Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American actress and popular singer, and was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.She performed as a vocalist in venues such as the Nathan Featherston and the Apollo Theater.
After several minor bit parts in films, Dandridge, landed her first noted film role in Tarzan's Peril, in 1951; starring Lex Barker. Dandridge won her first starring role in 1953; playing a teacher in the nearly all-black cast low-budgeted film, Bright Road, realesed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
In 1954, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Carmen Jones, and, in 1959, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Porgy and Bess. In 1999, she was the subject of the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring, Halle Berry as Dandridge. She has been recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dandridge was married and divorced twice, first to dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas (the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne) and then to Jack Denison. Dandridge died of an accidental drug overdose at age 42.
Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinetmaker and minister, and to Ruby Dandridge , an aspiring entertainer. Dandridge's parents separated shortly before her birth. Ruby Dandridge soon created an act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name of "The Wonder Children." The daughters toured the Southern United States for five years while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland. During this time, they toured almost non-stop and rarely attended school.
At the onset of the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many of the Chitlin' circuit performers. Ruby Dandridge moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small parts as a domestic servant. "The Wonder Kids" were renamed "The Dandridge Sisters" and booked into such venues as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City.
Dandridge's first screen appearance was a bit part in a 1935 Our Gang comedy, Teacher's Beau. In 1937, she appeared as one of the many singers in the Marx Brothers feature film, A Day at the Races. The following year Dandridge, her sister Vivian, and Etta Jones would make a brief appearance in Going Places. In 1940, Dandridge played a murderer in the race film, Four Shall Die. This film provided Dandridge with her first credited film role as Helen Fielding. Though the part was a supporting role and the film was somewhat of a success, Dandridge struggled to find good film roles.
The following year, Dandridge was cast opposite John Wayne in Lady From Louisiana (1941), playing the small part of Felice. That same year she teamed with her future husband Harold Nicholas to film a brief role in Sun Valley Serenade. Dandridge, Nicholas, and Nicholas's brother Fayard Nicholas, appeared in a part described as "speciality act". In 1942, Dandridge won another supporting role as Princess Malimi in Drums of the Congo. In her next few films she would play mainly in bit parts, but she managed to get a small and yet good role in Hit Parade of 1943 (1943). In 1944, Dandridge would play two uncredited roles in Since You Went Away and Atlantic City. In the following year of 1945, she would play again a small role in the musical Pillow to Post. Two years later she appeared in a tiny role in Ebony Parade, (1947). By the later months 1947, Dandridge's luck for winning small roles in films had disappeared. She would only rarely appear in nightclubs and wouldn't make any films.
In 1951, Dandridge was cast as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba in her comeback film, Tarzan's Peril, starring Lex Barker as Tarzan and Virginia Huston as Jane. Dandridge's role was somewhat minor, but she would be noticed by many. One night while at a party, she was introduced to music manager, Earl Mills. Mills had agreed to get Dandridge a career started as a singer. However, Dandridge didn't want to continue her singing career and instead wanted to focus on the motion picture industry. Even though Mills and Dandridge disagreed on how her career should be, Dandridge signed Mills as her agent. She would next appear as Ann Carpenter in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951). In this film Dandridge really only makes a co-starring appearance, but receives second billing.
It was after the release of The Harlem Globetrotters, that Dandridge's film career stalled again. Mills then arranged for Dandridge to make her first appearance at the Mocambo. She continued to perform in nightclubs around the country, through most of 1952.
In December 1952, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio agent noticed Dandridge performing in the Mocambo, and cast her in the lead role in Bright Road, co-starring Philip Hepburn and Harry Belafonte. Bright Road proved to be Dorothy's first starring role as Jane Richards.
The film tells the story of how a teacher reaches out to a troubled student during his time of need. The film contains nearly an all-black cast: a few minor white characters are seen. Bright Road became a box-office flop, but Dandridge was at the top of her game as a nightclub performer.
Bright Road was to showcase Dandridge as a serious leading actress, but the film's terrible reception didn't help matters of her being taken seriously; it hurt them more than she knew. The feature was named: "The lowest box-office gross of the South".
After Bright Road, Dandridge would start performing again in nightclubs; and, eventually she won a supporting role as herself in the musical-drama film, Remains to Be Seen.
