1953’s Bright Road marked the beginning of the career change Dorothy Dandridge dreamed of.
By the early 1950s, Dorothy’s hard work at re-starting her career finally paid off: with the special care her daughter Lynn required as motivation, Dorothy Dandridge became one of the most sought after performers on the popular nightclub scene.
Dorothy never enjoyed singing in “the saloons,” as she called the clubs. But her beautiful voice, stylish appearance, and the great vulnerability she projected in each performance made Dorothy an audience favorite.
A Bright Road of Unprecedented Dreams
Dorothy appreciated her great success on the nightclub scene. But Dorothy’s dream was not to be a nightclub singer, but a dramatic film actress; a black movie star who played leading roles, not maids or mammies. And with her first lead role as a dedicated teacher in Bright Road (1953), it seemed Dorothy Dandridge’s unprecedented dream just might come true.
In addition to helping Dorothy on her path to movie stardom, Bright Road, with its sweet messages of love, freedom, and brotherhood, depicted a black community in ways audiences of all races could relate and appreciate: in its own understated way, Bright Road helped redefine the way black men, women, and children were portrayed on screen.
You can rent or purchase Bright Road here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
The Plot of Bright Road
The film is set in rural Alabama. Young and beautiful Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge), is the new elementary school teacher in a small black community. Jane takes a particular interest in one of her students, C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn), who struggles in class. C.T. is a bright kid, but he’s had to repeat every grade twice. C.T. is disinterested in school, largely because he’s never had a teacher care enough to invest in his success. Marked a hopeless troublemaker each year, C.T. needs a teacher who will believe in him.
Jane Richards is that teacher.
Where previous teachers haven’t cared that C.T. comes to school hungry, Jane ensures that his name is placed on the list of students to be included for school-provided lunches.
Where previous teachers ignored the difficult questions C.T. asks, Jane answers them with straightforward honesty.
A Good Teacher
Jane also recognizes C.T.’s strengths in art and nature, and uses those interests to get him excited about what she’s teaching in the classroom.
The other teachers at school think Jane is wasting her time on C.T. But with the encouragement of the handsome Principal Williams (Harry Belafonte), Jane continues to get through to C.T. And as the the school year goes on, C.T.’s report cards show his progress: for the first time, he earns passing grades.
But the death of C.T.’s best friend and crush, Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders), from pneumonia, temporarily sets back his scholastic progress. As he mourns Tanya’s passing, C.T. once more seems disinterested in school.
With the end of the school year approaching, Jane fears she’ll have to keep C.T. in her class another year.
Her worries are lifted when she overhears C.T. helping another student with long division: it’s clear C.T. understands the concepts Jane’s taught, he’s just internalized everything since Tanya’s tragic passing.
At the end of the school year, C.T.’s scholastic enthusiasm returns after he saves the school from a bee attack: the queen bee flies into Jane’s classroom, and C.T., the only one who knows that the rest of the bees will follow wherever the queen bee goes, calmly finds her, and takes the queen from the classroom to the woods. The bee swarm follows.
The Message of Bright Road
C.T. returns to school a hero, bringing with him a butterfly cocoon: the progress of the caterpillar inside the cocoon mirrors C.T.’s growth as a student. C.T. gifts Jane the cocoon, and on the last day of class, the butterfly breaks free. As the students watch the butterfly fight its way out of the cocoon, Jane reminds her class that:
“Last September he was just a little old caterpillar crawling along on the ground. Now he’s coming awake after a long winter’s sleep. A beautiful change is taking place. He’s being born all over again. Just as you and I will be born again someday. And everyone we’ve ever known or loved. We don’t know what it’ll be like any more than the caterpillar did.
And so when the butterfly spreads its wings and flies away, we have to remember that we’ve been very lucky. For here today we have a wonderful promise of things to come.”
C.T.'s Bright Road
On the last day of school, C.T. simply tells Jane that he loves her. There are no words that better convey how this teacher–with her dedication, hard work, love, and faith–quite literally changed the life of her student.
And that’s the end of this sweet film.
Dorothy Dandridge Returns to Show Business
In 1948, Dorothy Dandridge returned to show business.
Separated from Harold Nicholas, and having just turned over the care of her daughter Harolyn to a specialist, Dorothy now focused her determination and drive on her career. It was a much needed distraction from the heartbreak Dottie felt over the disintegration of her marriage, and the child whose special needs required twenty-four hour care.
As Vivian Dandridge commented on her sister’s super-human focus:
“My sister worked twenty-four hours a day to become a star.”
