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Exposed: The film industry's 100-year love affair with Carmen

Newcastle University

SHE was the first film 'vamp', has been a black bisexual and a Tom and Jerry cartoon character, appeared in country and western guise, and played for laughs with Charlie Chaplin.

For the first time, new research by Newcastle University has uncovered the extent of the film industry's love affair with the wild and passionate Spanish Gypsy girl, Carmen, which spans the last 100 years and covers cinematic styles from art house to Hollywood and cartoons to pornography.

Actresses as diverse as Hollywood beauty Rita Hayworth, porn star Uta Levka and Beyoncé Knowles, a singer with the chart-topping band Destiny's Child have played her on the big screen. Recent reports even suggest American singer and actress Jennifer Lopez is set to play her in a new film.

Nearly 100 filmmakers from Spain to Slovenia have found the tale of the fictional Spanish cigarette factory worker absolutely irresistible. Every decade of the 20th Century has spawned several big screen versions of the Carmen story from all over the world. Even Adolf Hitler commissioned his own, Fascist version of the tale, displaying huge irony considering the Nazi's treatment of Gypsies during the Second World War.

The Newcastle University experts have proved the existence of over 70 Carmen films - including nearly 40 silent Carmen films - made before the first sound version in 1931. All are based on the tale initially described in the novella by French author Prosper Mérimée but made famous in 1875 by Bizet's tragic opera of the same name, Carmen.

Researcher Ann Davies, of Newcastle University's Centre for Research into Film and Media (CRIFAM), travelled the world in her quest to unearth the Carmen films. She said:

"We have drawn together the most extensive and comprehensive list to date of films of the Carmen story from 1899 to the present day.

"This is proof that the Carmen story does not date, and that it is still hugely relevant to the present day. It deals with still familiar situations and emotions - those of love, jealousy, attitudes to women and the male fantasy." The project has gathered together information not only on the classic film Carmens, such as the well-known 1983 film by Spanish film director Carlos Saura, but also some of the more obscure releases such as Carmen of the North (1920) a Dutch version, which is silent and set against a snowy backdrop and The Campus Carmen (1928), which stars Carol Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, as Don Jose, in a mainly female cast.

Bizet's opera Carmen caused a stir when it first opened in Paris, the middle-class audience shocked by the tale of the captivating Spanish gypsy girl who entrances soldier Don Jose, takes him as her lover, then drops him for more exciting prey, the bullfighter Escamillo. Don Jose returns from a trip home to find Carmen watching Escamillo's success in the bull ring, and, ridden with jealousy, fatally stabs her.

The opera closed after only 48 performances, and Bizet died shortly after. A year after Bizet's death, however, the piece was revived with a series of triumphant performances in Vienna. Today Carmen is recognised as Bizet's masterpiece, and a classic.

Filmmakers using the Carmen story have not always kept to the original narrative, but the basic themes of the plot are still present.

Dr Davies added: "The story is very audio visual, with music, dancing, and strong, highly dramatic characters, and thus lends itself extremely well to the screen. Carmen herself presents a very strong image of the wild and captivating gypsy girl, who wants to hold on to her freedom at any cost. It seems that, despite the large number of Carmen films already made, people cannot resist attempting new interpretations."

"Although Carmen as a subject for film has been studied before, the work that Newcastle University is undertaking means that we are the the first to gather together information and critique on the phenomenon in any systematic and comprehensive way. "

Film makers in this century continue to be seduced by the Carmen story , with two films released in 2001. MTV produced Carmen: a Hip Hopera, with Beyoncé Knowles, a singer with the band Destiny's Child in the lead role. The film mixes hip hop with Bizet's tunes, and appears to follow the Bizet/Merimee storyline. A Senegalese release, Karmen Gei, featured a black, bisexual Carmen and provoked riots by a religious sect, the Mouride. There are also plans for more Carmen films. Spanish film director, Vicente Aranda, is filming his version and some newspapers have said singer and actress Jennifer Lopez will star in and produce an update version of Carmen, with a script reportedly written by Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann's screenwriting partner on Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Ballroom.

Newcastle University's Centre for Research into Film and Media (CRIFAM) received a £126,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board for the three-year project to compile the definitive list of Carmen films. Not all the films survive, and some are kept in archives all over the world, but university researchers have compiled searchable web database listing and containing information about the films.

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CONTACT: For further information contact Dr Ann Davies, tel + 44 191 222 7489. Email: ann.davies@ncl.ac.uk.

PHOTOGRAPHS: A selection of absolutely wonderful film stills - some are in copyright and others are out of copyright, are available from the university press office in electronic format.

Notes to editors:

  1. Other researchers who have worked on the project are Prof. Phil Powrie [Department of French], Prof. Chris Perriam [Spanish}, and Mr. Bruce Babington [English Literary and Linguistic Studies].
  2. The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) funds postgraduate and advanced research within the UK's higher education institutions. All AHRB awards are made on the basis of academic excellence. The AHRB is not responsible for the views or research outcomes expressed by its award holders
  3. Useful web pages:
        Carmen project: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/crif/carmen.htm

THE CARMEN FILMS

1899: Sources suggest one film was made before the turn of the 19th Century but the title and director are unknown.

1900-1919: 26 versions including Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (USA, 1916) and Carmen featuring Theda Bara (USA, 1915), the first screen 'vamp' with her haunting, kohl-rimmed stare.

The 1920s: 10 versions including Carmen of the North (1920,) A Dutch version, which is silent and set against a snowy backdrop and The Campus Carmen (1928) Stars Carol Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, as Don Jose, in a mainly female cast.

1930s: Seven versions including the film commissioned by Hitler, Andalusische Nachte/Carmen, la de Triana (Germany/Spain 1938). Hitler was in love with actress Imperio Argentina, who played the lead role. The story was reinterpreted to fit in with Fascist ideology.

1940s: Four versions, including The Loves of Carmen, with Rita Hayworth as Carmen (USA, 1948)

1950s: Three versions, including Carmen Jones, featuring actress Dorothy Dandridge (USA, 1954), the first black Carmen in an all-black cast.

1960s: Eight versions including the USA-Germany 1967 pornographic film, Carmen Baby, featuring Uta Levka as Carmen.

1970s: Five versions, including the Venezuelan Carmen, la que contaba 16 anos (1975)

1980s: Seven versions were made this decade including the well known flamenco adaptation Carmen by Spanish director Carlos Saura, with Laura del Sol in the lead role (Spain, 1983), and Prénom Carmen by director Jean-Luc Godard with music by Beethoven and a Carmen who robs banks (France-Switzerland 1983).

1990s: Two versions, including a Slovenian film, Carmen (1995) and a 15-minute film by performance artiste Laurie Anderson, made especially for EXPO '92 in Seville.

2000- Two versions, both made in 2001. An MTV film, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, with Beyonce Knowles from the band Destiny's Child and the Senegalese Karmen Gei.

Issued by Newcastle University Press Office: contact Claire Jordan, tel: + 44 191 222 6067, email: claire.jordan@ncl.ac.uk
NB: For broadcasters, the University has a fully-equipped radio studio with ISDN line and is a short distance from BBC and independent TV studios.

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