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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Dorothy Dandridge vs. The World

Dorothy Dandridge was a fighter.  Growing up in The Depression and making her way through Hollywood in the ‘40s, she encountered resistance — to her skin color, to her refusal to play demeaning roles — at every turn. She was assailed in the press for dating white men, and blamed herself for her husband’s philandering and her daughter’s brain damage.  Nearly every societal convention was against her. And yet she managed to make a handful of gorgeous, invigorating films — films that offer a glimpse at the superstar she would have become if the studios knew what to do with with a beautiful black woman.

Her beauty was indeed phenomenal. She was called “the black Marilyn Monroe” and had flawless, radiant skin the black press referred to as “honey” and “cafe au lait.” And there was the certain way she took ownership of a room, with a reverberating, confident laugh and fierce, dazzling eyes. But being a black actor in the 1950s meant playing savages, slaves, and mamies — debasing roles that Dandridge refused on principle. In the films where she did get to play a a non-servant, non-exotic, non-savage, she was not allowed to do more than kiss, as the idea of a black woman in love was altogether too dangerous for the screen. “If I were white,” Dandridge explained, “I would capture the world.”

Dandridge was born in 1922 to Ruby Dandridge, a performer and aspiring actress. Ruby had left Dorothy’s father five months before, taking her other daughter, Vivian, with her. Both girls showed some sort of aptitude for performance — or maybe that aptitude was drilled into them — and one of Ruby’s friends, a woman named Geneva, moved in to help refine their singing and dancing skills. Years later, Dorothy and Vivian would figure out that Geneva was much more than her mother’s friend, but at the moment, she simply made them practice until they collapsed. Think wrist slaps and tears.

The girls became an act — “The Wonder Children” — and earned a spot with the National Baptist Convention touring churches throughout the South. This went on for three years, which sounds like a whole lot of churching, but Dorothy and Vivian no longer looked exactly like “children.” They added another girl, Etta Jones, to the act and became “The Dandridge Sisters,” touring all over California and eventually landing a gig at The Cotton Club. In short, the Dandridge girls spent their youth being corrected by their exacting stage mother, performing for church ladies, and receiving little to no schooling.

The Cotton Club gig turned into a slew of New York gigs, but Ruby had found moderate success with bit parts in Hollywood, so she sent the Exacting Lesbian Lover Geneva with her daughters to live in New York. Awesome plan. At this point, Dorothy was 16 — and now that you’ve seen the photos of her as an adult, you can only imagine how gorgeous she was at 16. In New York, she catches the eye of Harold Nicolas, one half of the snappy Nicolas Brothers Dancing Team. But The Dandridge Sisters were becoming a big draw, and Geneva signed them up for a European Tour. Farewell Harold, Farewell Teen Love. Except wait: World War II is about to turn everything to shit! Tour is cut short! Dandridge Sisters return to Hollywood! And guess who’s there making films: Nicolas Brothers!

Dorothy resumes her romance and lands a bit part in the race film Four Shall Die. (“Race” films, like “race” music, meant “black art for black people.”) She earned a very small part “opposite” (read: in the same movie as) John Wayne, and, most entertainingly, got to sing and dance with her boyfriend and his brother in a rendition of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in Sun Valley Serenade.

If you’re still unconvinced about Dandridge’s spark, watch this clip and you’ll believe:

At some point during this period, the Dandridge Sisters split up Destiny’s Child-style so that Dorothy can concentrate on her own career. But to truly pull away from Ruby and Geneva, Dorothy had to do something even more drastic: get married.

Dandridge and The Dancing Harold were married in September 1942, and all seemed well. No more Geneva-beatings, just domestic bliss and Hollywood bit-parts. Only Harold starts philandering all over the place, opting for long tours away from home. Dandridge blames herself — and her lack of sexual experience — for his wandering eye. Feminist digression: PATRIARCHY IS SUCH A DICK. Dandridge becomes pregnant in hopes of roping Harold back home, but we don’t need an Ask a Dude column to know how that strategy would turn out. A daughter, Lynn, is born in 1943.

But as Lynn grows, Dandridge realizes that something isn’t right. Lynn isn’t speaking; she isn’t responding. Doctors can’t seem to agree on what was going on, and with Nicolas constantly on the road, Dandridge is in shambles. Eventually, Lynn is diagnosed with brain damage — probably due to a lack of oxygen during delivery — but Dandridge blames herself. She eventually starts seeing a therapist, and by 1949, fed up with lousy Harold, she asks for a divorce.

Enter Dorothy Dandridge 2.0. With the help of song arranger Phil Moore, she crafts a new image for herself: less dancy-dancy, more smoldering-sultry. Despite her antipathy for the new club scene, she recognizes it as a stepping stone to a studio contract. Dandridge performs all over the States, but despises Vegas, which, at this point, is newly ascendant and filled with Rat Packers. Even hundreds of miles from the South and Jim Crow, the racism is appalling — following her act, Dandridge is “forbidden” from speaking with any of the audience, and cannot use the elevator, the hotel lobby, the swimming pool, even the bathrooms. Her dressing room was a mother-f-ing storage space. I’m so embarrassed for the people who made and enforced those rules, and fear what rules our grandchildren will shame us for. (Easy guess: how long it took to accept gay marriage. That or Nickelback.)

