Basically a staggering masterpiece. All the more commendable because it walks a wildly precarious tight rope. Preminger was clearly aware that he was making something that could be laughed or even hooted at; instead of allowing that to chasten him into delivering an attenuated vision, he delivered something big and brash. The filmmaking is superlative, but above all this is about voices emerging from bodies.
On paper, the concept sounds radically-intriguing for its time, but the execution is severely lacking. From the uninspired direction (Preminger resists any visual flair or camera movement and settles w/ a static camera and medium shots), adequate performances, & dubbed singing (that mostly doesn't convince) the film is a dud. The saving grace is Dandrige's performance as the femme fatale.
"This was really a fantasy, as was Porgy and Bess. The all-black world shown in these films doesn't exist, at least not in the United States. We used the musical-fantasy quality to convey something of the needs and aspirations of colored people," said Preminger. Yet they dubbed opera singers for Belafonte and Dandridge (who is amazing here). Bailey is fun, and Olga James impresses but CJ is a bird in a gilded cage.
I really wanted to love this. The cast was excellent, and the stand out number by Pearl Bailey showed what this film could have been. I really wish that the score could have been adapted to suit Dandridge and Belafonte's voices, instead of awkwardly dubbing trained opera singers over them. Casting was a big step in 54, but could be so much better if the actors were allowed to be black instead of just looking black.