Dorothy Dandridge - Sept. 13, 20 & 27
QA TEST With a reputation as a glamorous trailblazer, TCM is proud to honor Dorothy Dandridge as this month's Star of the Month. Dandridge garnered success as an entertainer throughout her life, but most notably was the first woman of color to become the star of mainstream Hollywood movies, nominated as Best Actress for Oscar and Golden Globe awards and appear on the cover of Life magazine.
Our tribute to Dandridge will be co-hosted by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz along with Donald Bogle, author of the 1997 biography Dorothy Dandridge.
With her voluptuous beauty and versatile skills as actress/singer/dancer, Dandridge became an international cabaret star and played leads in Carmen Jones (1954, Academy Award nomination) and Porgy and Bess (1959, Golden Globe nomination). She also emerged as a leading sex symbol in Hollywood; Lena Horne once called her "our Marilyn Monroe."
If Dandridge's story was one of great accomplishment, it was also one of great disappointment. Despite her impressive achievements, she died alone and practically penniless when she was only 42, possibly from suicide. She felt that her failure to realize her full potential had been due to the racial barriers she faced.
"America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner," Dandridge observed in a memoir, Everything and Nothing, written shortly before her death and published in 1970 by cowriter Earl Conrad. "My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, the same as another woman. I had realized everything except the limitations naturally placed on me through being a Negro."
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, Cyril Dandridge, was a cabinet maker and Baptist preacher, and her mother, Ruby, was an actress/entertainer. Ruby would eventually achieve a certain success playing domestics on radio and, later, on television and in such films as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Dead Reckoning (1947) and A Hole in the Head (1959). She was known for her high-pitched voice and excitable temperament.
Dorothy's parents had separated before she was born. At a young age, under their mother's tutelage, she and her older sister, Vivian, sang and danced in an act called the Wonder Children that toured the U.S. in what was known as the "Chitlin' Circuit," the term for performance venues that featured African American entertainers and catered to Black audiences during the era of racial segregation. The act was managed by Ruby's lesbian lover, Geneva Williams, who reportedly had a fierce temper and disciplined the girls harshly.
In 1934, Dorothy and Vivian were joined by an unrelated girl, Etta Jones (not the noted jazz singer of the same name), to form a song-and-dance trio known as the Dandridge Sisters. Their constant performing and dance lessons left little time for regular school. With the Depression, work in Cleveland had dried up for Ruby, and she took her girls with her when she relocated to Hollywood and became a minor celebrity.
The Dandridge Sisters attracted major notice after winning a singing contest at a Los Angeles radio station. Nightclub performances in L.A. led to an engagement at New York City's Cotton Club, where they became a popular attraction and won comparisons to the Andrews Sisters. Back in Hollywood they appeared as a specialty act in musical shorts and feature films. Dorothy had made her film debut at age 12, uncredited, in a "Little Rascals" short, "Teacher's Beau" (1935), and appeared in several films as part of the sister act.
The trio toured Europe in 1939 and recorded with big-band leader Jimmie Lunceford upon their return to America. After the dissolution of the sister act, Dorothy began playing nightclubs as a solo act and was progressing in her own film career. In 1940., she had her first individually credited movie role in the race film Four Shall Die, in which she played a murderer.
From the beginning of her movie career, Dandridge refused to play stereotypical Black characters, which limited her opportunities. She played minor roles in Lady from Louisiana (1941), starring John Wayne, and Sundown (1941), starring Gene Tierney (1941). Dandridge appeared in Sun Valley Serenade (1941), a Sonja Henie musical, in which she seems to have a great time performing "Chattanooga Choo Choo" with the sensational dancing pair The Nicholas Brothers. (The tune was nominated for an Oscar as Best Song.)
Dandridge, who knew the brothers from the time they all performed at the Cotton Club, married younger brother Harold Nicholas in 1942. Their daughter, Harolyn Suzanne, born in 1943, suffered from cerebral anoxia, caused by lack of oxygen to the brain during labor. The condition resulted in mental challenges, and Harolyn's disability reportedly put a further strain on an already troubled marriage. Dandridge and Nicholas became estranged and would eventually divorce in 1949.
Dandridge appeared in a string of minor roles before she gained notice for her beauty and provocative costuming as the "Queen of the Ashuba" in the Lex Barker film Tarzan's Peril (1951). Also in 1951, Dandridge played the girlfriend of an aspiring member of The Harlem Globetrotters in a film of that title and had smash successes performing at Hollywood's Mocambo and other nightclubs in New York and London. This led to an appearance as herself singing "Taking a Chance on Love" in MGM's Remains to Be Seen (1953), starring June Allyson.
This led to Dandridge's breakthrough vehicle as an actress in MGM's Bright Road (1953), a low-budget film in which she gives a sensitive performance as an understanding teacher at a rural Black elementary school in Alabama. Costarring are Harry Belafonte as the school's principal and Philip Hepburn as a problem student championed by Dandridge.
Dandridge kept her name in front of the public with further appearances in nightclubs and on television variety programs. Then came Carmen Jones, 20th Century-Fox's film version of a stage musical that modernized the Bizet opera Carmen, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. This new version was set in the American South during World War II and featured an all-Black cast.