The offers for bit parts started to float in, but to get back on the big screen, Dandridge had to compromise her standards, agreeing to play “jungle queen” in Tarzan’s Peril. If you’re wondering why Dandridge was up in arms about specific roles, the explanation is somewhat simple. Apart from race films, the studios only cast black actors in:

1.) The “roles” they played in many white people’s lives, aka servants. Nannies, butlers, farm workers, train porters. In fact, black people are all over classic cinema — they’re just never onscreen for more than a minute, and they’re given accents and sayings that slot them into easy stereotypes. The overweight (and thus desexualized) mamie, the elderly (and thus desexualized) butler. Hattie McDaniel’s turn in Gone with the Wind and Bo Jangles’ pairings with Shirley Temple. (Note: the only reason Shirley Temple was allowed to be “alone” onscreen with a black man was because she was a child and he was elderly).

2.) “Exotic” roles that associate the black man/woman with the jungle, the animal, and the destructively sexual. Usually these characters die, because in the moral algebra of Hollywood, sex = death.

You can see why black actors would get fed up with these options. But tension remained: should black actors take demeaning, stereotypical roles if it meant that they could work?  And that black faces showed up on screen? But weren’t those appearances perpetuating the cultural understandings that kept blacks subjugated to these roles onscreen and off?  It’s a Catch-22. And if you’ve read any of the discourse surrounding the roles of gay actors and actresses in the 1990s and early 2000s — or, for that matter, any minority group that has been stereotyped and subjugated onscreen — than you know it’s not unique.

But that’s where Dandridge found herself in the early ‘50s, and the tension between making a living and lifting up her race would structure the rest of her short career.

During this same period, Dandridge began to really blow up the club scene. She opened at The Mocambo in Hollywood, the type of place where all the Hollywood stars went to get blasted before “club” meant “filled with the smell of Axe Body Spray.” From there, she booked gigs all over New York, in Paris, on television, and became the first black woman to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. Girl was hot shit. Her act was more overtly sexual than her contemporary Lena Horne, who was, at this point, super pissed at Hollywood for casting Ava Gardner in the role she made famous in Showboat.

Club owners were quick to exploit Dandridge’s sexual edge — one purportedly even sold Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the the Human Female to promote her upcoming performances. Dandridge came to resent this sort of hyper-sexualization and hated how it opened doors for her that remained closed to other black formers. “Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most talented people in the world,” she once told a friend, “and it ebarrasses me that she cannot work the rooms that I work. She’s not sexy. The men in the audience don’t want to take her home and go to bed with her. Yet she’s up there singing her heart out for one third the money they’re paying me.”

But the sexy nightclub appearances won Dandridge the type of role for which she had been waiting: the lead in MGM’s all-black production of Bright Road, based on a young schoolteacher’s life in the South, and opposite Harry Belafonte.

Let’s talk about the weirdness going on in this poster: is Dandridge punching that child in the face? Why is Belafonte’s decoupaged head floating? What does it mean to be a “noted song favorite?” And Ladies Home Journal, what praise! “Unusual!” Is that code for “Belafonte made us feel funny things in our bathing suit parts and we had to cross our legs?”  The Ladies Home Journal un-endorsement helped Bright Road win the dubious distinction of “the lowest box-office gross in the South.”

20th Century Fox nevertheless snatched Dandridge up for a three-picture contract, and she went about lobbying for her true dream role: the lead in an all-black production of Carmen Jones (a film adaptation of the WWII stage musical, which was an adaptation of the classic opera Carmen, which was an adaptation of the novella Prosper Mérimée). Whew.

Fox slotted Otto Preminger to direct, which brings us to UNCEREMONIOIUS BREAK FOR FILM HISTORY LESSON:

Preminger had risen to prominence with a slew of noir-flavored films in the ‘40s. In 1943, Preminger was coming off of The Moon is Blue, which, with its “lighthearted” treatment of an affair (read: people having sex don’t die or end in poverty), had violated the Hays Code and pissed off the Hollywood censorship. When Preminger and the studio behind the film, United Artists, refused to modify the script during production, the censorship board refused to grant it the Production Code “seal of approval.” (United Artists was the hippest studio in the 1950s. It wasn’t a studio so much as a production company, but you can read all about it in Tino Balio’s amazing history.)

If United Artists would have tried this stunt even ten years before, no seal would have meant no distribution. (Kind of like what happens when a film earns an NC-17 today. Sure, it’s “legal,” but few theaters will carry it). But UA saw that the moral climate — and tolerance and hunger for more explicit treatments of sex and relationships — had changed, and said fuck it, let’s give it a try. They open The Moon is Blue in a few urban markets, and its success convinces three major theater chains to distribute nationwide. But uptight Ohio, Kansas, and Maryland up and ban the film. Typical.

And here’s where it gets good: Preminger and United Artists realize they had a chance to potentially blow the entire Code out of the water. They sue the Maryland’s state censorship board, and a state Supreme Court judge overturns the ban, famously referring to the film as “a light comedy telling a tale of wide-eyed, brash, puppy-like innocence.” In other words: untwist your panties, state of Maryland. So far so good, so UA tries the same thing in Kansas, but no luck. Stay stodgy, Kansas. But UA says fuck it yet again: might as well go big or go home. They take the case to The Supreme Court, which overturns the Kansas ruling. No more banning of flirtly seduction films!

Paired with the ruling in "The Miracle Case" – when the Supreme Court declared censorship of Roberto Rosselinni’s film The Miracle as a violation of The First Amendment — The Moon is Blue significantly weakened the power of The Hays Code, which, in the decade to come, would dissolve altogether.

Point being: Preminger was the kind of man who tolerated little in the way of bullshit. He thought that black actors were woefully underused, and wanted to make the most of the tremendous talent he saw on the lot. Thus, Carmen Jones.

