Dorothy Dandridge first gained fame as a solo artist from her performances in nightclubs, usually accompanied by Phil Moore on piano. As well known as she became from renditions of songs such as “Blow Out the Candle”, “You Do Something To Me”, and “Talk Sweet Talk To Me”, she recorded very little on vinyl. Whether it was because of personal choice or lack of opportunity is unknown.
In 1940, as part of the Dandridge Sisters singing group, Dandridge recorded four songs with the Jimmy Lunceford band:
“You Ain’t Nowhere” (Columbia #28007)
“That’s Your Red Wagon” (Columbia #28006)
“Ain’t Going To Go To Study War No More” (Columbia #26938)
“Minnie The Moocher is Dead” (Columbia #26937A)
In 1944, she recorded a duet with Louis Armstrong from the film Pillow to Post:
“Watcha Say” (Decca L-3502)
In 1951, she recorded a single for Columbia Records:
“Blow Out the Candle/Talk Sweet Talk To Me” (catalogue # unknown)
In 1953, she recorded a song for the film Remains to Be Seen:
“Taking a Chance On Love” (MGM Records, catalogue # unknown)
In 1958, she recorded a full length album for Verve Records featuring Oscar Peterson with Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Alvin Stoller (Catalogue #314 547-514 2) that remained unreleased in the vaults until a CD release in 1999. This CD also included four tracks from 1961 (with an unknown orchestra) that included one 45 rpm record single and another aborted single:
“It’s Easy To Remember” (21942-3)
“What Is There To Say” (21943-6)
“That Old Feeling” (21944-4)
“The Touch of Your Lips” (21945-12)
“When Your Lover Has Gone” (21946-1)
“The Nearness Of You” (21947-7)
“(In This World) I’m Glad There Is You” (21948-10)
“I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face” (21949-4)
“Body and Soul” (21950-2)
“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (21951-6)
“I’ve Got a Crush on You” (21952-3)
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (21953-3)
“Somebody” (recorded in 1961) (23459-2)
“Stay with It” (recorded in 1961) (23460-4)
(above two tracks released on Verve Records single #Verve V 10231)
“It’s a Beautiful Evening” (recorded in 1961) (23461-5)
“Smooth Operator” (recorded in 1961) (23462-2)
(above two tracks were aborted for release as a single and remained unreleased until the Smooth Operator CD release in 1999). These are the only known songs Dandridge recorded on vinyl. Several songs she sang were recorded on Soundies. These songs, which include her version of “Cow-Cow Boogie”, are not included on this list.
After many bit parts, and a few minor roles, Dandridge landed her first notable film role in Tarzan’s Peril (starring Lex Barker), in 1951. She won her first starring role in 1953, playing a teacher in a low-budget film with a nearly all-black cast, Bright Road, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
In 1954, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Carmen Jones. In 1959, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Porgy and Bess. In 1999, she was the subject of the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry as Dandridge. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dandridge was married and divorced twice: first, to dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas (the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne), and then to Jack Denison. She died at age 42.
Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinetmaker and minister, and Ruby Dandridge (née Butler), an aspiring entertainer. Dandridge’s parents separated shortly before her birth. Ruby created a song-and-dance act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name of “The Wonder Children”. The sisters toured the Southern United States almost non-stop for five years (rarely attending school), while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland.
During the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many Chitlin’ circuit performers. Ruby moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small parts as a domestic servant. In 1937, “The Wonder Children” were renamed “The Dandridge Sisters” and booked into such venues as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City.
Dandridge’s first screen appearance was a bit part in an Our Gang comedy, Teacher’s Beau (1935). In 1937, she appeared as one of the many singers in the Marx Brothers’ feature film A Day at the Races. The following year, Dorothy and her sister Vivian appeared briefly in Going Places. In 1940, Dandridge played a murderer in the race film Four Shall Die — her first credited film role. Though the part was a supporting role and the film was somewhat of a success, Dandridge struggled to find good film roles.
In 1941, Dandridge was cast opposite John Wayne in Lady From Louisiana, playing the small part of Felice. That same year, she teamed with future husband Harold Nicholas for a brief role in Sun Valley Serenade; Dandridge, Nicholas, and his brother Fayard Nicholas appeared as a “specialty act” performing the eventual immortal “Chattanooga Choo Choo”. In 1942, Dandridge won another supporting role as Princess Malimi in Drums of the Congo. After only bit parts in her next few films, she got a small, yet good, role in Hit Parade of 1943. In 1944, Dandridge had two uncredited roles in Since You Went Away and Atlantic City. The next year, she played a small part in the musical Pillow to Post. In 1947, she appeared in a tiny role in Ebony Parade. After that, Dandridge’s knack for finding small roles disappeared, and she made no more films for several years. She did appear occasionally in nightclubs.
