Dorothy Dandridge Works Hard for Her Daughter, Fights Jim Crow on the Nightclub Scene, Insures Her Designer Gowns for $250,000, And Proves She’s An Actress to Be Reckoned With.
Dorothy Dandridge and Bright Road (1953)
1953’s Bright Road marked the beginning of the career change our Star of the Month Dorothy Dandridge dreamed of.
By the early 1950s, Dorothy’s hard work re-starting her career after the end of her marriage to Harold Nicholas had paid off: with the special care her daughter Lynn required as motivation, Dorothy Dandridge became one of the most sought after performers on the popular nightclub scene. Though Dorothy never enjoyed singing in “the saloons,” as she’d call the clubs, her beautiful voice, stylish appearance, and the great vulnerability Dorothy projected in each performance made her an audience favorite.
But Dorothy’s dream was to become a dramatic film actress, an African American movie star who played leading roles, not maids or mammies. And with her first leading film role as a dedicated teacher in Bright Road (1953), it seemed Dorothy Dandridge’s unprecedented dream just might come true.
In addition to helping Dorothy along on her path to movie stardom, Bright Road, with its sweet messages of love, freedom, and brotherhood, would depict an African American community in ways audiences of all races could relate and appreciate: in its own understated way, Bright Road helped redefine the way African Americans were portrayed on screen, breaking down the inaccurate stereotypes that so limited the careers of black actors.
Be sure to catch Bright Road when it plays on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday. Check the TCM calendar here for details. You can also rent or purchase Bright Road here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
The film is set in rural Alabama. Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge), is the young and beautiful new elementary school teacher in a small black community. Jane takes a particular interest in one of her students, C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn), who struggles in class. C.T. is a bright kid, but he’s had to repeat every grade twice: C.T. is disinterested in school, and he’s never had a teacher care enough to invest in his success. Marked as a hopeless trouble maker each year, C.T. needs a teacher who will believe in him.
Jane Richards is that teacher.
Where previous teachers haven’t cared that C.T. comes to school hungry, Jane ensures that his name is placed on the list of students to be included for school-provided lunches.
Where previous teachers ignored the difficult questions C.T. asks, Jane answers them with straightforward honesty.
A Good Teacher
Jane also recognizes C.T.’s strengths in art and nature, and uses those interests to get him excited about what she’s teaching in the classroom.
Despite opposition from the other teachers at school, with the encouragement of the handsome Principal Williams (Harry Belafonte), Jane continues to get through to C.T. And as the the school year goes on, C.T.’s report cards show his progress: for the first time, he earns passing grades.
But the death of C.T.’s best friend and crush, Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders), from pneumonia, temporarily sets back his scholastic progress. As he mourns Tanya’s passing, C.T. once more seems disinterested in school.
With the end of the school year approaching, Jane fears she’ll have to keep C.T. in her class another year.
Her worries are lifted when she overhears C.T. helping another student with long division: it’s clear C.T. understands the concepts Jane’s been teaching, he’s just been internalizing everything as he mourns Tanya.
At the end of the school year, C.T.’s scholastic enthusiasm returns after he saves the school from a bee attack: the queen bee flies into Jane’s classroom, and C.T., the only one who knows that the rest of the bees will follow wherever the queen bee goes, calmly finds her, and takes the queen from the classroom to the woods. The bee swarm follows.
An Important Lesson
C.T. returns to school a hero, bringing with him a butterfly cocoon: the progress of the caterpillar inside the cocoon mirrors C.T.’s growth as a student. C.T. gifts Jane the cocoon, and on the last day of class, the butterfly breaks free. As the students watch the butterfly fight its way out of the cocoon, Jane reminds her class that:
“Last September he was just a little old caterpillar crawling along on the ground. Now he’s coming awake after a long winter’s sleep. A beautiful change is taking place. He’s being born all over again. Just as you and I will be born again someday. And everyone we’ve ever known or loved. We don’t know what it’ll be like any more than the caterpillar did.
And so when the butterfly spreads its wings and flies away, we have to remember that we’ve been very lucky. For here today we have a wonderful promise of things to come.”
Of course, the butterfly is symbolic of C.T., but the message of freedom and wonderful things to come is also meant to be heard on a larger level: the age of Civil Rights is fast approaching, and like the butterfly, no person should be denied their freedom.
The film closes with C.T. simply telling Jane that he loves her. No other words could better convey to this dedicated teacher that her hard work, love, and belief in her student have literally changed his life.
And that’s the end of this sweet film.
Dorothy Dandridge Returns to Show Business
1948 marked Dorothy Dandridge’s return to show business. Separated from Harold Nicholas, and having just turned over the care of daughter Harolyn, Dorothy’s determination and drive focused on her career: it was a much needed distraction from the heartbreak she felt over the disintegration of her marriage, and the child whose special needs required twenty-four hour care.
Vivian Dandridge would comment on her sister’s super-human focus on her career goals:
“My sister worked twenty-four hours a day to become a star.”
Once Dorothy teamed up with jazz musician and arranger Phil Moore, it seemed she’d found her stride. With Moore’s expert eye, a nightclub act was put together that capitalized on all of Dorothy’s strengths as a performer: songs that complemented her warm voice and range, dance moves that showed her training and natural grace, and gowns that underscored Dottie’s knockout beauty.
The Price of a Good Act
But the financial burden of getting her nightclub act together was great, and Dottie was often lucky if what she earned from her early engagements covered her costs. Despite the fact that her relationship with Moore turned romantic, Dorothy still had to pay him for his vocal coaching. And in addition to paying Moore, she also had the costs of her accompanists and agent to consider. But Dottie understood that on the nightclub scene, looking good was perhaps just as important as sounding good. And at this early stage of her comeback career, Dorothy would say that most of what she earned went towards her wardrobe:
“I spent most of my earnings on clothes, for what I looked like onstage was a large part of my act. I intended, if money came my way, to get a wardrobe the equal of anyone’s in the business. If you are supposed to be an attractive woman up on a platform singing to a few hundred people, you better look right.”
It wouldn’t be too long before Dorothy could afford gowns by the most renown designers of the era, including Don Loper, and, one of my personal favorite designers, Billy Travilla. At the height of her popularity on the nightclub scene, Dorothy Dandridge owned 56 designer gowns, insured for an impressive $250,000.
Dorothy’s performances in 1951 at the Mocambo, a popular club with Hollywood’s biggest stars on the Sunset Strip, was a watershed engagement for her career. Dottie herself would credit her 1952 success at New York City’s La Vie en Rose club as the engagement that made her one of the most sought after performers on the nightclub scene. Night after night, Dottie sang to sold-out houses. Her success at La Vie en Rose was such that an initial two week booking was extended to fourteen. (Dorothy says sixteen in her autobiography [aff. link].)
Paying Her Dues
There’s no denying that Dorothy Dandridge paid her dues both before and during her years as a popular nightclub singer.
Regardless of how well a performance went, Dorothy suffered terrible anxiety and stress:
“In the dressing room after the show, I couldn’t breath, I had chest spasms, my legs cramps, my feet and hands tingled. I was unable to talk. I stayed in this contracted fit, doubled up, until I came out of it.”
Phil Moore would refer her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Dottie’s unique sickness as guilt over daughter Lynn’s brain damage:
“His diagnosis was that I was suffering from guilt feelings over Lynn. My paroxysm were a reliving of Lynn’s own sufferings and frustration. He counseled me that it was useless to relive my child’s destruction and to take her pain so deeply into my own body…Lynn was never out of my mind.”
Dorothy never completely overcame these attacks, which she’d refer to as “my own private plague” in her autobiography.
As debilitating as these attacks were, I think it speaks volumes of Dorothy’s sweet heart that she felt her daughter’s pain so deeply.
Dorothy Fights Jim Crow
In addition to these attacks during her years singing in “the saloons,” as she called the nightclubs, Dorothy Dandridge also experienced the cruelties of racism and prejudice. From her earliest days breaking into the club scene to her time as a command performer, Dorothy’s experiences with Jim Crow and segregation are simultaneously heartbreaking and frustrating. But from the beginning, our girl would deal with these injustices gracefully, and often found her own way to serve some sort of quiet justice.
During one of her first successful bookings in 1949 at The Bingo, a small Las Vegas club, segregation laws forced Dorothy to stay at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, far away from The Bingo and the Vegas Strip. Even more humiliating, Las Vegas segregation laws meant that Dorothy was only permitted in The Bingo lounge while she was performing. Dorothy could not socialize or mingle with the white guests who had paid to see her perform, even if she was invited to sit or dine at their tables.
The Bingo would also deny Dottie a dressing room, instead setting her up in a dilapidated old office with nothing but a makeshift plywood table to do her makeup on. Though angered and disappointed at these unjust circumstances, Dorothy took it all in her stride, and still managed to get all glammed up and gorgeous before delivering knock out performances.
The Chase Hotel
In 1952, as an established nightclub act, Dorothy Dandridge became not only the first black performer to appear at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, she also became the first to stay at the hotel: by this time, as a nightclub star, Dorothy’s requests held some sway, and when she told the Chase management that she’d like a suite at the hotel, her request was, however reluctantly, granted.
Taking a Stand
Despite these groundbreaking wins, Dorothy was still required to use the service elevator before and after each performance at the Chase. But with the help of her white accompanist, Nick Perito, Dorothy would break this barrier as well: after her second night’s performance, Perito defiantly took Dorothy through the hotel’s lobby to the main bank of elevators, and from there, escorted Dorothy to her suite.
As Perito would later recount,
“Well, the management took a dim view of this. It was an awkward moment for them….They didn’t know how to quite tell me that this was inappropriate as far as they are concerned. And I was not giving them any indication that I would listen even if they intended to…They were treating me kind of with kid gloves because here I was just killing them all with kindness, assuming nothing was wrong. And certainly, it wasn’t wrong. But in their eyes, it was Mayday…
…here was this gorgeous woman performing magnificently in their room and not allowed, by their previous standards, to walk through the lobby. Well of course, we changed all that for two weeks.”
Go Nick and Dorothy! I just love picturing these two kindly, but defiantly, refusing to be pushed around.
The Last Frontier
Perhaps the most infuriating of Dorothy’s experiences during her years performing in nightclubs occurred in 1953. Back to Las Vegas, this time as a mega star, Dorothy was booked at the Last Frontier, a major hotel on the Strip. Dorothy was permitted to stay at the hotel—something the management believed she should feel was a special privilege, if you can believe it—but, she was told that she couldn’t be seen at, or use, the hotel’s pool.
So there Dorothy was, breaking all kinds of box office records at the Last Frontier, making them tons of money with her performances, and they wouldn’t let her use the pool!??
Harold Jovien, Dorothy’s agent at MCA, would say about the situation at the Last Frontier that
“They gave her quite a rough time. Always you had to be careful though because Dorothy, at this point, didn’t take any crap. She reacted!”
Don't Mess with Dorothy Dandridge
And according to Jovien, Dorothy’s reaction to the pool situation was
“…perhaps to rattle management…[she’d] indicate that she was going to take a swim. The hotel responded immediately, saying, ‘The pool’s under construction.’ And they’d put a sign out. And NOBODY could swim.”
Yeaaaahhh Dorothy! Talk about a classy, understated payback for the hotel’s ridiculous rules.
Jovien said that before the end of Dorothy’s engagement at the Last Frontier, the management actually did drain the pool to keep Dottie from swimming in it.
How utterly ridiculous.
