More than most Hollywood stories/actress bios, the brief but Klieg glow christened Dorothy Dandridge reads like a Lifetime movie on steroids. The heartbreak, the joy, the stardom, the non-stardom, illness, death, sordidness, sensationalism – it's a 100% All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing, All Suffering triumph – encompassing a celebrity-encrusted cast. Her short film career is strewn with obscure but worthy titles for cinema archeologists to excavate; succinctly put, it didn't all begin and end with Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. Two of these – in fact, two of her little-known jewels (well, a jewel and a tarnished gem) – 1953's BRIGHT ROAD and 1958's THE DECKS RAN RED – now available from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection. Each demands relevant discussion, particularly the former. But, then again, so does its female lead.
Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922, into a tumultuous home, ruled by a take-no-prisoners single mom, Ruby. Ruby Dandridge early on gave hubby Clyde his walking papers, opening the door for her female lover Neva – who ended up moving in with Ruby and her two daughters, Dorothy and Vivian. The couple raised the girls with a “nobody asked you what you think” braggadocio that just wasn't done in the 1920s, especially in African-American communities.
The talent shown almost immediately, and soon Ruby (herself a character actress seen in numerous Hattie McDaniel/Louise Beaver roles) sent the girls out as The Wonder Children, and later as The 3 Dandridge Sisters. This particularly irked young Dorothy, as there were only two authentic Dandridge sisters; the third, Etta Jones, was a bestie recruit. It quickly became fairly evident that Dorothy was the Frances Gumm of the act.
Appearing in musical numbers of such notable pics as A Day at the Races, the young singer/actress aspired to something more. Her meeting up with the incomparable Nicholas Brothers changed that in many ways – not all good.
She became a part of their act – breaking out in the finale of the 1941 Glenn Miller/Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade. Their show-stopping rendition of Chattanooga Choo-Choo is the hippest version ever – and practically blew everyone who came before it (Miller, Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle and Joan Davis) off the screen.
The Nicholas' were signed to a Fox contract; so was Dandridge – but not at the Zanuck studio – as the newly-wedded bride of swinging duo's younger sib, Harold.
Unfathomably, Harold Nicholas almost instantly started cheating on his gorgeous spouse, leaving her home to await the birth of their first child. The uglier stories have her alone in agony, going into labor, whilst hubby was shacked up with some babe. Complications coupled with the delay in getting medical care resulted in their daughter Haroldlyn (nicknamed Lynn) being born severely brain-damaged; she would spend most of her life institutionalized – a responsibility that a soon-to-be-single Dandridge carried on her own.
With no big movie parts forthcoming (save bits in the likes of Sundown, Bahama Passage, Ride ‘Em, Cowboy, Happy Go Lucky, Drums of the Congo), Dandridge, in one of many chameleon transformations, re-invented herself as a nightclub chanteuse – and brilliantly so. She became the sophisticated toast of towns from coast-to-coast, playing top gigs and receiving accolade upon accolade.
Sizzling as a sexy native princess in 1951's Tarzan's Peril garnered some cheesy cheesecake press; but the superb role in the terrific little MGM sleeper BRIGHT ROAD, costarring her later Carmen Jones lover Harry Belafonte, underlined her exquisite abilities as a first-rate actress. BRIGHT ROAD came and went virtually unnoticed (to this day, many have no idea of its existence). Carmen Jones was a different matter altogether.
Under the Teutonic tutelage of the bombastic Otto Preminger, Dandridge and Carmen Jones broke all the rules and challenged the censors (the director's specialty). The 1954 smash overnight (after 15 years) made Dorothy Dandridge a full-fledged sexy movie star. While her outstanding vocal talents were dubbed by Marilyn Horne (similarly to occur again in Porgy and Bess, via Adele Addison), her smoldering emoting crossed the color line. She got a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Then Preminger moved in – literally. He took over her career AND her love life, becoming the star’s unofficial husband (unlike Jack Denison, ironically dubbed husband Number Two, who used Dandridge for what he could get, Otto was satiated by merely controlling his Trilby).