The story of Dandridge’s attempt to win the part of Carmen has morphed into the stuff of legend, which is another way of saying that half of it is probably bull. But here goes:

Dandridge wanted to prove herself as a serious actor, not a sex-bomb club performer. So when she went to see Preminger for the part, she wore “a navy-blue dress with a white Peter Pan collar. It fit through the waist, then flared. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.” Very Charlotte York of you, Dorothy.

But Preminger thought she was way too “high fashion.” As he purportedly told Dandridge, “this Carmen is an earthy girl who’s entirely different from you. Every time I look at you, I see Saks Fifth Avenue.”

Dandridge huffs and puffs out of there. Cut to montage of russling through her closet, hemming her skirts shorter, putting on black eyeliner. When she came back, she walked in with “tousled hair, dark makeup, a tight skirt, revealing blouse, and the sexiest swinging hips in town.”

She sounds like she’s wearing the Halloween costume of a harlot, but bygones. Preminger obviously gave her the part. And at some point in there — before or after, it’s unclear — Dandridge also made him his favorite dinner of cold steak and cucumber salad... CUT SCENE.

Thus began a tumultuous, open-secret of a relationship that would span the next several years.

The year to follow was the best of Dandridge’s career. She was once again paired with Harry Belafonte, only this time he got to wear a uniform. Now, you may only know the older, arch, raspy voice Belafonte (the one who endorses Obama and calls out the American government in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke — I love him so much).  But young Belafonte, sweet lord, he was smokin’.

In what would become Dandridge’s signature outfit, she made the cover of Life — the first black woman to do so.

If looking that good on the cover of a national magazine wasn’t enough, she got to wear this incredible tube-top pants-suit inside the magazine:

And the arm cuff! Hailing Jane: I want!

Meanwhile, the black gossip press wondered, with good cause, if Hollywood would actually “let negroes make love onscreen.” (On the grand scale of magazine headline weirdness, this cover rates an 11).

But Carmen Jones was a monster hit, which is code for “even white people went to see it.” Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award — the first black woman to be nominated for Best Actress. And will you look at her competition: Judy Garland in A Star is Born, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession, and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. Dandridge lost to Kelly, but if you’ve seen The Country Girl, and you watch this clip below, you can see what the Academy was missing:


(Fastforward to 5:35)

“You make sounds I don’t like!”  I LOVE HER SO MUCH. And that red skirt, holy shit: Jane, I beseech you.

You might note, however, that the singing voice doesn’t seem to emerge from Dandridge’s mouth. It didn’t. Both she and Belafonte were dubbed throughout due to the “un-opera-like” quality of their otherwise strong (read: black) voices. The film’s success stemmed from this combination of low-and-high, black-and-white: an all-black cast mapped upon the whitest of art forms. (In close competition: knitting, stain-glass, weaving).

Bonus picture of Dandridge, Belafonte, Preminger — but why is Robert Mitchum hanging around?

Suddenly, everything was awesome. Dandridge could ask $100,000 a picture, draped herself in white beaver (weird?), bought a huge Hollywood mansion, and drove around town in a huge white Thunderbird. She accompanied Preminger to Cannes and waited for the offers to pour in.

A big one arrived: the role of Tuptim in The King and I. The film was going to be a huge production, and the role, while supporting, would’ve been high profile. But Tuptim was a slave, and after consulting with Preminger, Dandridge refused, certain that more offers would be forthcoming. The role went to Rita Moreno; the film was a smash. Dandridge had lost the momentum, and would later view the refusal of Tuptim as the beginning of her fall from grace.


Preminger looking grade-A skeezy with the Dandridge sisters

Still waiting for a role, Dandridge’s relationship with Preminger became strained. In part because he was, well, married, but also because they couldn’t appear together in public unless they were promoting a film. At some point, Dandridge became pregnant, but had an abortion to avoid scandal. The press began linking her a list of white stars: Peter Lawford, Tyrone Power, Michael Rennie, Farley Granger Jr. Dandridge was, indeed, dating some, but certainly not all, of these men. As her sister Vivian later explained, she wasn’t dating white men because she was “prejudiced” against black men, as some press outlets alleged. Dandridge “would have been very happy to have married someone like a Harry Belafonte or a Sidney Poitier. But those men were already married. [Dorothy] just didn’t meet Black men in her world.”

Anxiety over Dandridge dating “out of race” popped up in, you guessed it, Confidential, which went for some good ol’ fashioned miscegenation fear-mongering, publishing a story on “What Dorothy Dandridge Did in the Woods.” (Read: Had Sex With a White Person.)

By this point, Dandridge was fed up. She filed suit against Confidential, testifying at the “Trial of 100 Stars” that attempted to take down the smut-rag. (The story behind the trial is fascinating and crucial to the future of the gossip industry; see Mary Desjardins' article in Headline Hollywood.

One very pissed off Dandridge testifying against Confidential

And still, Dandridge waited for a role. Recall, she was still under contract to Fox — which still wanted to make her a star. The problem, of course, mirrored that of her private life: they couldn’t find a way to put her onscreen with a white man. Finally, Fox cast her in Island in the Sun — a controversial script, set in the West Indies, that paired Dandridge, a “restless” bank clerk, with (white) John Justin, a governor’s aid, and low-class Harry Belafonte with (white) high-class Joan Fontaine.

I could show you the clip of somewhat creepy  John Justin but I couldn’t pass up another chance to show you Belafonte.

Fox exploited the controversy over the couplings into a demi-hit, yet Dandridge complained that there was no “intimacy” in what was meant to be a “love scene” between her and Justin. Think Julia Roberts and Denzel in The Pelican Brief — that sort of staid yearning.  But it was also Dandridge’s first appearance on screen for nearly three years. The momentum was indeed lost.