In 1951, Dandridge was cast as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, in her comeback film, Tarzan’s Peril, starring Lex Barker as Tarzan and Virginia Huston as Jane. Dandridge’s role was somewhat minor, but she was noticed by many. One night at a party, she was introduced to music manager Earl Mills. Mills wanted to further Dandridge’s career as a singer, but she preferred to focus on motion pictures. Despite this disagreement, Dandridge signed Mills as her agent. She next appeared as Ann Carpenter in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951). Dandridge really had only a supporting role, but she received second billing.
After the release of The Harlem Globetrotters, Dandridge’s film career stalled again. Mills arranged for her first appearance at the Mocambo, and she performed in nightclubs around the country through most of 1952.
In December 1952, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio agent saw Dandridge perform at the Mocambo, and cast her in her first major role, as Jane Richards in Bright Road. The film, which also starred Philip Hepburn and Harry Belafonte, featured a nearly all-black cast. It tells the story of a teacher who reaches out to a troubled student during his time of need. Bright Road was a box-office flop, but Dandridge was at the top of her game as a nightclub performer.
Bright Road was intended to showcase Dandridge as a serious leading actress, but the film’s poor reception hurt that plan more than it helped. The feature was named “the lowest box-office gross of the South”. Afterward, Dandridge started performing again in nightclubs, and eventually won a supporting role as herself in the musical drama Remains to Be Seen.
In 1954, Dandridge signed a three movie deal with 20th Century Fox. Soon after, director and writer Otto Preminger cast Dandridge along with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Madame Sul-Te-Wan (uncredited), Olga James, and Joe Adams, in his all-black production of Carmen Jones. However, Dandridge’s singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Marilyn Horne.
Upon release in 1954, Carmen Jones grossed $60,000 during its first week and $47,000 in its second week. The film received favorable reviews, and Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming only the third African American to receive a nomination in any Academy Award category (after Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters), and the first to be nominated for Best Actress. Grace Kelly won the award for her performance in The Country Girl. At the awards ceremony, Dandridge presented the Academy Award for Film Editing to Gene Milford for On the Waterfront.
In 1955, 20th Century Fox selected Dandridge to play the supporting role of Tuptim in the film version of the Broadway hit, The King and I, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. The character was a slave, which made Dorothy decline the offer. After some convincing from Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, that the role was a good one, Dandridge agreed to take the part. Otto Preminger, however, told her the role was too small, and that she would be better off to wait for a leading role in a big-budget motion picture; Dandridge again declined the role of Tuptim.
A few months before the offer of The King and I, Dandridge was asked to play Sandra Roberts in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, a romantic comedy starring Tom Ewell and Sheree North. She had turned down this role, also, because it was too small. The character was a parody of Marilyn Monroe’s character in Fox’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Dorothy was not a fan of parodies, which was another reason she declined the part. Not making these two films started the slow, but steady, demise of Dandridge’s film career.
Dandridge was one of the few Hollywood stars who testified at the 1957 criminal libel trial of Hollywood Research, Inc., the company that published all of the tabloid magazines of the era. She and actress Maureen O’Hara, the only other star who testified, were photographed shaking hands outside the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where the well-publicized trial was held. Testimony from O’Hara, as well as from a disgruntled former magazine editor, revealed that the magazines published false information provided by hotel maids, clerks and movie theater ushers who were paid for their tips. The stories with questionable veracity most often centered around alleged incidents of casual sex. When the jury and press visited Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to determine whether O’Hara could have performed various sexual acts while seated in the balcony, as reported by a magazine published by Hollywood Research, Inc., it was discovered that this would have been impossible.
Dandridge’s testimony further strengthened the prosecution’s case. Alleged by one tabloid to have fornicated in the woods of Lake Tahoe with a white bandleader in 1950, she testified that racial segregation had confined her to her hotel during her nightclub engagement in the Nevada resort city. When she was not in the hotel lounge rehearsing or performing her singing, according to her testimony, she was required to stay inside her room where she slept alone. This proved beyond any doubt that Hollywood Research had committed libel at least once. The judge ordered Hollywood Research to stop publishing questionable stories based on tips for which they paid, and this curtailed invasive tabloid journalism until 1971 when Generoso Pope, Jr. moved The National Enquirer, which he owned, from New York to Lantana, Florida.
By 1956, still under contract to Fox, Dandridge hadn’t made any films since Carmen Jones. Fox still believed that Dandridge was a star, but just didn’t know how to use her. One of the studio heads at Fox said, “She’s a star, but we don’t have any films to put her in or leading men to cast her opposite.” In 1957, Dandridge’s luck came back when Darryl F. Zanuck cast her as Margot, a restless young West Indian woman, in his controversial film version of Island in the Sun, co-starring James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, John Justin, John Williams, and Stephen Boyd. This film was a success, which brought Dandridge back into the public eye.