1954 was a tough year for Best Actress nominees. Dandridge was up against Judy Garland in A Star is Born, Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (the latter winning the coveted statuette). But Dandridge got what she had wanted since 1941: a Fox contract. Tossed the role of Tuptim in the upcoming screen adaptation of The King and I, Dandridge, via Otto, thumbed it down. She knew it wasn't that much of a part, but Preminger drillled it into her that from here on in she could NEVER take anything less than a lead. Zanuck was furious, promising her to follow it up with “colored” remakes of Under Two Flags and The Blue Angel. “Why colored?” asked Dandridge, who lobbied for the studio's much-heralded production of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Fox wouldn't even consider pairing her romantically with William Holden (besides, Jennifer Jones was already fully cast as half-caste Han Suyin). Dandridge countered with Bus Stop, which Fox had just purchased. Another nix. Nevertheless interracial romance in the Production Code-laxing Fifties at last provided the actress with a decent op in the 1957 big budget production of the controversial novel Island in the Sun. But Dorothy Dandridge wasn't the lead – she was 50% of the fourth-down subplot (with John Justin) in a quartet of heavy-breathing couplings (following James Mason/Patricia Owens; Harry Belafonte/Joan Fontaine, and Stephen Boyd/Joan Collins). It was her Fox swan song.
Finding movies more progressive outside America, she journeyed across the pond filming some eye-opening but barely U.S.-released edgy dramas. In Tamango she played the disruptive influence aboard a slave ship piloted by increasingly horny Curt Jurgens. In THE DECKS RAN RED, again appearing opposite James Mason (but again, not inamorata), she boiled the blood of mutineers.
Samuel Goldwyn's announcement of Porgy and Bess had a mixed reception amongst the journalists of black publications and the NAACP. Although the money was damned good, both Sidney Poitier and Dandridge thought the project a two-steps-backward for their one-step forward soft shoe. It was only when Otto Preminger was assigned to the picture (a rarity, as he now only directed his own productions) that Dandridge relented. Preminger explained that the opera was a modern masterpiece, and that the surface subject matter took a back seat to the beautiful music.
Dandridge swallowed the bait – and, indeed, the final result, a spectacular Techincolor & Todd-AO epic, while anachronistic, was a blockbuster for Goldwyn (his last movie). This picture had some major problems throughout its filming (a disastrous fire, causing expensive re-shoots) and afterward (mixed black and white press). A reel nightmare came later. Ira Gershwin, who would retain the rights after fifteen years (again proving Goldwyn's foolishly ignored “no partners” decree a truism), thought the narrative dated and racially offensive. Gershwin refused screenings and even ordered that all prints be tracked down and destroyed (an edict haphazardly carried out through his estate after his passing). It's why the movie has all but disappeared, save for private collectors’ prints and DVD-R bootlegs (an authorized screening in 2007 suggests that hope for its reinstatement and restoration may be imminent).
Dandridge's private life was an on-going mess as well. Filling the time between her horrific marriages with a succession of one-night stands (when a friend asked why, the actress responded with a flip “no commitments” and “I get the orgasm”) was not-surprisingly compounded by severe bouts of depression; she began taking drugs to combat her mood swings, specifically Tofranil. It was worse when she was with spouse than without. At the time of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge was spliced to entrepreneur (i.e. leech) Jack Denison. When I briefly knew Otto Preminger, I asked him about Dorothy Dandridge, with whom I was admittedly obsessed (at the time I had no idea then that they had been lovers). Preminger, uncharacteristically tight-lipped, pursed a semi-smile and soberly replied, “A beautiful and ultimately tragic actress and soul...Very talented, unappreciated...At the shooting of Porgy and Bess, she was in a bad marriage to a man named Jack Denison. Her relationships were starkly black/white, as if she had to defiantly prove something. Denison was an atrocity. A glaring one – by that I mean he wore only white suits, a white Panama hat, he had glistening white teeth, near alabaster skin and white hair. He was the whitest man I ever saw!”
Dandridge's movie career went nowhere after Porgy. Back in the UK, she filmed Malaga in 1960, costarring Trevor Howard. I know no one who has ever seen it; just for the two stars, I'd kill to get my hands on a copy.