Two small, unremarkable films followed (Tamango, The Decks Ran Red). Dandridge was increasingly desperate. So in 1959, she took the lead in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Porgy and Bess. Big role! Awesome! Not so much: the characters of the well-known play were straight-up black stereotypes. Porgy’s a drunk, Bess is a drug addict, and other black characters are rapists and ne’er-do-wells. Belafonte was offered the role of Porgy, refused it on principle, and encouraged Dandridge to do the same. But Dandridge was still haunted by her decision to turn down The King and I, and took the role, alongside Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr.

And when Preminger, now quite estranged from Dandridge, stepped in to replace the director, everything went to hell. Already known for his harsh manner on set, Preminger brought Dandridge to tears on a regular basis. Think of it this way: you’re desperate for work, so take an embarrassing-yet-high-paying job. It’s okay, you think, I’ll be fine — at least I’ve got some hot and funny guys working with me. But then your just-fine, normal boss is replaced by your dick ex-boyfriend, and he shames you in front of your new co-workers constantly. That is the shit that Dandridge had to tolerate.

Despite claims that Porgy and Bess would “introduce a new era in motion pictures,” the film was a flop. Dandridge received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, but in those days, Golden Globes were serious farm league.

And the unraveling begins. Dandridge meets Jack Denison, a true juicebox of a restaurant owner, and falls for his promises. They marry in June 1959, and he forces her to perform at his small-fry restaurant, effectively driving down her value with every appearance. He starts managing her career, beats her regularly, and loses a significant amount of her money. The other chunk of her money had been tucked away in what Dandridge thought to be a solid, fool-proof oil investment, but when it proves a massive scam, Dandridge and a dozen other stars lose everything.

Dandridge begins to drink heavily. No longer able to afford her daughter’s personal care, she’s forced to put her in a state mental home. She declares bankruptcy and takes piecemeal, embarrassing gigs to pay the bills. After a few years of terribleness, she ditches the juicebox, puts her life back together, and decides to make a second go — booking international club appearances and beginning rehearsals. But it was all very Michael Jackson preparing for the “This Is It” tour. She injured her foot while practicing, re-lost the momentum, and fatally overdosed — accidentally or purposefully – on her anti-depressant.

The year was 1965. Dorothy Dandridge was 42 years old. She had $2.14 in her bank account.

In the end, Hollywood forced her to embody one of the stereotypes she so loathed: the tragic mulatta, a woman accepted in some ways by both the black and white communities but rejected in other, crucial, heartbreaking ways. The white community loved her “white” beauty and the specter of her sexuality, but refused to allow her to actually act on that sexuality. Think early Britney Spears: be sexual, but don’t do anything with it.  And if you do, you’re a slut.

Dandridge saw this clearly. “America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, Monroe, or a Gardner,” she explained. “My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, like other women.” Dandridge wasn’t the last black actress to be treated this way. Even today, Race-that-is-not-white + Sexualty = Something incendiary, something dangerous.

Dandridge suffered so that others wouldn’t have to. Yet fifty years after her death, when one would hope that all vestiges of discrimination, prejudice, and sexual stereotyping would have dissipated, they’re still alive, however quiet. Think of (mainstream) black female stars. There’s not a lot of them, so this won’t take you long.  Now think about who they’re allowed to be with onscreen, and the discourses about their sexuality off-screen. Whitney Houston could do little more than kiss Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. Halle Berry was archly criticized for taking a role in which she was hyper-sexualized and can’t open a movie. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Hudson, Mon’ique — none of them can get a leading role in a major Hollywood picture, much less a romantic leading role. We may have a black president, but most Americans still don’t know what to do with a black, sexual woman onscreen.

I look at the pictures of Dandridge in her prime, and I see someone who thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. That the world was going to accept her on her merit. That things were going to change. I look at that hope, and I feel terrible sadness. The real tragedy of the story of Dorothy Dandridge, then, is the tragedy of enduring, unspoken, insidious prejudice.

Previously: That Divine Gary Cooper

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.



236 Comments / Post A Comment

Nicole Cliffe

These are the best pictures of any human being I have ever seen. Instead of mantras, people should just have pictures of Dorothy Dandridge.

Nicole Cliffe

@Nicole Cliffe (not to totally and offensively undercut all of the incredibly sad things in this piece)

Faintly Macabre

@Nicole Cliffe I had a small class once with a girl who looked kind of like her and had the best skin I've ever seen in real life, and I basically spent half of every class sneakily staring at her.

SarahP

@Nicole Cliffe I know just what you mean. Her personality is so electric even in photos!

Reginal T. Squirge

Jesu Christ that second-to-last photo! If I were anywhere near this woman I would just turn into Harry Belafonte in all those pictures with her -- basically melting and rubbing my face all over her face.

jhonsons

If I tried to do a split like that, I'd rip every muscle in my leg.@j

Scandyhoovian

THAT MERMAID DRESS

everythingbagel

@Scandyhoovian right-click save as for if and when I get married. gurl was smokin.

RK Fire

Maybe it's a combo of complexion, beauty, dancing skills and singing ability, but this is making me think that Dorothy Dandridge got reincarnated as Beyonce and is now showing everyone how to get shit done.

RK Fire

@RK Fire: P.S. I don't want to take away from how hard it is for any woman of color to make it in Hollywood, even today. Especially because it is the 21st century. WTF, Hollywood? Y U NO MAKE SENSE?

There are probably papers and essays and articles about this, but thinking about this is making me think about why it (seems to be) much easier for a person of color to reach superstardom in the music industry vs. the film industry.