Though Island in the Sun was a major success, Dandridge didn’t get another film role until she was cast in the low-budget foreign Italian production Tamango, which teamed her with Curd Jürgens. Tamango was filmed in Europe in the late months of 1957 and was released on January 24, 1958 in France; it wouldn’t be released in the United States until September 16, 1959. The film received fair reviews, but failed at the box-office. Dandridge believed that the film failed because she played a slave, a part she had vowed she’d never play.
In 1958, soon after the French release of Tamango, Dandridge lined up a co-starring role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s off-beat thriller The Decks Ran Red. The film starred James Mason, Dandridge’s co-star in Island in the Sun (1957). The Decks Ran Red was released with high hopes, but drew minor box-office success; today the film is considered a “cult classic” Dorothy Dandridge film.
Determined to reinvent her career, Dorothy decided to wait for a good film role. In 1959, Columbia Pictures cast her in the lead role of Bess in Porgy and Bess. She was nominated again, this time for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, but lost to Marilyn Monroe for Some Like It Hot.
Despite positive reviews, Porgy and Bess was a box office failure. The film’s characters were described by African-Americans as “stereotypical”: Bess was a drug addict, Porgy a crippled drunk, Sportin’ Life another drug addict, and Crown a rapist. It was believed these characters pandered to stereotypes about African-Americans, adding to its controversy.
The actor who was most blamed for the failure of Porgy and Bess was Dandridge. Before the film, many other African-American actresses and actors looked up to her as someone who had proved that an African-American woman could achieve what a white woman could. But many thought Dandridge “sold out” when she accepted the role of Bess.
A few weeks later, Dandridge was released from her 20th Century Fox contract. Though she had been with Fox for about five-and-a-half years, she had only made two films for them: Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957). Her contract committed her to making three pictures, but Fox failed to find another viable opportunity for Dandridge.
In 1959, after the disappointment of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge played the lead role (an Italian girl named Gianna) in Malaga, a low-budget, forgettable movie that was filmed in Europe. It proved to be her final theatrical film. Filmed in late 1959 with the original title Moment of Danger, it was not released in U.S. theaters until 1962.
She made her last acting appearance the next year as the lead in the television movie The Murder Men. A reporter called Dorothy’s performance, “Her most interesting ‘later’ film role.” The film was later shown in an episode of Cain’s Hundred, entitled Blues for a Junkman; all the actors received “archive footage” crediting.
By the end of 1961, all movie offers had disappeared, a disappointment from which Dandridge would never recover. She returned to performing in summer stock theater and on the nightclub circuit.
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, and gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943. Harolyn was born brain-damaged, and the couple divorced in October 1951.
While filming Carmen Jones (1954), the director Otto Preminger began an affair with his film’s star, Dorothy, which lasted four years. During that period, Preminger advised her on career matters, including an offer made to Dandridge for the featured role of Tuptim in the 1956 film of The King and I. Preminger advised her to turn down the supporting role, as he believed it to be unworthy of her. Dandridge later regretted accepting Preminger’s advice. She ended the affair with Preminger upon realizing that he had no plans to leave his first wife to marry her. Their affair was depicted in the HBO Pictures biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Preminger was portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Dandridge married Jack Denison on June 22, 1959; they divorced in 1962, amid financial setbacks and allegations of domestic violence. At this time, Dandridge discovered that the people who were handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000, and that she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and to place her daughter in a state mental institution in Camarillo, California, Dandridge moved into a small apartment at 8495 Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California. Alone and without any acting roles or singing engagements on the horizon, Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown. Soon thereafter, Earl Mills started planning her comeback, but it was cut short by her untimely death.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister-in-law Geraldine “Geri” Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead by her manager, Earl Mills. Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood film five days before she died.” She was 42 years old.
On September 12, 1965, a private funeral service was held for Dandridge at the Little Chapel of the Flowers; she was then cremated and her ashes interred in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Many years passed before the entertainment industry acknowledged Dandridge’s legacy. Starting in the 1980s, stars such as Cicely Tyson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Tasha Smith and Angela Bassett acknowledged Dandridge’s contributions to the role of African-Americans in film.
In 1999, Halle Berry took the lead role of Dandridge in the HBO Movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which she also produced and for which she won an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. When Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball, she dedicated the “moment to Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.” Both Dandridge and Berry were from Cleveland, Ohio.
For her contributions to the motion picture industry, she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 671 Hollywood Boulevard. Dorothy Dandridge is also the most prominent figure of a huge mural of celebrities painted on an exterior wall of Hollywood High School.
Dorothy Dandridge has a statue at Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles, designed by Catherine Hardwicke, built to honor multi-ethnic leading ladies of the cinema, including Mae West, Dolores del Rio and Anna May Wong.