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Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965)


Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge

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Dorothy Dandridge was a talented American movie actress and singer, and was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performance in the title role of the 1954 film 'Carmen Jones'. At the peak of her career in the mid-1950s, she was hailed as one of the world's most beautiful women and her picture graced the cover of Life magazine. She had many successes in a tragically short life and made a major contribution to the development and acceptance of African-Americans in film.

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Biography

She was born Dorothy Jean Dandridge on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, the second of two daughters. Dorothy's parents separated shortly before she was born and she and her older sister, Vivian, were brought up by their mother, Ruby. With no father the family were poor and Ruby worked as a housecleaner, supplementing her income with some singing and poetry readings for local theater groups and churches.

Both daughters showed from an early age a natural aptitude for singing and dancing . When Ruby began a lesbian relationship with an actress called Geneva Williams they realised the talent of the girls could be a money spinner. Geneva moved in with the family and began teaching the sisters singing, dancing and piano. They proved to be apt pupils.

The Wonder Children

As Dorothy and Vivian grew more accomplished, Ruby and Geneva decided to call their act "The Wonder Children". In 1927 they all moved to Nashville and the girls were signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches throughout the southern USA. The girls performed a series of sketches which included dancing, singing, acrobatics and poetry readings. Geneva accompanied them on the piano and Ruby handled the business side.

The Dandridge Sisters

The Great Depression of 1930 marked the end of three highly profitable years on the road. Ruby moved with Geneva and the girls to Hollywood to be at the heart of the booming movie business where Talkies were just coming in. Both Dorothy and Vivian had disliked the constant touring and the long hours of rehearsing which the punctilious Geneva demanded. Instead of haphazard private tuition, their education improved when they were enrolled in Hooper Street School for morning classes. In the afternoons they continued with their dancing classes.

At their dancing school they teamed up with a talented singer called Etta Jones. (Etta was born in 1919 and is often confused with the Jazz singer Etta Jones, who was born in 1928) They formed a trio and changed their stage name to The Dandridge Sisters. Their first success was to win an amateur talent competition on LA radio station KNX.

They acquired an agent, Ben Carter who found them work in theaters around southern California, including their first movie work, albeit uncredited, in 1935 in 'The Big Broadcast of 1936'. Dorothy also made her first solo screen appearance in the same year with a bit part in an Our Gang comedy, 'Teacher's Beau'. She also had a small, uncredited role in the classic 1937 Marx Brothers film 'A Day at the Races', followed in 1939 by the appearance of all three of the Dandridge Sisters with Louis Armstrong in 'Going Places'.

They became increasingly well known as club and theater singers and in 1936 Carter found them regular work at the prestigious Cotton Club of New York. Dorothy was still only 14 years old and she began to meet and mix with the top black entertainers of the 1930's, including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and the dancing Nicholas Brothers.

The Dandridge Sisters became very popular at the Cotton Club and their success led to tours in London and Hawaii. After almost two years of touring, the girls returned to Hollywood in 1940 but soon split up mainly due to Dorothy's ambition to go solo. She detested the touring life and felt she could find greater success on stage or screen as a dramatic actress.

Solo Career and Marriage

Dorothy's first movie after beginning her solo career was 'Four Shall Die' in 1940, followed by 'Lady from Louisiana' and 'Bahama Passage' the following year, 'Drums of the Congo' in 1942 and 'Hit Parade of 1943' in 1943. The movies showed her in small, racially stereotypical roles but highlighted her obvious talents as an actress.

In 1942 Dorothy married Harold Nicholas, the younger of the Nicholas Brothers. She had been 16 when she first met Harold at the Cotton Club, and Harold was just one year older. The young couple fell in love and began a four year romance, often apart, as their careers took them across America and Europe. They married in September, 1942 and their daughter, Lynn (short for Harolyn), was born one year later.

The marriage was not a success. Nicholas spent much of his married life on the golf course or in the arms of other women, and did not help Dorothy with their child. The little girl had suffered brain damage at birth and was mentally retarded. She would need specialist care for the rest of her life. Dorothy suffered severe depression because of Lynn's condition. She decided on a positive response to her problems and began taking singing, acting, and dance lessons to regain her self-confidence. She and Nicholas officially divorced in 1949.

Dorothy's movie career continued with romantic musicals such as 'Atlantic City' in 1944 and 'Pillow to Post' in 1945 which brought her to a wider audience. Around this time she began a professional and personal relationship with the African-American jazz musician Phil Moore. Guided by Moore, she developed her own unique singing style, both erotic and elegant and she swiftly became a favorite in the prestige hotels and nightspots all round America.

She was the first African-American to perform in the Empire Room of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1951 and in the same year, she also broke all attendance records at the Mocambo in Hollywood. Despite her success Dorothy detested the touring life. She constantly fought her own insecurities about her appearance and ability and the spectre of racism was always present. Even when she was appearing in the top hotels, she was not allowed to stay in them as a guest.

Movie Success

Dorothy was anxious to leave the nightclub circuit and resume her acting career. In 1951 she played a supporting role as an African princess in the 1951 movie 'Tarzan's Peril' and in 1953 she got excellent reviews when she appeared in a much more complex and difficult role as a teacher in 'Bright Road'. The caring young teacher was completely different from the usual erotic persona demanded of her, and although the movie failed at the box office, it showed clearly that she had talent as an actress.

