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MGM shed its glamorous image and bucked conventional wisdom when it financed Bright Road, a low-budget 1953 drama with an almost all-black cast. Even as an African-American film, Bright Road was an anomaly for the period, being neither a musical nor a treatment of racial issues. Instead it was a simple story of a rural teacher in an unnamed southern school trying to reach a problem child. Yet its quiet daring has earned it a faithful fan following, particularly in light of the starring performances of Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte before they became major stars. Dandridge, in particular, was thrilled to be in a film that broke the mold and "showed that beneath any color skin, people are simply people. I wanted any white girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, 'Why, this schoolteacher could be me'" (in Dorothy Dandridge and Lee and Earl Conrad, Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy).
Bright Road was adapted from a Christopher Award-winning story by West Indian schoolteacher Mary Elizabeth Vroman. Though the studio only gave it a 19-day shooting schedule, they still put a good deal of talent behind the cameras, with Alfred Gilks, a recent Oscar-winner for An American in Paris (1951), shooting the film and composer David Rose, currently scoring a major hit as on-camera musical director for television's The Red Skelton Show, composing the score.
The leading roles provided a showcase for the film's stars. After almost a decade of minor film appearances, Dandridge had scored with a very sensual performance as a jungle queen in Tarzan's Peril (1951) and a very sexy nightclub act. For Bright Road, however, she had to dress down as a low-income schoolteacher whose primary interest is her students. Ironically, it was also one of the few films in which she got to sing with her own voice; for her later big-budget musicals she was dubbed by more operatic singers. Her co-star, Belafonte, was just beginning to build his reputation as a singer when he signed to make his film debut as the principal in love with Dandridge. He, too, would have to downplay his sexuality for the dramatic role. A year later, the two would team in the much more torrid Carmen Jones, which made Dandridge the first African-American performer nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Belafonte's career would take off in 1957 when he recorded "Day O" and created the '50s rage for calypso music.
Playing a concerned schoolteacher hit a little close to home for Dandridge. Her daughter by dancer Harold Nicholas was severely brain damaged, and during her marriage she had put her career on hold while researching ways of caring for the child. One day, the sight of the healthy African-American children playing on the set proved too much for her, and she fled to her dressing room in tears. Director Gerald Mayer offered his sympathy, which led to a long friendship (some suggest an affair) for the two.
Mayer had his own problems. As the nephew of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, he was the victim of reverse nepotism. Not wanting to show favoritism, his uncle had kept him in low-budget pictures for years, earning him the studio nickname "Keeper of the Bs." With little access to the kinds of high-profile properties necessary to build his career, Mayer turned to television, where he became a reliable director for such series as Gunsmoke and The Fugitive and produced The Millionaire and The Nurses. Bright Road would prove to be the highlight of his big-screen career.
Producer: Sol Baer Fielding
Director: Gerald Mayer
Screenplay: Emmett Lavery
Based on the Ladies' Home Journal story "See How They Run" by Mary Elizabeth Vroman
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks
Score: David Rose Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu Cast: Dorothy Dandridge (Jane Richards), Philip Hepburn (C.T. Young), Harry Belafonte (School Principal), Barbara Ann Sanders (Tanya), Robert Horton (Dr. Mitchell), Maidie Norman (Tanya's Mother).
BW-69m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller