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Starring Dorothy Dandridge
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Starring Dorothy Dandridge - 5/29

She was beautiful, she could dance, she could sing, and she could act. Most importantly, she had that indefinable magnetism that attracts an audience and holds their attention. In short, she had everything it took to be a major star in the 1950s. Everything, that is, except white skin. Today, actresses of color like Halle Berry win Oscar®s®, are hired to be "the face" of prestigious cosmetic companies, and are widely celebrated for their beauty, talent, and sex-appeal. But Dorothy Dandridge was an African-American in a less enlightened age where she could perform at the most exclusive nightclubs in the country - but she wasn't allowed to sit in the audience. She could sing at the top hotel hot spots in Las Vegas, but she couldn't get a room there or even use the pool. It was no better in Hollywood. For decades, the best roles African-American actresses could expect were maids or long-suffering, pious mothers; the worst were shady women or stereotypical "Mammies". Dorothy Dandridge managed, for all too brief a time, to rise above that.

Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents separated before she was born; and while still a very young girl, she and her older sister Vivian were trained for the stage by their mother Ruby and Ruby's lover Geneva Williams. Billed as "The Wonder Children", Dorothy and Vivian were signed by the National Baptist Convention and toured Southern churches where they would sing, dance and perform short skits. They would continue to tour until the Great Depression caused the bookings to dry up. For Ruby Dandridge, herself an actress, the only place to go next was Hollywood.

The Dandridge Sisters were not an overnight success but they did manage to get parts, first as extras in a 1935 Our Gang short called Teacher's Beau , then larger roles in the Paramount musical The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), and the Marx Brothers' classic A Day at the Races (1937). By now The Dandridge Sisters act had expanded with the addition of their school friend, singer Etta Jones. After appearing in the Dick Powell and Ronald Reagan film Going Places (1938) which introduced the song Jeepers Creepers, The Dandridge Sisters, now a recognized "name", played the famous Cotton Club in New York and then left for a European tour.

It was during this tour that Dorothy met Harold Nicholas, half of the popular Nicholas Brothers dance team, and the two fell in love. When the tour was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, The Dandridge Sisters returned to Hollywood and Dorothy left the act to work as a solo performer. Shortly before their marriage, she and Harold Nicholas would make their only film appearance together in Sun Valley Serenade (1941). The Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge did a dance number to the song "Chattanooga Choo Choo," accompanied by the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Dandridge and Nicholas were married in September 1942. Dorothy, who had never had a conventional childhood or a permanent home, reveled in being a wife, and the following year, a mother, with the birth of her only child, Lynn. She continued to play small parts in films like Since You Went Away (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945) in which she sang "Watcha Say" backed by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, but mainly devoted her time to being a mother. When Lynn was two, Dandridge worried that her daughter wasn't speaking and never seemed to interact with other people. Medical tests revealed that she was brain damaged and that the damage appeared to have been caused by oxygen deprivation during birth. Her former sister-in-law, Geraldine Branton said, "Dottie never got over the overwhelming guilt she felt because she thought she was responsible for her child's condition. She lived with that thought every day of her life. You could never convince her she wasn't at fault. And nothing she did made up for what she felt she had done." At the same time, her marriage was breaking up due to Nicholas' womanizing. They would divorce in 1949, leaving Dorothy a single mother with a child to bring up on her own when Nicholas failed to pay child support.

Dandridge saw singing in nightclubs as the only way to reestablish her career, even though she hated every minute of it. In real life she was a shy woman who always presented herself as a lady, so she loathed the idea of wearing revealing dresses and singing torch songs while men ogled her. Even worse was the racism she encountered from club owners and hoteliers who would not allow her to talk to patrons or use the bathroom. In Las Vegas she was warned that the pool would be drained if she tried to swim in it. Unlike white artists, Dorothy's dressing room was often nothing more than a storage area. But the exposure paid off and in 1952, she was one of the most popular nightclub performers in the country and the first African-American to play the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. It reopened doors for her in Hollywood.

Her first roles were small ones, including an African princess in Tarzan's Peril (1951) starring Lex Barker, but she refused point blank to play a maid, knowing how easy it was for African-American actresses to get trapped in the role. She wanted more and she got it in 1953 with MGM's Bright Road. The film was unusual for its time because although the cast were African-American, the story itself was not about race. Dorothy's role was a teacher at a rural school who struggles with a problem student; and Harry Belafonte (in his first film) played the supportive school principal who is her love interest. For Dandridge, the role was important because, as she said in her posthumous autobiography Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy, "[It] 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.'"

According to those who knew her, Dorothy Dandridge was nothing like the role that would make her a star: the brazen, self-confident, overtly sexy Carmen Jones (1954), based on Bizet's opera, Carmen. The director of Carmen Jones was Otto Preminger, who later wrote in his self-titled autobiography, "I was fascinated by the idea of transposing the story of Carmen into present-day American life with an all-black cast...Except for the lyrics, we did not use the text of [Oscar] Hammerstein's [1945] revue or the libretto of the original opera by [Henri] Meilhac and [Ludovic] Halevy but went back to the original story by Prosper Mérimée [Carmen/La Revue des deux mondes published in Paris in 1845]. For I had decided to make a dramatic film with music rather than a conventional film musical."

Carmen Jones was the part every African-American actress in Hollywood - and beyond - wanted, and Dorothy Dandridge was no exception. Always the lady, she dressed herself in a conservative suit and gloves and went to audition for Preminger. According to Dandridge, Preminger did not think she was right for the part. "'Miss Dandridge,' [Preminger] said quickly, ?you cannot act the Carmen role...You are a sophisticate...I've heard you sing at the Plaza in New York. I've even seen you walking down Fifth Avenue, with a red coat flying. When I saw you I thought, How lovely, a model, a beautiful butterfly...but not Carmen, my dear.'" Dandridge responded, "...I'm an actress. I can play a nun or a bitch." Preminger was not convinced but asked her to read for him. She refused, saying she would return tomorrow. Dandridge recounted what happened next, "I hurried to Max Factor's studios and looked around for the right garb. I would return looking like Carmen herself. I found an old wig, which, I was told, Cornel Wilde wore in one of his pictures. I found a shaggy but brilliant blouse; I arranged it off the shoulder. Then I located a provocative skirt. I put on heavy lipstick, worked spit curls around my face. I made myself look like a hussy. Dressed like Carmen, I sidled around for a while feeling like a whore. Now I was ready for the next day's interview. [?] As a final bit of staging I arrived a little late, late enough so that it was noticed, but not so late as to become an irritation. I arrived at his offices, passed by his secretary, and dashed inside. "Oh, Mr. Preminger, please forgive me...I just got back...I am not dressed?" I presented him with the most startling switch of personality he might ever has seen. "My God, it's Carmen!" He moved about with excitement. I had ceased to be the saloon singer, the lady, the sophisticate."

Cast opposite Dandridge was her Bright Road co-star Harry Belafonte, singer Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll. Although both Dandridge and Belafonte were famous as singers, neither of their voices were right for Bizet's operatic score so they were dubbed. A 19-year-old USC student, Marilyn Horne, who was soon to become one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the twentieth century, dubbed Dandridge's songs. A natural mimic, Horne watched Dandridge on the set, listened to her singing and speaking voices and was able to integrate it into her own singing. Belafonte was dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson, who had recently appeared as Porgy in the Broadway show Porgy and Bess.