Anne Helen Petersen

@RK Fire I think American society has long accepted black people (and other people of color) as entertainers, but is much more reticent to watch people of color doing things that white people do (being middle-class, having families, engaging in romance). At least historically, the more people in power saw the subjugated as "just like us," the more their authority over them -- or will to subjugate -- was undermined. Watching people sing and dance doesn't undermine the calculus of power. Does that make sense?

City_Dater

@RK Fire

Beyonce WISHES she was as talented as Dorothy Dandridge -- she was a real-live triple threat. She and her first husband could have given Fred & Ginger some serious movie musical competition in their day, if only.

RK Fire

@Anne Helen Petersen: That totally makes sense.

@City_Dater: I can readily agree to that. I don't think Beyonce is any slouch in the singing/dancing department, but I do suspect that Dorothy Dandridge probably could've dominated the early 21st century entertainment industry if all of these pics and clips are any indidcation.

null

@RK Fire Yes! I'm admittedly a big Beyonce fan, but I think the one area she's lacking in is natural charisma. She turns it on during performances, but her personality in interviews is somewhat off putting.

AHP! This is the best.

noodge

this gave me goosebumps and made me cry.

Chills

This is the best birthday present! Thank you 'pin!
Shall read it now :)

Mad as a Hatter!

Completely off topic, but...

http://www.textsfromlastnight.com/Text-Replies-39906.html

I think Party Falcon has been making appearances.

Mad as a Hatter!

@Hello sweetie Damn you hyperlinks

anachronistique

I think I need to put my head down on my desk for a while. Look at how vibrant she is, how talented, how she just pops off the screen in Carmen Jones - and she's dead by 42. God dammit.

frigwiggin

Oh, Dorothy. :(

frigwiggin

On a more lighthearted note: Mm-HMM, Harry Belafonte!

stonefruit

@frigwiggin agreed on both counts.

OxfordComma

Oh God, this is heartbreaking.

WhiskeySour

Heartbreaking. The world is just so unfair. She deserved so much more.

On a lighter note, Belafonte looks like he's on the cusp of chomping down on her face in a couple of those pictures. Less teeth please, Harry!

PistolPackinMama

@WhiskeySour No no! All the teeth.

But yes, this and the Rita Hayworth articles are my favorite. They are just so very sad. Normally I am not a Sad Endings kind of person. But I feel like I owe these women some time with their sadnesses, because unlike a Victorian novel, what happened to them was real and they were real, and it was not fair. Just, not.

And of course, once again, the photos knock it out of the park.

(End note: the amount of spousal/child/partner abuse that is documented in the Scandals just makes me heartsick, because if it was happening there, what makes us think we can pretend it wasn't happening elsewhere. Or is happening, for that matter.)

datalass

@PistolPackinMama Re the abuse: it is just rampant among the early generations of Hollywood stars. It makes watching old films pretty heartbreaking. (Sandra Dee films, in particular, just tear me apart.)

applestoapples

Anne Helen, this one might be my favorite so far.
The headline on TAN magazine, "Will Hollywood let Negroes make love?" sounds archaic, but the way you tied it to roles for black actresses in today's Hollywood shows that it's still sort of sad but true.

Also, it's crazy that Otto Preminger played Mr. Freeze on the 1960's Batman TV series. That's how I first heard of him--watching Nick at Nite reruns with my gran, until she told me he was a famous director.

Reginal T. Squirge

ICE TO SEE YOU, DOROTHY.

sparrow303

All the way through this, I kept hear Wesley Snipes' voice listing the film titles, and then "poor homegirl died penniless!"

(Actually, it turns out I know Dandridge's entire filmography. Thanks, Wong Foo!)

melis

Ooooh do not get me started on the 1954 Oscar for Best Actress

melis

literally ANYONE but Grace Kelly should have won, even Rod Steiger

royaljunk

@melis "This is Judy Garland, Judy Fucking Garland. You bitch! You took what was rightfully mine. Tonight was my last chance for the Oscar. You’ll have many more chances in your future. This was it for me. I’ll never forgive you."

!!!!

PistolPackinMama

@royaljunk Rod Steiger--- for a second I was kind of confused how a famous Polar Expedition leader could even make it into the realm of possibility for the 1954 Best Actress Oscar.

Then I was like, oh. Rod Steiger =/= Will Steger.

Move along. Nothing to see here. Yup. I'll just be over here with my total lack of Hollywood knowledge.

melis

HEY GRACE KELLY CRAWL BACK INTO THE JAR OF COLD CREAM FROM WHICH YOU SPAWNED

nobody even likes you Grace Kelly

literally everyone on the set of High Noon was like 'ahahahahahahahaha' imagine A Man preferring her over Katy Jurado, good joke everybody, back to work

you make Audrey Hepburn look like she had a personality

Audrey Hepburn!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter

@melis

For fun, let's just look at that short list again:

Dorothy Dandridge in "Carmen Jones"
Judy Garland in "A Star is Born"
Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina"
Jane Wyman in "Magnificent Obsession"
Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl"

First of all I think it needs to be acknowledged that 1954 was a hell of a good year for women's roles in cinema, but then you read that Grace Kelly won for "The Country Girl"?!?!? That's insane!

How could they not give Mrs Norman Maine her damn Oscar? HOW? WTF Academy?

bitzyboozer

@melis Just googled Katy Jurado. Indeed, and also daaaaaang.

jadeice

@Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter I'm sorry I'm not the biggest Grace Kelly fan, but.. she didn't have a happy ending either and I always thought.... she should stick to modeling :)

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter

@jadeice

In the right setting (Vertigo) then I can appreciate Grace Kelly's beauty and poise, and I'm not a huge Garland fan girl. It's more that that version of "A Star is Born" and Garland's performance are so perfectly matched.