In 1954, Dandridge signed a three movie deal with 20th Century Fox. Soon after director and writer Otto Preminger cast Dandridge along with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Madame Sul-Te-Wan (uncredited), Olga James, and Joe Adams, in his all-black production of Carmen Jones. However, Dandridge's singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Marilyn Horne.
Upon release in 1954, Carmen Jones grossed $60,000 during its first week and $47,000 in its second week. The film received favorable reviews, and Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming only the third African American to receive a nomination in any Academy Award category (after Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters) but the first African-American to be nominated for best actress. Grace Kelly won the award for her performance in The Country Girl. At the awards ceremony, Dandridge presented the Academy Award for Film Editing to Gene Milford for On the Waterfront.
In 1955, 20th Century Fox selected Dandridge to play the supporting role of Tuptim in the film version of the Broadway hit, The King and I, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. The character was a slave, which made Dorothy decline the offer. After some convincing from Fox chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, that the role was a good one, Dandridge agreed to take the part. Otto Preminger, however, told her the role was too small, and that she would be better off to wait for a leading role in a big-budget motion picture: Dandridge would again decline the role of Tuptim.
A few months before the offer of The King and I, Dandridge was asked to play Sandra Roberts in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, a romantic-comedy film starring Tom Ewell and Sheree North. She turned this role down for the same reasons that she would turn down The King and I, in future months—it was too small. Had Dandridge agreed to make The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, her character would have been a parody of Marilyn Monroe's character in Fox's The Seven Year Itch (1955). Dorothy was not a fan of parodies, which was another reason she turned the part down. Not making these two films started the slow decline of Dandridge's film career.
By 1956, still under contract to Fox, Dandridge hadn't made any films since Carmen Jones. Fox still believed that Dandridge was a star, but just didn't know how to promote her. One of the head chiefs at Fox once said "She's a star, but we don't have any films to put her in or leading men to cast her opposite." In 1957, Dandridge's luck came back when Darryl F. Zanuck cast Dandridge as Margot, a restless young West Indian woman, in his controversial film version of Island in the Sun, co-starring James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, John Justin, John Williams, and Stephen Boyd. This film was a success, which brought Dandridge back to the public eye.
Though Island in the Sun was a major success, Dandridge didn't get another film until she was cast in the low-budget foreign Italian production Tamango, which teamed her with Curd Jürgens. The film received fair reviews, but failed to succeed at the box-office. Dandridge believed that the film failed because she played a slave, a part she had vowed she'd never play. Tamango was filmed in Europe in the late months of 1957 and was legally released on January 24, 1958 in France. Tamango wouldn't be released in the United States until September 16, 1959.
In 1958, soon after the French release of Tamango, Dandridge lined up a co-starring role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's off-beat thriller The Decks Ran Red. The film starred Dandridge's former Island in the Sun (1957) co-star, James Mason. The Decks Ran Red film was released with high hopes, but, drew minor box-office success; today the film is considered a "cult classic" Dorothy Dandridge film.
Porgy and Bess
Determined to reinvent her career, Dorothy decided to wait on a good film role. In 1959, Columbia Pictures cast Dandridge in the lead role of Bess in Porgy and Bess; Dandridge was again nominated for an award, this time for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, for her performance in Porgy and Bess. Dandridge lost, this time to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot
Despite positive reviews, Porgy and Bess, was a box-office failure. The film's characters were described by several African-Americans as "stereotypical". The character of "Bess" was a drug addict; the image of "Porgy" was that of a crippled drunk; the character of "Suportin' Life" was another drug addict; and, the image of "Crown" was as a rapist who rapes Bess. These characters pandered to the stereotypes many believed about African-Americans, which caused the story to be controversial for many African-Americans.
The actor who got the most blame for the failure of Porgy and Bess was Dandridge. Before the film, many other African-American actresses and actors looked up to Dandridge as someone who had proved that an African-American woman could achieve what a white woman or man could. But many thought Dandridge was "selling out" when she accepted the role of Bess. Furthermore, she received a number of negative reviews for her performance, being called "uncreditable".
A few weeks after the box-office disappoinment of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge was released from her 20th Century Fox contract. Though she had been with Fox for about five-and-a-half years, she had only made two films (her contract stated she was committed to making three, however, Fox failed to find enough viable opportunities for Dandridge), that were released by them: Carmen Jones (1954), and Island in the Sun (1957).
