The hour-long documentary Dorothy Dandridge: An American Beauty (2003) features interviews on Dandridge with Halle Berry who played her in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), the great dancer Fayard Nicholas to whose brother Dandridge was married when very young, Joe Adams who was Dandridge's friend & played Husky Miller with her in Carmen Jones (1954), Brock Peters who co-starred with her in both Carmen Jones & Porgy & Bess (1959), Laurence Fishburne, & others.
It's hosted by Obba Babatunde who played Harold Nicholas in the Dandridge biopic. Vintage footage & clips remind the audience who Dorothy Dandridge was & what a magnetic personality she conveyed from the screen.
She'd been an entertainer from childhood with a sister act. Her mother's lesbian lover Geneva Williams coached them in singing & dancing managed the act, allowing the girls nothing of a normal childhood.
The girls were on the road from coast to coast while their mother Ruby was distant & unprotective, usually in Hollywood where she was a character actor lining up with other black women to play maids.
As Dorothy grew to be such a beautiful teenager, Geneva became her molester, until Dorothy fought back violently & set off on her own. She married dancer Harold Nicholas, having known each other somewhile as child performers & their teenage married doomed because their separate performance dates kept them apart & Harold put his career well before his marriage.
The height of her career was her highly successful nightclub act, but what she wanted was to be a film star, while unwilling to stoop to the sorts of demeaning roles which black actresses such as her own mother relied on.
Although sometimes superficial, An American Beauty has enough content that anyone slightly familiar with Dorothy Dandridge's life & career might find a few surprises. And for whoever is not familiar with her biographical details, it's a thoughtfully presented mixture of her projected image of smiling beauty vs a personal life that was by no means rainbows.
We obtain an encapsulated overview of her career, her successes & barriers she crossed, the expense & tragedy of her special needs daughter, Hollywood's confused maltreatment of her extravagant potential to be a star, her shyness & those who got past her walls & loved her dearly, her terrible relationship with Otto Preeminger, her growing reliance on tranquillizers, to her unfortunately early death that no one will ever know whether it was accidental or not.
It could very easily have been made sensationist or pitying but it's neither. It's a respectful tribute overall, & well worth an hour of anyone's time.
The soundie Swing for My Supper (1941) really isn't that good a song, but Dorothy Dandridge has so much charisma that she sells it anyway; it's great fun to see & hear her. The campy lyrics are about a daughter thankful that her jivin' parents taught her to sing for her supper:
"Readin' & writin' my momma said won't help to make you click/ So they taught me brought me up on good on rhythm-tick, yeah."
Although the lyrics are a mite goofy, there are charming "hi-de-ho" & "kicking the gong around" references to Cab Calloway which delighted me as a major Cab fan. It also includes the lyric "They made me rock 'n' roll & put it on red hot," in 1942 mind you, long before rock 'n' roll was a named genre in the decade to come.
This was Dandridge's first soundie, followed in short order by four more in 1941, & five more the following year, inclusive of other performers' soundies in which she appears as a dancing guest star.
The little back-up group is the Cee Cee Johnson Band, with Cee Cee on an amazing conga drum set, & a group of dancers who come out for the instrumental. It would seem they'd have to be Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, though I have no reference for that assumption.
By the sign on the door we learn this is actually the "Mr & Mrs. Jefferson Lincoln Jones Rent Party" that costs twenty-five cents to jive. Rent parties were veriy common in Harlem & given the degree of talent in the neighborhood, something as cool as this happening wasn't totally out of the question.
Dorothy Dandridge's best soundie is Cow Cow Boogie (1942) for singing & dancing; Paper Doll (1942) for dancing (to the Mills Brothers). She also dances in the Hoagy Carmichael soundie Lazy Bones (1941).
She dances unfortunate jungle-bunny numbers with Stan Kenton & His Orchestra in Congo Clambake (1942) & Cee Pee Johnson & His Orchestra in A Jig in the Jungle; aka, Jungle Jig (1941).
This last-named, opens on a sign affixed to a wall that reads "Harlem Jungle Club." I somehow doubt any such club ever existed in Harlem, though the damnedest things do happen.
We hear a tomtom beat & immediately see the club's cook stirring a cannibal-cauldron with his slide trumbone. The camera moves stage right to some guys seated on the floor in the most horrible African native outfits such as no self-respecting African native ever wore, each beating a drum.
Cut to the half-clad tomtom player with bone necklace & tophat, surrounded by fake palm trees to give it that jungly look.Cee Pee Johnson's guys are apparently having an awfully good time despite that they've been asked to act out miserable racist stereotypes.
Suddenly Dorothy Dandridge appears in an ostritch outfit looking a bit Josephine Bakerish. She dances amidst her "fellow natives" in her feathered bikini & sings:
"When the tomtoms beat it out/ All the cats jump up & shout/ They all do the jig in the jungle./ Boys with big rings in their nose/ Gals with everything but clothes/ They all do the jig in the jungle...."
And so on to everlasting embarrassing. Sure, even Duke Ellington did jungle-beat music, but not many could pull it off like he could, & this sad scenario is offensive. Still, gotta face it, Dorothy Dandridge's beauty & dignity survives the effacement.