That and JAMES MASON, I adore James Mason.
I love him in "Wicked Lady" where he is pure evil and even love him in nonsense like "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman"; but "A Star is Born"? The scene where he overhears Judy planning to give up her career for him? And he is writhing in pain from the guilt he feels? Oh! I start crying then and don't stop until about 45 minutes after the credits have rolled.

Anne Helen Petersen

PS Jane wants to talk about the nosejob, which I didn't even see (I'm crap at seeing these things) until she pointed it out to me.

okaycrochet

@Anne Helen Petersen Wait... can you point out specifics in the photos? Any idea at what point in her career that happened? Because body modification= WHOA (Your Rita Hayworth piece broke my brain, so this is relevant to my interests).

PistolPackinMama

@AHP !!!!!!!!!! indeed. Not sure what to say, aside from... Here Is a Stunning Woman So Stunning She Stuns Like Set Ray Guns to Stun Stunning. But no. Let's have a society where it is a good idea for your career to go have a nose job so you look more white. Yes, that's a good idea. Because to be white is more important than to be beautiful.

God. Damn.

ETA: And not just a white nose. A 1950's ski-jump teenager pony tail saddle shoes ideal nose.

Dude. Really.

Lily Rowan

See also Halle Berry.

Jane Marie

@okaycrochet I noticed it between the two photos of her with her sister. (And then more after more Googling of The Dandridge Sisters.)

Megasus

@Lily Rowan Who has played Dorothy Dandridge, coincidentally.

Lily Rowan

@Megano! Or not so coincidentally, really. How many women have been in that Hollywood "slot"? Not so many.

HeyThatsMyBike

@okaycrochet Very noticeable in the shot where she's testifying against Confidential.

HeyThatsMyBike

@Lily Rowan And Beyonce! Though hers is a little more subtle.

jinsher

When I was in high school, we had to do a project where we created a postage stamp. My stamp was just a picture of Dorothy Dandridge. The accompanying essay talked about how awesome she was and what a brilliant career she had. And then I ended with “and then she ended up od’ing because no one could handle her awesome.” 10th grade genius, right there.

Thank you for this---she has long been one of my heroes.

VDRE

Otto Preminger! Fun fact: Preminger is my middle name because it is my mom's last name. My grandfather liked to tell everyone that he once saw Otto Preminger in New York and he said "Hi! My name is Preminger too!" and Otto Preminger looked at him and was like "No."

OhMarie

This is all awful but she is wonderful and HOLY SHIT that picture of Harry Bellafonte kind of biting her jawline!!! AHHH!

SarahP

@OhMarie RIGHT?! I had no idea he was ever a young hottie!

royaljunk

@OhMarie RIGHT??? I think I need to go lie down.

Lily Rowan

@SarahP He was a middle-aged hottie! I totally had the hots for him when I was little.

Nancy Sin

@OhMarie I felt funny things in my bathing suit parts!

anachronistique

@OhMarie Seriously. Whoo.

The Lady of Shalott

@OhMarie Up until right now reading this article, I legit did not know Harry Belafonte was black. And I definitely did not know he was a HOTTIE as a young dude! Because oh myyyy.

Bon Vivant

knocked it out of the park, once more. My heart hurts for Dorothy.

bskinz

I think i just realized who the main characters in cats don't dance are supposed to represent. They're totally belafonte and dandridge, right?

melimania

@Anne Helen Petersen I just need to say that your writing is phenomenal!! This also makes me very sad for how little has changed, we still have black movies for black people and white movies for white people and very little interracial casting.

melis

@melimania It put me in mind of the "Black Acting School" sequence from the greatest movie in the world, Hollywood Shuffle.

JessicaLovejoy

I just want to get drunk and read a stack of Tan.

meetapossum

@JessicaLovejoy I still cannot get over the "Love Life of a Midget" headline.

narwhalsandwich

@JessicaLovejoy my god, yes.

bloofishbloo

@meetapossum In looking at the magazine I thought it was called "Tan: Love Life of a Midget". Like they only featured stores about midgets in love and for some reason just happened to put two non-midgets on the cover.

Nancy Sin

Way back when, I used to skim these unless I had heard of the actress or actor, but after getting hooked on AHP's writing I went back through the archives and read all of them. What I'm getting to is that I had never knew much about Dorothy Dandridge, and my guts sank when I discovered how it all crashed down for her. Compelling stuff as always.

Anne Helen Petersen

BUT WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THE PANTSUIT

Jane Err

@Anne Helen Petersen It's like she predicted Disco!

cosmia

@Anne Helen Petersen OMG I CAME HERE TO REMARK ON HOW DEPRESSING THIS WAS BECAUSE I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, BUT ALSO THE PANTSUIT. I WANT IT EVEN THOUGH I'M SHORT AND DON'T LOOK GOOD IN LONG TROUSER ROMPERS.

lil.orphan.shannie

JANE! Are the celebrity makeovers still a thing that is happening?! Because THIS is who I want to be made over to look like. Girlfriend was smokin' hot.

randummy

@lil.orphan.shannie

YES *where are the celebrity MAKEOVERS??? They are but so awesome.

On an unrelated note -- the jumpsuit, I'm not so sure... is that cameltoe I see?