In 1959, after the disappointment of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge managed to get the lead role as a European girl with an Italian name (Gianna) in Malaga, another low-budget, forgettable movie that was filmed in Europe and came and vanished quickly. Malaga, proved to be Dandridge's final theatrical film. The feature was filmed in late 1959, under the original title Moment of Danger, but wasn't legally released in U.S. theaters until 1962.
She made her last acting appearance the next year in the television movie, The Murder Men. Dandridge played the lead, Norma Sherman. A reporter called Dorothy's performance in the film: "Her most interesting 'later' film role." The film was later shown in an episode of Cain's Hundred, entitled Blues for a Junkman; all the actors receiving "archive footage" crediting.
By the end of 1961 Dandridge's job offers (of any kind) had disappeared, a disappointment from which she would never recover.
Dandridge first gained fame as a solo artist from her performances in nightclubs, usually accompanied by Phil Moore on piano. As well-known as she became from renditions of songs such as "Blow Out the Candle", "You Do Something To Me", and "Talk Sweet Talk To Me", she recorded very little on vinyl. Whether it was because of personal choice or lack of opportunity is unknown.
In 1940, as part of the Dandridge Sisters singing group, Dandridge recorded four songs with the Jimmy Lunceford band:
"You Ain't Nowhere" (Columbia #28007)
"That's Your Red Wagon" (Columbia #28006)
"Ain't Going To Go To Study War No More" (Columbia #26938)
"Minnie The Moocher is Dead" (Columbia #26937A)
In 1944, she recorded a duet with Louis Armstrong from the film Pillow to Post:
"Watcha Say" (Decca L-3502)
In 1951, she recorded a single for Columbia Records:
"Blow Out the Candle/Talk Sweet Talk To Me" (catalogue # unknown)
In 1953, she recorded a song for the film Remains to Be Seen:
"Taking a Chance On Love" (MGM Records, catalogue # unknown)
In 1958, she recorded a full length album for Verve Records featuring Oscar Peterson with Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Alvin Stoller (Catalogue #314 547-514 2) that remained unreleased in the vaults until a cd release in 1999. This cd also included 4 tracks from 1961 (with an unknown orchestra) that included one 45 rpm record single and another aborted single:
"It's Easy To Remember" (21942-3)
"What Is There To Say" (21943-6)
"That Old Feeling" (21944-4)
"The Touch Of Your Lips" (21945-12)
"When Your Lover Has Gone" (21946-1)
"The Nearness Of You" (21947-7)
"(In This World) I'm Glad There Is You" (21948-10)
"I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face" (21949-4)
"Body And Soul" (21950-2)
"How Long Has This Been Going On?" (21951-6)
"I've Got A Crush On You" (21952-3)
"I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (21953-3)
"Somebody" (recorded in 1961) (23459-2)
"Stay with It" (recorded in 1961) (23460-4)
(above two tracks released on Verve Records single #Verve V 10231)
"It's a Beautiful Evening" (recorded in 1961) (23461-5)
"Smooth Operator" (recorded in 1961) (23462-2)
(above two tracks were aborted for release as a single and remained unreleased until the "Smooth Operator" cd release in 1999). These represent the only known songs Dandridge recorded on vinyl. Several songs she sang were recorded on Soundies. These songs, which include her version of "Cow Cow Boogie", are not included on this list.
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, and gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943. Harolyn was born brain-damaged, and the couple divorced in October 1951
Dandridge married Jack Denison on June 22, 1959, although the pair divorced amid allegations of domestic violence and financial setbacks. At this time, Dandridge discovered that the people who were handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000, and that she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and to place her daughter in a state mental institution in Camarillo, California, Dandridge moved into a small apartment at 8495 Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California. Alone and without any acting roles or singing engagements on the horizon, Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown. Shortly thereafter, Earl Mills started arranging her comeback. The comeback never came to fruition because she died in the early planning stages.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister-in-law Geraldine "Geri" Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead by her manager, Earl Mills. Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. An alternative source reported, however, that the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office came to a different conclusion, that: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood film five days before she died.”She was 42 years old.
On September 12, 1965, a private funeral service was held for Dandridge at the Little Chapel of the Flowers; she was then cremated and her ashes interred in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California
Many years passed before the entertainment industry acknowledged Dandridge's legacy. Starting in the 1980s, stars such as Cicely Tyson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett acknowledged Dandridge's contributions to the role of blacks in film.