Flying solo again, with singing engagements unbalanced by unending depression, she spent her down time in her L.A. apartment. When invited to a special premiere screening in late 1963 of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the actress balked. Only when told that the picture was directed by Stanley Kramer, who had done the groundbreaking drama The Defiant Ones, did Dandridge reluctantly agree to attend. A third into the picture, a middle-aged black couple gets rammed off the road by the greedy treasure-hunting leads. As the terrified marrieds’ Beverly Hillbillies-ramshackle car careened down a chasm (their meager belongings popping off the vehicle with cartoon sound effects and banjo-strummed music), Dandridge did a double take. But it wasn’t over yet. When the detoured victims finally hit rock bottom, and the male turns to his wife and utters, “Ah say'd it befo' an' ah say it agin – ah dint wanna move to California” the Carmen Jones-Oscar nominee reportedly let loose with a moanful, “Oh my fucking God!” and exited the theatre as the packed house was still laughing their asses off.
It’s generally assumed that on September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge committed suicide. There have been conflicting reports for over fifty years as to whether or not it was a suicide. No less than three theories still cloud her passing. The first is a post-autopsy discovery of an aneurism; the second being a suicide, due to an overdose of imipramine; the third (and the one the Coroner's Office issued as the official conclusion) accidental death, resulting from an overdose of Tofranil.
Aside from its obvious sensational aspect, the reason the suicide stories take precedence is due to two notes that Dandridge wrote in the months prior to her demise, one headlined “To Whomever Discovers Me After Death.”
No matter what the reason, the world lost an amazing actress and singer; I often contemplate what her life and career would have been like if she had just been able to make it a little bit longer...the addendum civil rights passing of the Voting Rights act (just one month before her death on August 6), the total abolishment of the Code and its grasp on cinematic expression and freedom. Who knows – maybe nothing. Personally, I prefer to think of her achieving some additional awesome credits on her resume...in movies, TV, theatre, the talk circuit, perhaps books and even politics (far more preferable celeb venue than some bat-shit crazy Ann Prentiss terrorist). Sometimes I get real sad thinking about Dorothy Dandridge – not so much about selfishly wishing there was more celluloid on her to enjoy, but more so wondering about then twentysomething Lynn...and what she must have felt when mommy stopped coming to visit...
Burton Moss, a close encounter of the Hollywood super-agent kind, had first met Dorothy Dandridge in the early 1950s when he was in the service. “I saw her initially in San Francisco. She was sharing the bill with Sammy Davis, Jr., whom, at the time, I had certainly heard of but had never seen perform. After his first set, Dorothy came out, and the rest is in a haze. I mean she was absolutely one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. And, man, could she sing! I couldn't get enough of her. Sammy came out afterward and tore the roof off the house with a slam-bang finale he called King Solomon's Mines. Well, I thought that was a good 'in' to get backstage and introduce myself to these amazing entertainers, as my uncle [producer Sam Zimbalist] had recently made the MGM movie of that name.
“At first Sammy was a bit nervous; he thought there might be a copyright problem using the name for his number. Once I assured him that wasn't the case, we all settled into a comfort zone and relaxed...enough that the four of us (me, Sammy, Dorothy and a lieutenant buddy of mine) went to dinner.
“I told Dorothy how smitten I was, and she couldn't have been nicer. She said she'd comp me tickets anytime I wanted to see her sing (which she did). Well, eventually we became good friends and then some, but unfortunately nothing beyond the flirtatious stage. And that wasn't because of me. Dorothy had a sly sense of humor. 'You know those wives' tales about black girls?' she asked [the 'once you've gone black, there no going back' classic]. 'Well, I would prove that magnificently wrong!' I replied that I would like to judge that for myself, at which point she laughed and added, 'Trust me, I'd be the worst lay of your life!’
“We drifted apart due to her numerous cross-country club gigs, and not too long after that I ended up getting married [to actress Ruth Roman]. My wife's work took us overseas where she had a busy schedule of film com-mitments. “We returned to the States in the early 1960s. I had just gotten a job with GAC [the General Artist Corporation], and one of my first clients was Sidney Poitier. Sidney had re-cently done Porgy and Bess with Dorothy, and I was eager to see her again. I was shocked when I did. The light was gone from her eyes. She was scarred – physically and emotionally – due to an awful marriage to Jack Denison. He ran several nightclubs, and made her sing for her supper...or else. She had started taking anti-depressants, and was just a mess. We did have a reunion, and continued our friendship, but it wasn't the same. But even running on near-empty, she still had an enormous talent.