I have to make light, because, at least she had her heyday where she could dress up and ride around in a white Thunderbird wearing white beaver and a white jumpsuit showing cameltoe. There's that at least. That moment stays in infinity forever, too, along with all the other moments (like that sad sad ending).

mouthalmighty

I only recently (last year) caught Carmen Jones on, like, TMC and was seriously floored because WHAT. I didn't know there was anything like that movie around. It's so good!

So was this article. So goddamn tragic, why.

WhiskeySour

Every time I scroll down the main page, the first picture just gives me feelings. Everything about it is just perfect, from her open-mouthed laughed, to her hands on her hips, to her stance. It just feels like I'm seeing a glimpse of who she truly was - it's just such a powerful and genuine image.

Jane Err

@WhiskeySour and ALL the barefoot. I love that picture, too.

Barry Grant

@WhiskeySour
This is how I prefer to remember beautiful stars who crashed and burned, as their beautiful selves instead of "and then they died".

stonefruit

@WhiskeySour YES. That first picture! I feel like the caption in a magazine article with that picture could only be, "DOROTHY MOTHERF***ING DANDRIDGE."

Lee Lee Batista@facebook

@stonefruit You Damn Right!

camanda

Appalling and heartbreaking. Well done, Anne.

My forté and passion (aside from music) is sports, and all I could think of through 80% of this piece was Curt Flood. If anyone's interested in other sorts of horrible and excruciating tales of exploitative racism (and who wouldn't be [???]), become an amateur baseball historian.

It's amazing in all the wrong ways that all this progress has only gotten us as far as this. It should be better. And the more people who are horrified by the ignorance and outright hatred depicted in well-written, engaging stories like this, the better.

Jane Err

This is terribly sad and unfair.

But I'd also like to say:

LOVE LIFE OF A MIDGET

sceps yarx

My mom is weirdly obsessed with Sun Valley Serenade, and she told me that they really wanted to hire the best black actors and dancers, but they had to put them all in one weird dream sequence scene so that it could be easily edited out for showing in the south. >:-(

La Cieca@facebook

One or two little things. I'm not sure about "the role [Lena Horne] made famous in Showboat." Horne never played Julie in Show Boat on stage. She did sing one of the character's songs, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," in a movie called Till the Clouds Roll By which was a biography (somewhat fictionalized) of the composer Jerome Kern. She also recorded Julie's second-act song "Bill" but that scene was not included in the movie.

In fact, the 1951 Show Boat was going to star Judy Garland as Julie (the character is of mixed race, passing for white). But due to Garland's health and substance abuse problems, she was fired by MGM. The story goes that in her exit interview, she told Louis B. Mayer, "It's just as well I'm not doing Show Boat -- that's Lena Horne's part anyway."

So then Mayer calls in Ava Gardner into his office to assign her the role, and he manages to get out no more than, "We've had to fire Judy from Show Boat..." when Ava chimes in, "Oh, then obviously you'll want Lena!"

But whoever was suggesting Horne for the role of Julie, whether Horne herself or her colleagues, wasn't being realistic. The MPAA Production Code specifically forbade "miscegenation," and the plot of Show Boat requires that Julie have a romantic relationship with a white man. MGM's loophole in this rule was that even though the character of Julie is of mixed race, the actress is white, so it's not "really" miscegenation.

The other bit is the voice dubbing in Carmen Jones (and, in fact, Porgy and Bess). I wouldn't say that the choice to dub had to do with vocal quality per se but rather range. The movie uses the same keys for the music as the original Bizet opera, which would have put the pop voices of Dandridge and Belafonte way out of their comfortable range. (Dandridge's voice, BTW, was ghosted by Marilyn Horne, later to become a major opera diva, but back in 1954 a studio backup singer.)

A propos of practically nothing at all, Judy Garland's story of how she lost the Academy Award in 1954 is classic.

http://youtu.be/ek4vnrhip-A

Lu2
Lu2

@La Cieca@facebook --So interesting about Marilyn Horne doing Carmen's voice in the movie! I actually didn't really enjoy the singing voice in the clip very much, so it's pretty wild that it turned out to be Marilyn Horne. That's a tough aria, though. All that chromatic scale stuff is not very pretty, in my opinion, though the low parts and the big finish are.

oboe-d-amore

@La Cieca@facebook Marilyn Horne? Awesome! I mean, sucky that her voice was dubbed, but that is a super cool piece of trivia.

thisexactly

AHP! This is one of the best pieces I've seen on the Hairpin, period (as well as my favorite of yours). So unbelievably heartbreaking, especially how little progress we've made since then in terms of Black leads in movies/TV shows. Thanks for writing this.

Waiting

@thisexactly agreed - this is the Hairpin at its best!

TX Diva

What a wonderful article! I'd like to offer one correction: the opera Carmen was based on the novella of the same name by the French author Prosper Mérimée (Mérimée is the author's name, not the novel's).

Lu2
Lu2

I'm not sure I'm getting how knitting, stained-glass making, and weaving are "white" occupations.

randummy

@Lu2
Yep, I was thinkin' the same thing. Saw a girl on the subway knitting the other day, also I think of the "grandma's who knit" contingent as being pretty multi-racial.

Weaving seems very indian to me but maybe dates all the way back to the Paleolithic period?

One of the earliest known examples of knitting was cotton socks with stranded knit color patterns, found in Egypt from the end of the first millennium AD.[14] Originally a male-only occupation, the first knitting trade guild was started in Paris in 1527.[15] With the invention of the knitting machine, however, knitting "by hand" became a useful but non-essential craft. Similar to quilting, spinning, and needlepoint, knitting became a leisure activity.

Hand-knitting has gone into and out of fashion many times in the last two centuries, and at the turn of the 21st century it is enjoying a revival.

