll, included, in the exceptional lyrics Hammerstein worked up for the quintet. Harry Belafonte as the tragic soldier & Joe Adams as the boxing champ (Bizet’s Toreador) are hampered by the unlikely voices coming out of their mouths, but Cindy-Lou’s Third Act pastorale is an astonishment while Marilyn Horne’s dubbing for Dorothy Dandridge is spectacularly successful. (Horne’s deep-think CARMEN @ The Met under Leonard Bernstein hasn’t half the charm.) And how many years would pass before a black couple got so sexy on camera? (Note the caption on our poster.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Otto Preminger’s PORGY AND BESS/’59 should be the perfect match, but something went horribly wrong on the film. (No Leavitt? No Ross?) Anyway, the unhappy Gershwin estate keeps it out of the public eye. But you can follow the next career step of Pearl Bailey & Diahann Carroll in the magnificent original cast album of the flop Truman Capote/Harold Arlen musical, HOUSE OF FLOWERS, produced right after this. Choreographed by this film’s uncredited Herb Ross, he also went uncredited on that show. Not for his choreography, but for taking over direction when Peter Brook was fired.

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