“I met several times with her manager Earl Mills, and we talked of re-igniting her career. Earl was supportive, but cautious, 'You don't know the half of it,' he told me. 'But I'm in a position to really do something for her – and I want to.’ “About three weeks after my last visit with Dorothy, I heard the radio report that she had died. I couldn't believe it! I thought I it had to be a mistake. It's impossible. I just saw her; I was talking to Earl about finalizing a concert tour maybe the day before! “It's still difficult for me to think about that. My main memories of Dorothy are from those days in 1951...So much energy, excitement, brilliance...She really was one of those performers who made it seem like she was singing only to you! And she was so smart! She had a great sense of humor and a seductive, playful sparkle in her eyes...That's what I'll never forget.”
“I'm Dorothy Dandridge and I play the role of Jane Richards, a teacher...” So opens the 1953 drama BRIGHT ROAD, certainly one of the most unusual movies ever released by MGM.
Heralded as the first non-musical all-Negro major studio picture (they obviously had for-gotten King Vidor's landmark 1929 talkie Hallelujah! which, like this movie, does contain some musical interludes), BRIGHT ROAD was based on an award-winning short story Mary Elizabeth Vroman. Vroman's piece (a chronicle of her experience as a teacher in a rural Alabama black community) had garnered a plethora of accolades since appearing in The Ladies Home Journal, and was scooped up for Metro by its rising star Dore Schary. Schary, who was quickly usurping head tyrant Louis B. Mayer out of his near-thirty-year cast-iron reign, was everything the mogul hated: a tell-it-like-it-is democratic liberal with way-too-progressive ideas. Schary would have taken Mayer's beloved Hardy family, and had them the centerpiece of a mass murder noir (which, just thinking about it, brings tears of joy to my eyes). The maverick, fresh from RKO and the rousing success of Crossfire, pushed pictures like Battleground, Border Incident and Intruder in the Dust – all hits. Schary's idea of a comedy wasn't fluff like Her Highness and the Bellboy, but Adam's Rib (another smash). Mayer despised these entries with a passion. Of the aforementioned acclaimed racial drama Intruder in the Dust, L.B. raged about how the head Negro Juano Hernandez was far too uppity; he demanded that the actor do retakes where he removes his hat before speaking to a white man (Schary nixed it).
If Louis B. Mayer chafed at Intruder in the Dust, he would have gleaned a one-way ticket to ulcer city with BRIGHT ROAD. But Mayer had finally been dethroned by the time the movie received its greenlight, so he could writhe in the comfort of his own home – content with reliving former glories and naming Commies within the industry, his favorite new pastime. It's likely that one of these he suspected might have been the modest pic's director, Gerald Mayer, L.B.'s nephew.
Yes, Gerald Mayer working at MGM was in-deed an act of nepotism – yet another industry instance where “the son-in-law also rises,” but these two men couldn't have been more different. The younger Mayer was cut from Schary's cloth in his progressive beliefs and values (he had begun at the studio as a test director, after returning from World War II duty).
As his illustrious uncle was booted out, Mayer began helming a slew of low-budget pictures that remain some of the famed dream factory's most interesting and unique efforts: little dramas and film noirs like Dial 1119, The Sellout, and Holiday for Sinners. His crowning achievement (before leaving the studio and entering the expanding television universe) is undoubtedly BRIGHT ROAD.
Shot in two-and-a-half weeks, on a budget of less than five hundred thousand dollars, BRIGHT ROAD was the kind of movie that paradoxically took chances while playing it safe. As the Metro money men noted, “If just the Negroes go see it, we've already made our investment back. If whites like it – we're in profit.”
The beauty of a low-budget picture at a major studio was that censors and the front office tended to not watch what was going on too carefully. Things unacceptable in a super-A project weren't even addressed in a little black and white movie running 68 minutes.