Dorothy's appearance in the all-black production of 'Carmen Jones' proved to be her springboard to true national fame. Her superb performance won her a nomination for the Best Actress Academy Award, the first African-American to be nominated in the Best Actress category and only the third to be nominated in any category (after Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters.) Although she lost out to Grace Kelly in 'The Country Girl' it brought Dorothy to the notice of the whole world. During the filming of 'Carmen' Dorothy began an affair with the director, Otto Preminger. The affair lasted several years but eventually petered out when it became obvious that Preminger would not leave his wife.

Although her new fame changed her life financially it did not immediately bring more film roles and her personal life continued to be unhappy. In 1957 a story came out in the sleazy tabloid "Hollywood Confidential" about a sexual liason between Dorothy and a white bandleader in 1950. In a landmark case, Dorothy and Maureen O'Hara were the only stars who testified in the case against the publishing company. Because of their testimony it was proved that the company had been libellous and the judge banned them from publishing such questionable stories.

Slow Movie Decline

Dorothy's career continued to be hampered by racial stereotyping. At the very time she should have springboarded to greater success her career stalled due to lack of suitable movies. The studios felt that audiences would not accept African-American actresses in powerful roles. In 1955 Dorothy was offered the supporting role of Tuptim in 'The King and I', alongside Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, but declined it on the advice of Preminger who thought the part too small. The movie was a smash hit with Rita Moreno in the Tuptim part and Dorothy's decision to decline the role marked the beginning of her fall from grace.

Dorothy's next movie was the 1957 production of 'Island in the Sun' which provided a good role for her, but which merely rehashed the subject of interracial sex. The film was extremely cautious in its approach but still caused controversy and some theaters in the South refused to show it. It was, however, a box office hit and Dorothy's next two films were on the same theme, 'Tamango' and 'The Decks Ran Red', both in 1958.

Porgy and Bess 1959

'Porgy and Bess' was a big budget Sam Goldwyn production with an-all black cast, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dorothy as Bess and Sidney Poitier as Porgy. Preminger's relationship with Dorothy was over and he treated her particularly harshly during filming. The movie did not do well at the box office but was a personal triumph for Dorothy who received a Golden Globe Award nomination for best actress in a musical for her skilful portrayal of Bess.

Dorothy's next movie was 'Malaga', a low budget film made in Europe.. It was to be her final feature film. Originally titled 'Moment of Danger' it was made in late 1959 but was not released in U.S. theaters until 1962.

Second Marriage 1959

Dorothy's second marriage was to restaurateur, Jack Denison, in 1959, and it proved to be a failure from the start. Dorothy had been warned by friends that Denison was a gold-digger and so it proved. He was also physically abusive to his new wife. To make matters worse Dorothy began to have serious financial problems. In the early sixties her income from films and nightclub appearances declined and she lost much of her savings in an oil investment which turned out to be a scam.

She divorced Denison in 1962 and was left bitter and depressed. In March of 1963 Dorothy had to declare personal bankruptcy and she lost everything she owned, including a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills. She was left to face a bleak future alone.

As the movie offers dwindled to nothing, Dorothy continued to perform on stage and on the club circuit but she was emotionally spent. She turned to alcohol and pills to help but they they exacted a heavy physical toll.

In early 1965 Dorothy went to a health spa in Mexico and worked hard at getting her fitness back. She began a series of singing engagements in Mexico and Japan and returned to Hollywood in early September.

Dorothy was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment on September 8, 1965. The cause of death was an overdose of antidepressant medicine. She was aged 42 years. To this day it is not known if her death was accident or suicide.

Summary

The subject of race overshadows any discussion of Dorothy's career. If she had been born white with all her talent she would have had an overwhelming choice of films, scripts and parts. As it was she was offered the same role time after time - that of the tragic dark-skinned heroine failing to be accepted by society and doomed to face an unhappy end. It could have been a script for Dorothy's own life.

The tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge is that she was born twenty years too early. Had she been born in the early 1940's instead of the early 1920's, many doors would have been open for her, and we would now be discussing one of the greatest performers who ever graced a movie screen.

Dorothy Dandridge Academy Awards

One UnsuccessfulNomination:
Best Actress ... Carmen Jones (1954)

Dorothy Dandridge Filmography

1935
Teacher's Beau (Short)
The Big Broadcast of 1936 (as The Dandridge Sisters)
1936
Easy to Take
1937
A Day at the Races(uncredited)
It Can't Last Forever(uncredited)
1938
Snow Gets in Your Eyes (Short)(uncredited)
Going Places (uncredited)
1939
1940
Irene
(uncredited) Four Shall Die
1941
Lady from Louisiana
Sun Valley Serenade
Sundown
Bahama Passage
1942
Ride 'Em Cowboy (uncredited)
The Night Before the Divorce(uncredited)
Night in New Orleans (uncredited)
Drums of the Congo
Lucky Jordan (uncredited)
1943
Happy Go Lucky(uncredited)
Hit Parade of 1943
1944
Since You Went Away (uncredited)
Atlantic City
1945
1946
1947
1948
1949