The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 29-42
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Black Faces, White Voices:
The Politics Of Dubbing In Carmen Jones
Otto Preminger's film Carmen Jones is often considered a landmark—both positively and negatively—in the history of black representations in the cinema. Released by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1954, Carmen Jones established Dorothy Dandridge as a major star and earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress, the first ever for an African-American woman in a leading role. 1 At the same time, however, Carmen Jones is also situated as a point of intersection between two separate film and musical traditions.
The first tradition relates to the history of the opera upon which Carmen Jones is based. As Susan McClary points out, Carmen's entry into the canon of Western operas gave rise to several revisionist interpretations, each of them foregrounding a particular issue of concern to the society and culture that produced it (123-29). A production in Moscow in 1925, for example, made over Carmen as a Jewish Communist girl fighting for the rights of the workers in a cigarette factory. Nazi productions in the thirties, however, focused more on the threat of gypsy crime and miscegenation. As a text that exists in relation to both the original Prosper Mérimée story and to various productions of Carmen, Carmen Jones can be read as a reconfiguration of race, class, and gender issues that are already present in its previous guises. Indeed, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein evinced some awareness of this tradition when he defended his reworking of the opera as an all-black musical by pointing to the Moorish influence on Spanish culture.
The second, of course, is the all-black musical production. As a film, Carmen Jones is a throwback to the all-black films made in Hollywood during the thirties and forties such as The Green Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Stormy Weather (1943). Like those films, Carmen Jones adheres to a logic of segregation, one that situates black representations within idealized, often rural landscapes that systematically deny the presence of race relations or of any larger social context. As Robert Stam and Louise Spence point out, such films literally cannot bear the presence of white faces, since the appearance of a single white character would puncture their depiction of fantasy. Appearing near the start of the civil rights movement, Carmen Jones garnered some criticism based on its inheritance of the all-black musical's segregationist tropes. During preproduction, Preminger and Twentieth Century-Fox sent the script to NAACP president Walter White in an effort to forestall any criticism from the black community. Although White could find no specific scene or character that was objectionable, he claimed that he could not support the production because the film's basic premise deviated from his organization's integrationist agenda (Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge 267-68).
Yet while Stam and Spence's assertion aptly characterizes Carmen Jones's image track, it is unable to address certain peculiarities of Carmen Jones's sound track, namely, the dubbing of Dorothy Dandridge's, Joe Adams's, and Harry Belafonte's singing voices by professional and, in some cases, white opera singers. Of course, in itself, the dubbing of an actor's singing voice is not unusual in Hollywood films. For example, it was rumored for years that Andy Williams had provided the singing voice for Lauren Bacall's character, Slim, in To Have and Have Not (1945) (Bogdanovich 332). Likewise, Marni Nixon made a name for herself as the off-screen singing voice [End Page 29] of several Hollywood stars, most notably, Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1963) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). 2 Moreover, the dubbing of actors' singing voices would scarcely raise an eyebrow in India, where this practice had become the norm by the 1940s, and playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar emerged as major stars in both the film and music industries.
The ostensible reason for dubbing an actor's singing voice is, quite...