Rita Hayworth's the Loves of Carmen as Literary Criticism

By Helling, William P | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Rita Hayworth's the Loves of Carmen as Literary Criticism


Helling, William P, Literature/Film Quarterly


When the film The Loves of Carmen appeared in 1948, it was a public success but a critical failure: even though Rita Hayworth, as Carmen, was warmly received by her loyal fans, she was harshly judged on her interpretation of the legendary gypsy created by Prosper Mérimée in his 1845 novella and renewed by Georges Bizet's 1875 opera. Directed by the noncontroversial Charles Vidor and scripted by Helen Deutsch, The Loves of Carmen was a lavish production considered the perfect vehicle for Hayworth, née Margarita Carmen Cansino, who reportedly always wanted to play this role (Newsweek 1948: 79), a role attempted by many famous actresses before her, including Theda Bara, PoIa Negri, and Delores Del Rio, among others. Carmen had, indeed, long been a filmic source, and if we combine the films based on the novella with those based on the opera plot-excluding the "filmed" operas-it is apparent that this work has been adapted far more often than any other.1

The novella and the opera share a basic plot that appears to transfer easily to film: the soldier Don José becomes obsessed by Carmen, who initially encourages his advances. Don José eventually gives up everything for Carmen and joins the band of smugglers to which she belongs, but Don Jose's ardor is met with increasing resistance when Carmen realizes that her freedom is at stake. When Carmen appears on the verge of completely abandoning Don José, he kills her.

An examination of Carmen films reveals that, while the novella is often given as the source, the opera's influence subtly marks most interpretations, a fact not surprising when it is realized that Mérimée's Carmen owes much of its reknown to the opera.2 What is unusual, then, is that, to date, the most sincere Hollywood attempt at a Carmen film, with one of its biggest stars at the height of her popularity, sought to bypass completely the opera and return to the original source; this fidelity to the novella was proudly announced by the film's advertisements, and Columbia confidently spent $1,000,000 on publicity-a third of the cost of the entire picture. Since the appearance of The Loves of Carmen, the filming of literature has become a serious topic of criticism, and this now-forgotten film deserves attention as a literary adaptation, if only for its avowed goal of avoiding the opera's influence.3 Can this Hollywood version of a literary classic play a role in helping us to appreciate its source?

On the surface, The Loves of Carmen is nominally close to the novella in aspects of location and characters. Set in Spain in 1830, the novella depends much on evoking the exotic setting of Andalusia, the region and its people, including the gypsy population. For the film, no expense was spared on constructing elaborate sets-including a sixty-house, six-acre version of old Seville-and the rocky surroundings of Mount Whitney served as a backdrop for the smugglers' activities. If it was not authentic, it was as close as Hollywood could come, while also allowing an atmosphere where Spanish was heard in the background and even spoken in snippets by secondary characters. Of course, the plot of The Loves of Carmen is derived solely from chapter three of Mérimée's four-chapter novella: the first and second chapters are the narration of a learned archeologist who encounters both the bandit Don José and Carmen long before Don José recounts to him, in chapter three, the story of his downfall at the hands of the gypsy-while he awaits his execution in prison. Chapter four, which Mérimée added a year after the original composition, is a pedantic essay on gypsy language. Chapter three thus provides the basis for nearly all Carmen adaptations which convert Don Jose's first-person narration into a conventional screening of the adventure without the original narrator or the need for flashback.4 The opera is also based on this chapter three, though with simplified plot and character variants. Besides the minor differences that arise when converting a literary work to a different medium-in this case the Parisian opéra-comique of the late nineteenth century-and the softening of both Don José and Carmen, the main departure of the opera is in the addition of two characters: Micaëla is the obligatory soprano anti-Carmen, a small role emphasizing Don Jose's honorable background, and Escamillo-greatly enlarged from a character in the novella named Lucas-becomes the rival of Don José for Carmen's favors. …

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