Dandridge campaigned for the role of the temptress Carmen, but producer-director Otto Preminger had seen her ladylike performance in Bright Road and thought her wrong for the role. With a sultry new look, she convinced him otherwise and joined a cast that also included Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. Because of the operatic score, the leads were dubbed, with Marilyn Horne singing for Dandridge and LeVern Hutcherson for Belafonte.
Writing in recent times in The Chicago Tribune, critic John Petrakis noted of Carmen Jones that "There is one element that continues to glow like the proverbial jewel in the crown - the stunning title performance by the great Dorothy Dandridge." She lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954), but Dandridge's film career had been firmly established, and she signed a three-picture deal with Fox.
However, she continued to find it difficult to find suitable parts. She turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in 1956's The King and I, a part eventually played by Rita Moreno. "I can't play a slave," Dandridge said at the time. Preminger supported her decision and advised her to hold out for leading roles. By now, although he was married, he had become her lover as well as mentor. Their affair would last four years.
Dandridge continued to dazzle in her nightclub career, becoming the first Black performer at the Empire Room at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. But three years passed before she made another film, Fox's Island in the Sun (1957, TCM premiere), a drama of interracial romance based on the novel by Alec Waugh and directed by Robert Rossen.
Dandridge is part of an all-star ensemble cast that includes Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, James Mason, Joan Collins and Michael Rennie. She plays a West Indian woman who has an affair with a white man, played by John Justin. This steamy film tested the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code and proved controversial, especially in the American South. Still, it performed well at the box office and became the sixth highest-grossing film of its year.
Nevertheless, Dandridge's career was at a stalemate at Fox, which forced her to turn to other film companies. In the French/Italian production Tamango (1958), she plays the mistress of a Dutch sea captain (Curt Jürgens) facing a revolt on a slave ship bound from Africa to Cuba. Controversial because of its scenes of interracial romance, the film was banned in the French colonies and parts of the U.S.
MGM's The Decks Ran Red, also released in 1958 and set on a ship, again focuses on a captain (James Mason), who must deal with an uprising, and Dandridge as a beautiful woman arousing male libidos. Broderick Crawford and Stuart Whitman are the murderous villains who want to take over the ship.
Otto Preminger provided Dandridge with another memorable opportunity a year later by again directing her in a classic role from an operatic source: Bess in Porgy and Bess (1959), the screen version of the 1935 folk opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. The film, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, had a troubled production history that reportedly included tensions between former lovers Dandridge and Preminger.
The leading roles again were dubbed, and critical reaction to the film was mixed, with some reviewers offering the opinion that Dandridge was too "refined" for the earthy Bess. The original wide-screen version of Porgy and Bess has become one of the most infamous "missing" films. Goldwyn's rights to the material expired after 15 years and reverted to the Gershwin estate, which has shown little interest in the film. Shot in the 65mm Todd-AO process, it has been shown in recent times in a 35mm print.
Again, Dandridge's starring role in a major film failed to lead to other prestigious movie projects. After some television work, her final completed film was Malaga (1960), a British crime drama costarring Trevor Howard and Emund Purdom. She was cast opposite Alain Delon in a version of Marco Polo that began production in 1962 but was never completed.
As her film career faltered, Dandridge did some TV work and appeared onstage and in nightclubs. In 1959 she had married restaurant owner Jack Denison, but they were divorced three years later; she accused him of verbal and physical abuse and of mishandling her money. Facing bankruptcy and heavy debts to the IRS, she sold her Los Angeles home and took a small apartment in West Hollywood.
By 1963, with her career at a low ebb, she could no longer afford special care for her daughter, who was placed in a state-run mental institution. Dandridge reportedly turned to drink and drugs and suffered a nervous breakdown. On September 8, 1965, Dandridge was found dead in her apartment by her manager, Earl Mills. Her death was originally reported to be the result of an embolism, but it was later determined that she died from an overdose of an antidepressant.
At the time of her death, Dandridge had just over $2 in her bank account. Among signs pointing to suicide was a remark she made in a telephone conversation with a friend, former sister-in-law Geraldine Branton, on the date of her death: "Whatever happens, I know you will understand."
In the 1980s and '90s, interest in Dandridge was reawakened as her inspiration was acknowledged by such stars as Halle Berry, Loretta Devine, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Jada Pinkett Smith and Cicely Tyson. In 1999, Berry won Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her performance in the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Berry would go on to become the first, and currently only, woman of color to win the Oscar for Best Actress (Monster's Ball, 2001)
Donald Bogle's biography was another important factor in the renewed fascination with the performer. He wrote in the book that Dandridge "brought the Black actress in films from behind the shadows and...emerged as Hollywood's first authentic movie goddess of color."
Her good friend Harry Belafonte appreciated the uphill battle Dandridge had faced as a Black actress in the film industry of her day, calling her "the right person in the right place at the wrong time." And here's a wistful quote attributed to Dandridge herself: "If I were white, I could capture the world!"