In 1999, Halle Berry took the lead role of Dandridge in the HBO Movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which she also produced and for which she won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award. and a Screen Actors Guild Award. When Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster's Ball, she dedicated the "moment [to] Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll."
For her contributions to the motion picture industry, she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 671 Hollywood Boulevard.
1935 Teacher's Beau Dorothy Gus Meins
1936 The Big Broadcast of 1936 Member of the Dandridge Sisters Norman Taurog
1937 Easy to Take Member of the Dandridge Sisters Glenn Tyron Uncredited
1937 It Can't Last Forever Dandridge Sisters Act Hamilton MacFadden Uncredited
1937 A Day at the Races Black Singer Sam Wood Uncredited
1938 Going Places Member of the Dandridge Sisters Ray Enright Uncredited
1938 Snow Gets in Your Eyes One of the Dandridge Sisters Will Jason
1940 Irene The Dandridge Sisters Herbert Wilcox Uncredited
1940 Four Shall Die Helen Fielding William Beaudine Aka: Condemned Men
1941 Bahama Passage Thalia Edward H. Griffith
1941 Sundown Kipsang's Bride Henry Hathaway
1941 Sun Valley Serenade Specialty Act H. Bruce Humberstone
1941 Lady from Louisiana Felice Bernard Vorhaus Aka: Lady from New Orleans
1942 Lucky Jordan Hollyhock School Maid Frank Tuttle Uncredited
1942 Night in New Orleans Sal, Shadrach's Girl William Clemens Uncredited
1942 The Night Before the Divorce Maid Robert Siodmak Uncredited
1942 Ride 'Em Cowboy Dancer Arthur Lubin Uncredited
1942 Drums of the Congo Princess Malimi Christy Cabanne
1942 Orchestra Wives Unknown Archie Mayo Uncredited
1943 Hit Parade of 1943 Count Basie Band Singer Albert S. Rogell Aka: Change of Heart
1943 Happy Go Lucky Showgirl Curtis Bernhardt Uncredited
1944 Since You Went Away Black Officer's Wife in Train Station John Cromwell Uncredited
1944 Atlantic City Singer Ray McCarey Uncredited. Aka: Atlantic City Honeymoon
1945 Pillow to Post Herself-Vocalist Vincent Sherman Uncredited
1947 Ebony Parade Herself-Vocalist Count Basie Uncredited
1951 Tarzan's Peril Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba Byron Haskin
1951 The Harlem Globetrotters Ann Carpenter Phil Brown
1953 Bright Road Jane Richards Gerald Mayer First starring role
1953 Remains to Be Seen Herself-Vocalist Don Weis
1954 Carmen Jones Carmen Jones Otto Preminger Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role
1957 Island in the Sun Margot Seaton Robert Rossen
1958 Tamango Aiché, Reiker's mistress John Berry
1958 The Decks Ran Red Mahia Andrew L. Stone Aka: Infamy (filming title) & La Rivolta dell'esperanza (foreign releases)
1959 Porgy and Bess Bess Otto Preminger Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1960 Malaga Gianna Laslo Benedek Aka: Moment of Dandger. Final theatrical film appearance
As an Actress
1961 The Murder Men Norma Sherman John Peyser Television movie
1962 Cain's Hundred Norma Sherman Robert Gist 1 episode: Blues for a Junkman
Cavalcade of Stars (1952 - 1 episode)
Songs for Sale (1952 - 1 episode)
The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951-1953 - 2 episodes)
The George Jessel Show (1954 - 1 episode)
Light's Diamond Jubilee (1954 - TV documenatary)
The 27th Annual Academy Awards (1955 - TV special; Nominee & Presenter)
Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1956 - 1 episode)
Ford Star Jubilee (1956 - 1 episode)
The 29th Annual Academy Awards (1957 - TV special; Performer & Presenter)
The Ed Sullivan Show (1952-1961 - 7 episodes)
Juxe Box Jury (1964 - 1 episode)
Swingin' the Dream (November 29–December 9, 1939, Broadway)
Meet the People (1941, replacement for Virginia O'Brien - Los Angeles)
Jump for Joy (1941–1942, Los Angeles)
Sweet 'n' Hot (1944, Los Angeles)
Crazy Girls (1952, Off-Broadway)
West Side Story (1962)
Show Boat (1965)