Stained glass, though, HOW BEAUTIFUL IS STAINED GLASS???

Maybe only rich white childless ladies are making stained glass these days, while their husbands toil away destroying the world thru intricate financial malversation?

Regardless, as always, EXCELLENT SOCH. Dorothy Dandridge, and her poor daughter! Those high moments of hers will shine forever, though. At least there is that. Too tragic.

fish-eyed

I love this series. You should do a series next on classic scandals of Bollywood. They would give the old Hollywood scandals a run for their money. *sigh*

LaLoba

@fish-eyed OH MY GOD YES. PLEASE this.

fish-eyed

@LaLoba It would be great, wouldn't it? There are so many scandals to choose from! Devika Rani, Raj Kapoor & Nargis (the MOST notorious affair!), the tragic stories of Meena Kumari and Madhubala, Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, the Rekha/Amitabh Bachhan/Jaya love triangle...

curiouscamel

oh this was fantastic. sad, but fantastic.

Kate Kane

For a moment I thought she was holding a sword in the "One very pissed off Dandridge testifying against Confidential" photo. It does seems a little appropriate!

Oh, Dorothy Dandridge, how I wish your story wasn't so sad.

Passion Fruit

AHP, I flipping love these essays. I love how you take old Hollywood stars and use their stories to point out the societal tragedies that brought them down and, to a large extent, are still bringing us down today. Par example: WOC actresses being cast in roles as accessories to white people; moral algebra of Hollywood is sex=death (which is weird, because SEX ACTUALLY = LIFE; Hollywood doesn't have their math straight). Word, man, word.

ALSO, I think it's super interesting when Hollywood stars make comments that make them sound like they are fully aware of the ways in which they're being used, denied, hollowed out and made flat into a caricature of a person. I'm surprised that this happens not through an over-identification by the audiences of the actor and the character they've played, but through a person being subsumed by their media/celebrity persona. That seems to be what always swallows them whole. It's compelling to see people try so hard to be a part of something that will always crush them.

AND, I want to add that this phrasing stuck out to me: "At this point, Dorothy was 16 — and now that you’ve seen the photos of her as an adult, you can only imagine how gorgeous she was at 16."

It's interesting how pervasive the idea that a woman's beauty peaks in their teenage years is. Adolescence is a time when human beings are vulnerable, and have very little control and awareness of themselves. What I read from the conflation of early youth and beauty is that women are most beautiful when they have little control and are lack self-awareness; when they can be used by others but not use others (or at least not well!). I don't think I've ever heard of men being talked about as being their most handsome as teenagers...

Waiting

@Passion Fruit *applause* you are right on the money, girl (girl?)

jadeice

@Passion Fruit I whole heartedly agree. Not only that but i look back at pictures and films of those women i thought were beautiful in their teens, and 20's, they look unformed, not done, stick 'em back in the oven lol. Then see them in their late 30's 40's. What a difference! They've totally grown into the women they're suppose be. They're at their peak! Ripe, juicy and they own the world. Fruit needs time to ripen.

Rachel@twitter

I remember I showed the Rita Hayworth installment to my boyfriend due to the pictures of her and Welles and all he could comment on was how tragic her life turned out to be. I was already aware of what a messed up life Hayworth had, prior to the post so it didn't phase me as much. I knew Dorothy Dandridge was limited from coming to her full potential on film due to racism, but I didn't know all the behind the scenes stuff that she had to deal with on top of the Hollywood BS. Definitely one of the most tragic star stories; she never seemed to be allowed to hit full potential.

Keep the posts coming. I love the educated, conversational tone of the Classic Scandal posts, even when they're on stars I'm familiar with. Also, please consider compiling them into a book.

Karla Irwin@facebook

There was one beautiful, fleeting movie moment in which Pam Grier uses sex appeal AND smarts to seduce Robert Forester in Jackie Brown. And was very romantic indeed (thank you Mr. Tarantino). But still, Hollywood sadly has a loooong way to go.

Waiting

Wow - this was really powerful. Thank you so much for sharing. Dandridge's story is the kind that the world must never forget.

jadeice

@ANNE HELEN PETERSSEN keep up the exceptional work. I am loving this.

Lemon Juice

The term 'Black' should be capatalized when using it in a racial context.

Lee Lee Batista@facebook

@Lemon Juice Really? We get it you're an English major..We don't need an English lesson.. Great story Anne! Keep 'em comin'!

Eatbigsea

This is so wonderful! One small thing, Prosper Mérimée was the author of the novella Carmen, the title of the novella was simply Carmen.

Chip Chandler@facebook

Nice article, but it was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who danced with Shirley Temple. As written, it looks as if his first name is Bo and last name is Jangles. Not quite. And Lena Horne brought some extra attention to "Show Boat" in "Til the Clouds Roll By," but the musical had been around since 1927, so it's inaccurate to say that she made the role of Julie famous.

Lee Lee Batista@facebook

The thought of her wasting time with that scum bag Harold Nicolas! Yuck! Short, ugly and the nerve to be a womanizer! Beauty and talent wasted on him, he ruined her self-esteem and I can't stand to look at any footage of him even speaking (with that wierd high pitched voice) about her.

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Richard Dyer really is the best! I can't even count the amount of articles of his I had to read in film school. Much more enjoyable to read than frustratingly vague philosophical French film scholar stuff. lifelock identity theft

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Beyonce WISHES she was as talented as Dorothy Dandridge -- she was a real-live triple threat. She and her first husband could have given Fred & Ginger some serious movie musical competition in their day, if only. Guild Wars 2 Powerleveling Guide

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