Dandridge worked extremely hard on the set and didn't socialize much with her costars, as Brock Peters remembered, "I couldn't figure her out. When I looked at her, I wondered what she was like. And I suspected that she might be introverted. That she might be a little bit removed because she, after all, not only was the star of the film, but she was doing the nightclub circuit. And that meant that she was already having a level of success." Diahann Carroll, only 18 and in her first film, had a similar impression, "She had very few friends in the cast. [She] was painfully shy and self-absorbed, concerned only with improving her performance. So much was riding on it that she seemed to be living in a constant state of anxiety. Her vulnerability touched me deeply." Choreographer Herb Ross thought Dandridge "was very intelligent. But I thought Dorothy was not a happy woman. She was gifted and talented and beautiful. At that time, it was not easy for a beautiful, intelligent, Black woman." One distraction for Dandridge was her personal life: before production had started, she and Preminger had become lovers and would remain together for several years. Because Preminger was still married, although separated from his wife, and because interracial couples were taboo in the 1950s, they had to keep the relationship under wraps. Nevertheless, Preminger devoted his time to making Dorothy a star and he succeeded. When Carmen Jones was released in October 1954, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. After thirty years in show business, Dorothy Dandridge was at the top. As Walter Leavy wrote in the December 1993 issue of Ebony, "She became the silver screen's hottest Black sex symbol and was described at one time as one of the five most beautiful women in the world. Her beauty, grace, good singing voice and acting ability all came into play during the transformation of her life into a classic Hollywood tale -- one with a bittersweet mixture of joy and pain. First there was the fruit of her labor -- the fame, the $100,000 per movie, a collection of jewels, a mansion in Hollywood Hills and a white Thunderbird car that was accentuated by the matching white beaver coat in which she wrapped herself. She was a star among stars."

She was also the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Oscar® as Best Actress. When Dandridge asked Otto Preminger if he thought she would win, he said no. "The time is not ripe". He was right. Grace Kelly took home the Oscar® for The Country Girl and Dorothy Dandridge's career went into decline. It would be three years before she made another film. Why did this dynamic woman never again have the opportunity to shine the way she had in Carmen Jones? It isn't uncommon in Hollywood for an actress' career to decline once she'd been nominated for an Oscar®. It could (and has) happened to many. In Dorothy Dandridge's case, it may have been a combination of things: certainly she received bad advice - Preminger told her not to accept the role of Tuptim in The King and I (1956) because it was a supporting role - something she always regretted. He also wanted to guide her nightclub career, but he knew nothing about nightclubs. Worst of all, Hollywood didn't know what to do with her. With only Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier as established African-American leading men, and a shortage of what was considered "suitable material", the opportunities weren?t there. She had a few more roles in films in which she was romantically involved with white men, like Island in the Sun (1957) where the "romance" was suggested, more than shown, or The Decks Ran Red (1958) in which she tantalizes a boatload of men. Brock Peters summed it up, "Dorothy was probably as frustrated as any actress could be who was Black. She had the talent and the looks, but she couldn't find an open door so those talents could be displayed regularly and appreciated by the audiences she developed through Carmen Jones."

Her personal life fared no better. She had desperately wanted to marry Preminger but when she became pregnant, he left her and she was forced to have an abortion. In 1959 she married Jack Denison, a white man unanimously described as a "gold digger" and the worst thing that ever happened to her. Denison used up all the money she had carefully saved in 'get rich quick' schemes. When the money ran out, so did he. Dorothy was left bankrupt and unable to pay for the private care her daughter Lynn needed, so she had to put her in a state hospital. All these things led her to drink and anti-depressant pills. She also began to put on weight. By 1965, she was besieged by 77 creditors and was living in a one-room basement apartment in Hollywood, but had finally managed to secure nightclub dates and a contract for two films in Mexico. Before she could begin the engagements, she fractured her ankle. On September 8, 1965 her agent drove to her apartment to take her to the doctor to have a cast put on. When she didn't answer the door, he went in and found her dead on the bathroom floor. The coroner ruled it as an acute overdose of Tofranil (an anti-depressant). Dorothy Dandridge was only 42 years old.

by Lorraine LoBianco

* Titles in bold will air on TCM on 5/29

Sources:
Walter Leavy "Who Was the Real Dorothy Dandridge?" Ebony, August 1999
Walter Leavy "The Mystery and Real-Life Tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge" Ebony, Dec 1993
Dorothy Dandridge, Earl Conrad "Everything and Nothing : The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy"
Donald Bogle "Dorothy Dandridge"
Otto Preminger "Preminger, An Autobiography"

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