A tomtom solo starts off a big instrumental during which Dorothy bounces & dances & shakes her feathers, then picks up additional lyrics about even the lions jigging in the jungle.
"You will find your every dream/ Coming to you on the beam/ When you do the jig in the jungle." It ends on a call-and-respond between Dorothy & the tomtom player going "Jiggidy jig!" "Of the jungle!" "Jiggidy jig!" "Of the jungle."
Last of all, a missionary with hornrim glasses pops up out of the cannibal cauldron -- that's Cee Pee Johnson -- & he scat for a bit, then it's all blessedly over.
The soundie Zoot Suit (With a Reet Pleat) (1942) opens on a sign on a business wall that reads: "Groove Clothiers: Our Stitches are Hep to the Jive for Males & Frails."
The scene cuts to the inside of the store, where Paul White is singing the a number part jump-jazz & all vaudeville. The lyrics begin; "I want the zoot suit/ With the reet pleat/ With the draped shape/ And the stuffed cuff/ To look sharp enough/ To see my Sunday gal..."
Paul continues singing the unusually rhymed lyrics to the taylor with aggressive vigour. His scene fades out & we next see Dorothy Dandridge singing parallel instructions to a seamstress at the sewing table:
"I want a brown gown/ With a zop top/ With a hip slip/ A lace waist/ In the sharpest taste/ To see my Sunday Sam..."
The lyrics for both singers are just the cleverest funny things. The suits they get, however, aren't the zootiest. Paul in particular gets taylored in no wise like a zoot suit. His vertically striped suit & hat are certainly odd, but not at all the baggy trouser style with big watch chain of a zoot suiter. Then it cuts to Dorothy who'd look good in anything, even this comedy outfit.
As instrumentation continues on the soundtrack, we see our newly dressed-up guy & gal practice-dancing in their respective mirrors. The we see Paul sauntering down the street meeting his Sunday gal. He & Dorothy dance on the sidewalk together before taking up some of the lyrics anew to sing to each other.
It's a wonderfully entertaining soundie. The background music is by the unseen Ted Fio Rito & His Skylined Music.
Miss Dandridge sings "Blow Out the Candles" in a quavery voice, & alas not that well, in a clip included as a soundie on the In Concert Series: Dorothy Dandridge (2006), & on Dorothy Dandridge: Singing at Her Best (2003).
The source of this clip isn't given on the video compilations, but it is the first of her two appearances on the Martin & Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour, November 4, 1951.
The entire episode is available from a television specialist who has issued a set of the Colgate show, & it's also one of the select episodes on a compilation disc of five of the show. Missing from the Dandridge compilation discs is a lengthy, whimsical introduction to Dorothy's spot, by Jerry Lewis.
It's weird to see this great talent doing what amounts to a bad impersonation of Doris Day. In the 1940s she was more purely herself, but the hard knocks black actresses suffered encouraged her to go increasingly milquetoast as if she needed to prove the only difference between her & a white woman was the color of her skin. If she could've come off more like Dinah Shore than Doris Day this might've worked, but milquetoast isn't good enough.
She tries to save the mediocre song by mugging, interacting with the candleabrum on the set, & striking dramatic poses. By the end, she's added so much dramatic flourish that the performance has gotten quite good in a phony sort of way, but never eradicates that first quavery start.
She also appeared in the December 11, 1953 episode singing "If This Isn't Love" & "Taking a Chance on Love."
Also included among the soundies on the compilation discs are two other television clips, again not credited, but they're from the CBS variety special Ford Star Jubilee: You're the Top otherwise known as Salute to Cole Porter: You're the Top (1956).
This time she wants to be Marilyn Monroe, not Doris Day, & sings "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." This is an annoying Cole Porter tune no matter who sings it, & a choice much beneath her talents.
Dorothy's limited singing ability got her dubbed by Marilyn Horne in Carmen Jones, but when songs were selected for her range & intelligence, she could be very good. This song is not intelligent.
The stage set looks like an upscale hotel lobby scene, though apparently it's supposed to be a hotel room since at one point Dorothy goes behind a screen for a burlesque quick-change, the second costume showing the full length of her legs.
The dance bit with the three hunky guys (themselves fine dancers) is greater than the musical performance, & she's out of breath for part of the show. It's actually a fun performance even though musically she scores low.
She gives a much greater performance for "You Do Something to Me." Its within her vocal range so she does well with the song.
She's on an elegantly simple set with a large art deco seashell-fan behind her, & a man standing adoringly in shadow.
She starts the number out in her "no different than a white woman" voice wearing an ermine stole, but then tosses off the stole revealing her shapeliness & continues with a swell jazz vocalization.
At the instrumental, four beefcake boys rush out for a male chorus line showing plenty of skin & dance all about her. Dandridge was a good dancer & this is a manic example of what she could do.
The entire episode was an all-star affair that featured among others Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Shirley Jones, George Sanders, & Cole Porter himself. It's available as a volume of a Kino Video set, Rare TV Music Volume 18.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl