Black History

In the Spotlight #2 – Dorothy Dandridge

14/03/2014

 This video features Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” No guesses who is in this month’s spotlight feature? Dorothy Dandridge. As someone who appreciates performing arts, when I came across the video above I was completely in awe. What did you think of the video?

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I came across Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) one afternoon, taking a break from uni work and sitting down in front of the T.V. with a plate of food in my lap looking for something decent to watch (during day time television hour – usually a wrong move). I was flicking through the channels and landed on Film4 which was showing Otto Preminger’s 1954 adaptation of the musical Carmen Jones. I caught the play roughly half an hour into the film but I was blown away by a few features:

  • The cast were all black
  • I was like “who is the protagonist?” She’s stunning!
  • I quite like the pre 1950s era so their outfits/customs caught my attention.

Mind you, I don’t just scout these films out because they’re black – but it did catch my attention because up until this point, I’d only seen black people in films pre 1950s as slave workers; house maids, mammies, butlers etc. and so seeing this film where black folks were living like their contemporaries was definitely fascinating. So I watched the film and was like wow, I didn’t realise how many of those songs I knew from that musical! Anyway, that’s how I came about acknowledging Dorothy Dandridge.

Prior to Carmen Jones, Dandridge had begun her career in music singing with her sister, Vivian Dandridge and another singer, Etta Jones. They were a popular female group beginning in Harlem, New York and eventually touring the US, UK and Ireland. Dandridge also appeared in many films usually unaccredited from 1935. Her acting career began to peak around the mid-1940s until around the ‘60s.

Dandridge starred in Bright Road (1952), though not successful, she didn’t give up then. She went onto acting in Carmen Jones two years later which was a huge success at the time earning $60,000 in its first week and $47,000 in its second. She rejected many films, later regretting her decision. She later released Porgy and Bess (1959) but after 1962, Dandridge faded out of the limelight completely.

Dandridge married Harold Nicholas on 6th September 1942. She gave birth to her only child Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas a year later but she was born brain-damaged. The couple were divorced in October 1951.

The closing years of Dandridge’s life contrasted her earlier days in the limelight. She married Jack Denison in 1959 but the couple divorced in 1962 due to allegations of domestic violence and financial drawbacks. The accountants handling Dandridge’s finances took advantage and she was left with in a hefty debt for back taxes. She was forced to sell her Hollywood home, place her daughter in a state mental insituation, Dandridge’s life looked pretty low. She moved into a small apartment and without any acting or singing prospects, Dandridge suffered from a nervous breakdown. A colleague, Earl Mills began planning a comeback but the ideas were thrown out since her unfortunate death.

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Dorothy Dandridge has left a legacy behind. During the 1980s, African American female entertainers acknowledged Dandridge’s contribution to black American cinema. In the late 1990s Halle Berry was the leading actress in the film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Berry produced, and won many awards for the film.

Designer Catherine Hardwicke, designed a statue of Dorothy Dandridge and stands in Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Artist Janelle Monáe released a song with Esperanza Spaulding called “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” on her latest album, The Electric Lady.

Photos from Google Images and the video is from YouTube.

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