At a munitions factory, Cindy Lou (Olga James) arrives with the workers on the bus with a view to entering the grounds and speaking to her soldier fiancé Joe (Harry Belafonte), but the guard at the gate will not let her in without a pass. She protests, but the pass can only be obtained from an office miles away, though luckily as she follows a group of kids by the fence Joe spots her and after a spot of drill, he walks over and discusses what she wanted, allowing her into the mess where they settle down for lunch. However, here comes trouble: Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), who all the men lust after, though she prefers a challenge, and Joe looks like the perfect example of that for her next project...
Carmen has been filmed a few times since silent days and has proven resilient enough to survive a number of interpretations and variations, from straightforward depictions of the Georges Bizet opera to more oblique versions, and this example was a project from Oscar Hammerstein's updating of the work to feature an all-black cast and rewritten lyrics to reflect both the times and the race of the performers. Originally a stage show, the studio regarded this as a potential moneymaker in the manner of other all-African American musicals such as Cabin in the Sky or Stormy Weather, but while there was plenty of interest in it from the public, it fell victim to copyright claims from the owner of the source opera.
This meant that for around two-and-a-half decades nobody could see it, and for musicals that had a strong afterlife after their initial runs that was unfortunate. Even more unfortunate for Dandridge, a deeply troubled actress and singer whose depression was only exacerbated by her fretting over the chances she had lost because of her skin colour. She was Oscar-nominated for Best Actress in Carmen Jones, but lost to the far more mediocre Grace Kelly turn in The Country Girl, and did not work again in film for years, not many years, but enough to leave her stuck in her doldrums that she never really escaped from until it all became too much and she killed herself in 1965, just forty-two years old.
Her sad story has been held up as the prime instance of the dreadful institutionalised racism in American society that the Civil Rights movement grew out of to counter, not that it did her much good in the long run, but sometimes a life has to be promoted as a warning of how bad injustice can get and how it should never be allowed to happen again. It certainly offered a considerable interest in Carmen Jones, which became her best known legacy on film, and little wonder when she stole the show so decisively from her co-stars. Not that they were bad, it was just that Dandridge was so magnetic a presence that your eyes were drawn to her at every scene she was in, and when she wasn't there, as the old cliché goes, you were awaiting her return with her overtly sexual performance and charisma, or as overt as you could get in fifties Hollywood.
The common complaint about this version of the theatrical experience was that it was artificial, especially since the cast members doing the singing were by and large not the ones doing the acting. Pearl Bailey was an exception, and that was to her benefit, but there was a little disconnect between seeing Belafonte belt out the high notes that were not his, possibly because his actual singing voice was so distinctive, yet it was not as if this was an unusual practice in bringing songs to the screen, and although the actor's voice was often heard, being dubbed by a more appropriate vocal was by no means unique to director Otto Preminger's approach here. Besides, it was a musical, and they were not exactly known for their incredible realism, so what was more problematic was perhaps the plot the cast were invited to act out: when your story ends up in a dingy store cupboard, you know they should have built to a better climax than that. It was not that much different from the film noirs Preminger had made his name with the decade before, when you boiled it down, and an eccentricity to be frank, maybe it could have been made more visually exciting, but see it for the leading lady and wonder "what if?"