With the exception of Robert Horton (excellent in a small role as a local doctor), the entire cast was made up of African-American performers. While Gerald Mayer admitted that he would have loved to have taken credit for the casting, the leads, Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, were signed before his being given the assignment. Belafonte plays the school's principal and both stars were making their marks in the nightclub scene – which deceptively led to promoting the movie as if it was some kind of quirky musical (see the above Warner Archive cover, which was the original one-sheet poster); the trailer, too, contained footage of Dandridge performing onstage, and Belafonte's singing Suzanne, a number he does solo in his office at the end of a trying day. All things considered, this wasn't too surprising for MGM – the company renowned for their expertise in the musical genre (and infamous for shooting Lena Horne's numbers in a way that they could be snipped out for exhibition in Dixie).
But don't let that stop you from taking a chance on BRIGHT ROAD. It's a beautifully-directed and acted piece about a devoted teacher and her particular goal in helping a shunned, gifted student come out of his shell (a remarkable turn by Philip Hepburn, whose naturalness should have been noted by his air-out-of-the-room-suckee namesake Katharine).
As C.T. Young (C.T., which he reveals, “don't stand for nothing”), Hepburn is a troubled pre-teen from a large, struggling (and nurturing) family. He's smart and exhibits brilliance at sketching, painting and dealing with animals (preferring the four-legged specimens to the two-legged variety; no argument there). Until Dandridge's arrival, he's labeled as a slow-thinking trouble-maker; but as the new teacher discovers (and like so many progressive modern instructors have noted), children like C.T. aren't “slow,” they're bored – due to their potentially being light years advanced from the etched-in-stone curriculum.
In one of BRIGHT ROAD's many amazing sequences, the conservative school board, striving to cut corners, insists on eliminating lunches – if not entirely then from worthless students like C.T. (you can almost hear the Tea Party cheering). Fortunately, Dandridge, with Belafonte's assist, shoots them down (although, sadly, not literally).
In BRIGHT ROAD, Miss Richards, C.T. Mr. Williams (Belafonte), and the African-American community in general deal realistically with the problems affecting the poor, including illness, death, hunger and racism. It's so expertly done (in non-MGM treacle fashion) that I defy you not to wipe a tear from your eyes at when the end credits roll.
In under 70 minutes BRIGHT ROAD lights up the screen with a powerful array of memorable moments. Several of these are worth mention-ing. Dandridge's Miss Richards also subs as the town's Sunday school teacher (which gives her a chance to sing hymns that would ultimately be useful for the movie's promotion).
It is during one of these lessons that C.T. challenges the biblical line about God's creating people in His own image. Richard's stream of consciousness narration here stops cold with a humorous “Uh-oh!” She continually digs herself into a deeper hole when attempting an explanation. C.T. counters with a telling “black and white don't act like brothers.” Yikes (it should also be noted that the words “under God” are absent from the class's daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance).
A touch of the blowtorch heat that Belafonte and Dandridge would generate the following year in Carmen Jones turns up unexpectedly midway through BRIGHT ROAD. As these two spectacular-looking people get to know each other, a spark of sexual fire ignites in a way not seen in any mainstream white movie of the period. And it happens so believably...and in-nocuously. When an obviously more-than-just-coworkers-attracted Belafonte suggests, “Why don't I walk you down for an ice-cream soda?” the equally-aroused Dandridge turns on the bedroom eyes with a sultry-voiced reply of “Why don't you?” Hey, did it suddenly get warmer in here? You bet it did.
This brief encounter mirrors what was going on off-camera. Belafonte and Dandridge had known each other from their club appearances. Since then and through the beginning of BRIGHT ROAD, the pair began a flirtatious hot/cold romance – destined to go nowhere, as the Calypso singer was happily married. Dandridge then switched over to director Mayer – and the two embarked on an affair which lasted nearly a year after BRIGHT ROAD's completion. Mayer noted that they were inseparable for a good part of the relationship (citing geographical reasons for the breakup, due to her cross-country club dates). Curiously, he proudly took her home to meet his mother, who adored Dandridge with wholehearted approval; in contrast, Dandridge never offered to introduce Mayer to Ruby (that said, sister Vivian was given a small role in BRIGHT ROAD, as one of the board members, and her son as one of the students). As Mayer recalls in Donald Bogle’s exhaustive 1997 Dandridge biography, “The total memory is of a really nice relationship. A warm relationship...In my life, she's one of the people I remember most with love. That was a very nice year of my life, and, I hope, of her life.”