I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must have been for Dorothy to experience such treatment time and again. Is it any wonder, with situations such as this repeated in every city she performed in, that Dorothy dreamed of a film career that could provide her with the means to stop the nightclub circuit?
When she was offered the lead role in Bright Road (1953), Dorothy hoped she finally had her chance.
A Story of Love and Unity
Bright Road (1953) was based on a short story by Alabama school teacher, Mary Elizabeth Vroman. Vroman’s story, See How They Run, was about her own experiences in the classroom. Vroman would say that
“It was a story I had to write. I merely thought—if people could know these children as I do, they would be certain to love them all. Love solves more problems than anger. That’s why this isn’t an angry story.”
Vroman wrote See How They Run in a mere twenty-four hours. The story would appear in the June 1951 issue of Ladies Home Journal, and in Ebony magazine the following year, before winning the prestigious Christopher Award.
When MGM purchased the rights to make See How They Run into a film, Vroman was hired to help write the screenplay, making her the first African American member of the Screen Writers Guild.
A Relatable Film
Dorothy Dandridge shared Vroman’s thoughts on the short story that became Bright Road, and believed that its message of love would promote unity and soften hearts towards ending segregation. As Dorothy says in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“I was profoundly fond of the theme—a picture in which there was no violence, no rape, no lynching, no burning cross—rather a theme which showed that beneath any color skin, people were simply people. I had the feeling themes like this might do more real good than the more hard-hitting protest pictures–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.’”
Critics of the film said that Bright Road’s message was too much of a soft touch, but Dorothy Dandridge recognized the movie as an opportunity for both her career as an actress, and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Changes at MGM
If you remember from my last Esther Williams post, as the 1950s began, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer found his power at the studio diminishing. Under Dore Schary’s influence, particularly after Schary took over control of production in 1951, films at MGM began to change: big budget, musical spectaculars were phasing out, as more lower budget, “message” pictures were phasing in.
Schary’s “message” pictures often addressed riskier subject matter, but, as low budget features, these films wouldn’t break the bank if they failed. On the flip side, if these films succeeded, they could be really good for the studio’s reputation, and establish MGM as a moral arbiter.
Bright Road, at a budget of $490,000, was one of these low budget “message” films. Harry Belafonte wrote in his autobiography [aff. link] that
“Bright Road was made on the quick and cheap…”
Sources vary, but filming of Bright Road was completed in 17-19 days. Schary assigned a young B movie director to the film, Louis B. Mayer’s nephew, Gerald Mayer, which helped keep costs down. The casting of Harry Belafonte, a complete newcomer to Hollywood, and appearing in his first film role, would also be inexpensive. And Dorothy, a big name in clubs but not yet in films, would be budget casting as well at $1500 a week.
Dorothy simultaneously helped with the film’s budget and got her sister work when, thanks to Dorothy’s influence, Vivian Dandridge was cast in a bit role as a disgruntled teacher—she’s the one who doesn’t want C.T. to be added to the lunch list—and hired as Dorothy’s hairdresser.
How cool is that?? I love that Dorothy’s perfectly coiffed, teacherly yet simply elegant hairstyle, was done by her sister each day.
Dorothy Dandridge: A Natural
Gerald Mayer would adore working with Dottie, who, even in her first starring film role, was already a pro. He also found Dottie to be the perfect lady:
“She certainly was one of the most absolutely ladylike people I ever met. She never boasted about how good she was, she never complained. I think she was probably shy. But it didn’t show up. If you would meet her, she was pleasant and personable with great charm. The shyness didn’t show. But you know she was an actress, too.”
Mayer and Dottie would become quite close during filming, and the relationship would turn into a romance.
An Unexpected Experience
Over the course of their year long romance, Dottie and Mayer were no strangers to public disapproval when they went out together. But one experience at a restaurant turned out quite differently than either of them could have expected. As Gerald Mayer would recall:
“I tool her to a restaurant called the Windsor. A really nice restaurant. There was a table across from us with about six or eight people, and they were looking at our table and then there’d be some laughter and then there’d be some more looking and then they’d be talking.”
Suddenly, one of the men at the table got up and began walking towards Dottie and Gerald. Preparing for the worst, Dottie and Gerald were completely surprised when the man instead said
“‘Madam, I’d just like you to know you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.’”
Gerald Mayer remember the incident as
“…kind of a nice story, It’s such a different story than what you might expect under those circumstances.”
Dorothy's Heartache Enhances Her Performance
Mayer could tell that for Dorothy Dandridge, the hardest part about filming Bright Road was the similarity in ages between the children her Jane Richards taught in the classroom, and Dorothy’s own little girl Lynn, now almost nine. Mayer would say that
“The only thing I felt was locked inside was her daughter.”
Dorothy would recall one day on set when the thoughts of Lynn as she looked at these sweet children was just too much: Dorothy started crying, and had to leave the set. As she wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],
“…the simple act of looking at these lovely little boys and girls touched me to the core.”
A Rich Portrayal
This love Dorothy felt for the children in the film may have been heavy on her heart as she inevitably thought of Lynn, but there’s a richness to her performance because of it, an element of compassion and motherly love that another actress, who had not experienced Dorothy’s heartache, couldn’t have tapped into, and brought to the role. It’s a crucial part of why Dorothy’s Jane Richards is a such a good teacher who we, the audience, believe could so transform the life of a troubled student.
This humanity that Dorothy brings to the role no doubt led viewers of the film to reassess how they viewed the roles of African American women in real life and on screen. As Harry Belafonte so perfectly said [aff. link], Bright Road was
“a human story with characters who just happened to be black…
…Here was a stunningly gorgeous black woman appearing before the camera not as a maid or a slave but as a teacher! Most of America had never seen a black woman, aside from Lena Horne, look both so beautiful and so dignified.”
Bright Road unfortunately was not a box office success. According to MGM studio records, the film earned only $179,000 at the box office in the US and Canada. But Dorothy’s reviews were excellent, and though MGM didn’t have a follow up leading role for her, the studio clearly wanted to keep a relationship going with Dottie, for they offered her $3000 to appear in a musical number—much as Lena Horne frequently did—in 1953’s Remains to Be Seen. The offer was evidence of Dorothy’s already growing reputation in Hollywood.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Harry Belafonte shared his pessimistic, but tragically realistic, viewpoint of what he and Dorothy could expect after the April 1953 release of Bright Road:
“Despite her great beauty and talent, Dorothy’s chances of jumping from this first starring role to another were slim. Those roles just didn’t exist, any more than black male leads did for me. Bright Road might mark our mutual screen debuts, but we sensed its soft little story wouldn’t get us anywhere. All too soon, we’d be out-of-work actors—black actors—again.”
After Bright Road, Harry would go back to New York and his music career, and Dorothy Dandridge once again found herself singing in the saloons she so wished to break free from.
Dorothy Dandridge and Carmen Jones
But little did either Harry or Dottie know that by the end of that same year, Otto Preminger would sign with Twentieth Century Fox to direct a film version of Carmen Jones, a 1943 stage musical with hauntingly beautiful lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II, set to the music of Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen. The cast would be all black, and the lucky actor and actress to win the leading roles in the film were destined for stardom.
Harry and Dottie would get those coveted leading roles.
And with her vibrant, electrifying performance in Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge became the first female African American movie star.
That’s it for Bright Road! Be sure to join me next week as I review one of my favorite Dorothy Dandridge films, the movie that made her a star and earned Dottie her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, 1954’s Carmen Jones.
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My Favorite Kitchen Find
Aren’t these little pink ramekins adorable? I use mine for making personal-sized desserts, like these cakelettes, as well as for prep work, and for storing food in the refrigerator. These are such a stylish addition to the kitchen! Click to view my favorite on Amazon
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