The legendarily beautiful and troubled African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge (pictured), like so many sex symbols, was a martyr to her beauty in life, while in death, she lies buried beneath her own mythology.
Carmen Jones is the substance behind the hype, a potent explanation of her appeal and hold on the imagination so long after her death.
Carmen, a worker in a parachute factory, begins a torrid but ill-fated affair with Joe (Harry Belafonte), the handsome GI guard at the factory.
Based on Bizet’s opera Carmen and transposed from 19th Century Spain to the Korean War, the film is the story of a hungry, ambitious young woman whose narcissism and greed lead to the destruction of Joe, a good man who loves her dearly.
Filled with classic songs (the music and book are by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein) and a first-rate supporting cast that includes Pearl Bailey and a young Diahann Carroll, the all-black film is packed with sensational musical numbers – mostly shot in single takes by director Otto Preminger – that are integral to the film.
But as impeccable as craft, crew and supporting cast are, this is Dandridge’s vehicle all the way.
Her Carmen is one of the fieriest, most viscerally devastating sex goddesses ever caught on film – her cool, feline strut, curvaceous body, blazing eyes, and mixture of lust and contempt for the men caught in her snare add up to a creature that’s otherworldly.
It’s a powerhouse performance that elevates an excellent film into the realm of classic.
Dandridge was propelled to stardom and became the first black woman on the cover of Life magazine. She was also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – the first African American woman to be nominated in a leading role. She died in September 1965 aged just 42 and was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January 1983.
Although both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte were accomplished singers, neither had the professional training or range for operatic roles, so their singing voices were dubbed.
Look closely into the store window during Whizzin’ Away along the Track and you’ll see the whole film crew captured in reflection for posterity.