There are few false notes in BRIGHT ROAD – the only minor one acting-wise being Belafonte. A really good actor, he's a bit wooden in this early screen role, but seems to improve as the picture progresses. Dandridge is spot-on and flawless, as is the remainder of the youthful cast, including (as indicated) Hepburn and the Barbara Ann Sanders as C.T.'s tragic and similarly sensitive classmate.
Bizarrely, as the initial rushes flickered in the Metro screening room, execs were shocked to find that Dandridge was photographing “white.” William Tuttle was called in to develop a dark-honey complexion for the actress so that discriminating viewers wouldn't mistake her for anything but a Negro. It makes me fantasize how incredible she would have been in Pinky – the 1949 “passing” drama in which the light-skinned lead went to white-bread Jeanne Crain.
The excellent d.p. Al Gilks is responsible for BRIGHT ROAD's stunning black-and-white cinematography – yet a shining example of the studio contract system; his previous work comprised the non-musical sequences for An American in Paris.
David Rose provides a cool, jazzy score which audiences nonetheless might find a bit strange, specifically during a main title rendition of Three Blind Mice. While this is later explained in another key sequence wherein C.T. rebukes recess period by complaining to Miss Richards that he can't stand nursery rhymes (logically inquiring why anyone would think it fun to sing and play about cutting off tails with a carving knife), it makes even more sense when one understands that up until its release, BRIGHT ROAD was entitled See How They Run.
As one might expect, BRIGHT ROAD was “nicely” received upon its 1953 release. Every white critic referred to it as “that nice little movie.” The black press, however, went bonkers, heralding it as a milestone in cinema – showering Dandridge with coverage and cover art. While it didn't go through the roof, the MGM suits were correct in their prediction that it wouldn't lose money. Funnily, they never bothered with a re-issue, which, after the subsequent year's unveiling of Carmen Jones, I would have thought a no-brainer. Metro thought enough of BRIGHT ROAD and Dandridge to offer her an additional three grand if she did a nightclub number for their upcoming Van Johnson-June Allyson comedy-mystery Remains to be Seen. Dandridge wisely took the money and ran – providing the movie with its only notable segment, a standout version of Taking a Chance on Love.
BRIGHT ROAD is a hands-down recommended addition to anyone's library – whether categorized under neglected flicks, historically important motion pictures, 1950s cinema or simply fans of Belafonte and/or the beauteous Dandridge. The Warner Archive DVD-R hails from a great 35MM transfer and includes the misleading trailer.
As C.T. soulfully tells Miss Richards at the end of that tumultuous school year, “You know what – I love you.” Me too, D.D. – you and the movie!
It's a case of from one extreme to the other with 1958's THE DECKS RAN RED, a lurid low-budget suspenser, written and directed by Andrew L. Stone (who also coproduced the pic with his wife Virginia, likewise the flick's editor). Most folks have never heard of this nasty little pastiche, despite a formidable triple-threat cast: Dandridge, James Mason and Broderick Crawford. It's a movie whose premise is so stupid that you know it has to have been based upon a true incident. And so it is. Apparently, there's a sub-clause in Maritime Law that states if a ship is derelict, and can be subsequently salvaged by independent contractors – they own both the vessel and the cargo.
For psycho Henry Scott, serving aboard the New Zealand-based Mariposa, this translates to kill the captain and crew, wreck the emptied carrier aground and collect a million bucks. While today this might be a perfectly sound pitch for a new reality series – in 1906, when this actually occurred, it caused quite a stir (ratcheted up by the fact that Scott, who killed four of the crew before apprehended, was black). A partial earlier screen version of this incident was filmed in 1930 by MGM as Ship from Shanghai (with the Scott character portrayed by Louis Wolheim).
Updated to present day (1958), Scott and his anthropoid matey, LeRoy Martin, hatch this insanity, enlisting the reluctant assist of seaman John Gallaudet, whose unfortunate habit of talking in his sleep causes his early demise – tossed overboard in the middle of the night.
The mysterious unexplained death of the Mariposa's captain forces the company to seek out a last-minute replacement. In an act of immense moronity, luxury liner officer Mason agrees to take on the assignment (he always wanted to be a captain), even though the accursed ship has a lousy rep and notorious crew. Mason's Captain Rummill (as opposed to Rommel, whom he coincidentally also portrayed) should have come in when the movie started, as he would have been apprised of the ominous prologue (“...the most infamous, diabolically cunning crime in the annals of Maritime history!”). Since he missed it, he gets what he deserves. Laughably, a sickly, bitter officer, aptly named Moody, is first sought to be the ideal upgrade – a dicey decision tantamount to Woody Allen guest-hosting Dance Moms. Fortunately, for action movie fans, it's no contest between him and Mason, especially since the former is the guy who played Fred Ziffel on Green Acres (prune-faced Hank Patterson, who ends up croaking on his own reconnaissance anyway).
Since the superstitious crew is about forty brain cells short of Boo Radley, the cook bolts rather than conjuring vittles aboard a death ship. Another last-minute replacement is desperately needed, and luckily is found in port via the kitchen magician mitts of Joel Fluellen, an easily-infuriated man of color who insists his wife accompany him. This is understandable, since his silkily smooth better half is none other than a jalapeno-hot Dorothy Dandridge; everything about Dandridge exudes sex – even her name (Mahia) is Craigslist fantasy-friendly. Her one chore, ringing the chow bell, is consummated with admirable lip-biting bump-and-grind professionalism – as close to female orgasm as one could get at MGM in the 1950s without auditioning for Arthur Freed.
Indeed, from the second Mahia is hoisted up the poop deck, there's trouble afloat. Sashaying to and fro amidst welcomed catcalls and whistles, smiling at the grinning brutes who make O'Neill's hairy ape look like Henry Higgins, Mahia immediately offers a variant take from the transport's two dominant males, Mason and Crawford (both delivering tiptop performances). While Mason nervously logs, she's a force “...so sensuous, so exotically beautiful! A dangerous error of judgment,” Crawford waxes rhapsodic, “That broad's a gift from heaven...The more the guys get riled up, the more I like it!” It's truly Carmen Jones' A Night to Remember.
Seemingly within nanoseconds scowling Fluellen is turned into mincemeat – opening a window of opportunity for the simian crew to narratively lay the groundwork, so to speak. But Dandridge ain't no ho’ (she's just drawn that way) – and she's a bargaining chip to be shared by Scott and his grinning cohort Martin (who astutely observes that Mahia's a “broad onboard just loaded with sex”). She can live (if you call that living) if the officers and remaining salty dogs pile into an overstuffed lifeboat and, for all intents and purposes, drown in the raging sea.
It's here that a most remarkable thing occurs – a spark that instantly elevates THE DECKS RAN RED to must-see status. Dandridge, in her all-too-brief role, becomes the picture's hero. While Crawford's a brilliant conniver and manipulator in the best Iago tradition, Dandridge knows her power and how to use it – spectacularly relying upon sex jealously to divide and conquer; she's also not beyond re-sorting to grisly violence in the best Johnny Stompanato tradition. “I'm a special woman,” she triumphantly announces. Damn right!
THE DECKS RAN RED, as was director Andrew Stone's wont, unspooled on-location far from the prop soundstage water tanks. Its unsavory subject matter nevertheless relegated it to the nabes and drive-ins, where it came, saw and foundered after a week.
Andrew L. Stone is genuinely one of cinema's most fascinating specimens. As early as 1943, he was doing some weird stuff, cinematically that is. I'm talking about the surreal indy Hi Diddle Diddle – a wacky show-biz musical that constantly broke the fourth wall – having characters turn to the camera and explain what was going on (a cut to a gorgeous starlet being waved off as having nothing to do with the picture – she's just “...the producer's girlfriend”). Stone's obsession with realism would reach fanatical proportions after he had Doris Day attempt to land a strato-airliner in 1956's Julie. By Cry Terror (1958), shot entirely in New York City, the danger quotient was alarmingly cranked up. Star James Mason (as a Flushing TV repairman!) was actually seen shinnying down a greasy high-rise apartment building elevator cable, then chasing maniac Rod Steiger through the lower Manhattan subway tunnels.
Mason obviously enjoyed working with Stone, as his DECKS RAN RED participation indicates – or maybe it was Dandridge. While their characters in both this and the previous year's Island in the Sun had no romantic connection onscreen – the same couldn't be said once the cameras stopped rolling (it eventually led to a jittery confrontation with the star's harpy wife Pamela). More than Cry Terror or Pamela, THE DECKS RAN RED, splashed Mason into even more perilous waters...and I ain’t kidding! The shots of him swimming adrift the choppy seas are OMG harrowing (Stone's ultimate torture and try-to-annihilate-the-cast kinkiness would soon come full circle in his biggest pic ever – 1960's all-star The Last Voyage. Hearing that the Il de France was to be demolished, he had MGM buy the once-pride of the luxury fleet, put his high-priced talent on board and then proceeded to blow it up. Star Robert Stack chillingly recalled that he was almost killed during the production...several times).
None of these aforementioned horrors can match the terror experienced by Dorothy Dandridge in THE DECKS RAN RED – being locked in a room with Stuart Whitman (as his Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines costar Sylvia Miles can attest)! “Oh, dear,” bemuses Rummill upon being wise-cracked as a “gold-braided Willie” by Whitman’s LeRoy, “one of the curses of the sea – like rats and scurvy.” Sort of an insult to rodents and vitamin-deficient diseases.
In DECKS' most tense sequence, Whitman, who astoundingly out-grunted the baboons in Sands of the Kalarhari, chest-heaves Dandridge into a piston-writhing engine room con-fine – leaving little hope that World War I era planes will arrive in time to shoot him down. It's every woman's worst nightmare – with the possible exception of Barbara Payton’s. That said, Whitman's facial expression when even he realizes Crawford is a friggin' nut-job is nothing short of masterful.
The stark documentary-like gritty black-and-white photography is the expert work of d.p. Meredith M. Nicholson. It's a thumbs-up job well done, way surpassing the grainy results of Stone's Cry Terror foray. Dandridge, it should be stated, rightfully received the best reviews; even DECKS' many detractors begrudgingly agree that it remains the most beautiful she ever looked onscreen. Think about that! From the visually sublime to the ridiculous, an animated blood-dripping color insert title card is one of the pic's few ill-advised pictorial moments that nonetheless equate it to the rarefied cultural domain of EC comics and Herschel Gordon Lewis.
Maybe it's a matter of putting too much into the scenario and its inhabitants, but another factor of disbelief is the idea of Dandridge being spliced to Fluellen. To cut to the chase, there is absolutely no chemistry between the two...at least on-screen; outside the studio, the pair had a long and on-again-off-again-friendship. Fluellen was an outwardly gay actor, twenty years Dandridge's senior; he founded the Negro Art League to assure African-American actors got increasingly better roles. Fluellen, ironically an expert cook in real life (often working as a caterer when acting jobs dried up, occasionally at Dandridge’s parties), knew and befriended everybody. He was kind of the black Waldo Lydecker of the show business community from the 1930s-50s. Fluellen could, without warning, waspishly cut you off with a “shut-up, I'm not talking to you.” So could Dorothy. Yet, whenever she needed someone to talk to or an escort for an industry function, she wouldn't think twice about calling the veteran thespian. With that history, you'd think there'd be at least a speck of camaraderie in THE DECKS RAN RED. Hell, they might have well paired her up with Willie Best (Interestingly, Stone also helmed the 1943 all-black Stormy Weather, also featuring the dubious May-December romantic duo of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lena Horne).
The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE DECKS RAN RED looks dare-I-say shipshape. The 16 x 9 anamorphic transfer is just peachy, the mono audio (okay, I am gonna say it) buoyant.
The disc comes with the original trailer, which, not surprisingly concentrates on Dorothy Dandridge – or, more precisely, her robo-gyrating torso. “Menaced by a love-starved crew!” it warns. “A reckless woman among violent men!” it promises. Those wacky MGM publicists! It's practically the same hype they used concurrently for Gigi.
BRIGHT ROAD. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 883316483084.
THE DECKS RAN RED. Black and White. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Mono audio. CAT # 883316797617.
DVD-Rs available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection [www.warnerarchive.com]. SRP: $19.95@.