Dorothy found her stride when she teamed up with jazz musician and arranger, Phil Moore. Moore used his expert eye to put together a nightclub act that capitalized on Dorothy’s strengths. Moore chose songs that complemented Dottie’s warm voice and range, dance moves that showed her training and natural grace, and gowns that underscored her knockout beauty.
The Price of a Good Act
But the financial burden of getting her nightclub act together was great. Dottie was lucky if what she earned from her early nightclub engagements covered her costs. And despite the fact that her relationship with Moore turned romantic, Dorothy still had to pay him for his vocal coaching. In addition to Moore’s fees, Dottie also had the costs of her accompanists and agent to consider.
Dorothy also understood that on the nightclub scene, looking good was perhaps just as important as sounding good. So at this early stage of her comeback career, according to Dorothy, most of what she earned went towards her wardrobe:
“I spent most of my earnings on clothes, for what I looked like onstage was a large part of my act. I intended, if money came my way, to get a wardrobe the equal of anyone’s in the business. If you are supposed to be an attractive woman up on a platform singing to a few hundred people, you better look right.”
Interesting fashion side note: Eventually, Dorothy would own gowns by the most renown designers of the era, including Don Loper and Billy Travilla. At the height of her popularity on the nightclub scene, Dorothy Dandridge owned 56 designer gowns, which she insured for an impressive $250,000.
Dorothy Finds Success
Dorothy’s 1951 booking at the Mocambo, a club popular with Hollywood’s biggest stars on the Sunset Strip, was a watershed engagement for her career. And her 1952 success at New York City’s La Vie en Rose club was, according to Dorothy, the engagement that changed everything, making her one of the most sought after performers on the nightclub scene. Night after night, Dottie sang to sold out houses. Her success at La Vie en Rose was such that an initial two week booking was extended to fourteen weeks. (Dorothy says sixteen in her autobiography [aff. link].)
Paying Her Dues
Despite the joys of success, Dorothy Dandridge paid her dues both before and during her years as a popular nightclub singer.
Regardless of how well a performance went, Dorothy suffered terrible anxiety and stress:
“In the dressing room after the show, I couldn’t breath, I had chest spasms, my legs cramps, my feet and hands tingled. I was unable to talk. I stayed in this contracted fit, doubled up, until I came out of it.”
Phil Moore eventually referred her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Dottie’s unique sickness as guilt over daughter Lynn’s brain damage:
“His diagnosis was that I was suffering from guilt feelings over Lynn. My paroxysm were a reliving of Lynn’s own sufferings and frustration. He counseled me that it was useless to relive my child’s destruction and to take her pain so deeply into my own body…Lynn was never out of my mind.”
Dorothy never completely overcame these attacks, which she referred to as “my own private plague” in her autobiography. As debilitating as these attacks were, it speaks volumes of Dorothy’s sweet heart that she felt her daughter’s pain so deeply.
Dorothy Dandridge Fights Jim Crow
Dorothy’s “private plague” wasn’t the only pain she suffered on the nightclub circuit. Dottie also experienced the cruelties of racism and prejudice. From her earliest days breaking into the club scene to her time as a command performer, Dorothy’s experiences with Jim Crow and segregation are both heartbreaking and frustrating. But from the beginning, Dottie dealt with these injustices gracefully, often finding her own way to serve some sort of quiet justice.
During one of her first successful bookings in 1949 at The Bingo, a small Las Vegas club, segregation laws forced Dorothy to stay at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, far away from The Bingo and the Vegas Strip. Even more humiliating, Las Vegas segregation laws meant that Dorothy was only permitted in The Bingo lounge while she was performing. Dorothy could not socialize or mingle with the white guests who had paid to see her perform, even if she was invited to sit or dine at their tables.
The Bingo also denied Dottie a dressing room, instead setting her up in a dilapidated old office with nothing but a makeshift plywood table to do her makeup on. Though angered and disappointed at these unjust circumstances, Dorothy took it all in stride, and still managed to get glammed up and gorgeous before delivering knock out performances.
The Chase Hotel
In 1952 Dorothy Dandridge became not only the first black performer to appear at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, she became the first black performer to stay at the hotel: by this time Dorothy was a bonafide nightclub star, and her requests held some sway. So when Dottie told the Chase management that she wanted a suite at the hotel, her request was, however reluctantly, granted.
Taking a Stand
Despite these groundbreaking wins, Dorothy was still required to use the service elevator before and after each performance at the Chase. But with the help of her white accompanist, Nick Perito, Dorothy broke this barrier as well: after her second night’s performance, Perito defiantly took Dorothy through the hotel’s lobby to the main bank of elevators. And from there, Perito escorted Dorothy to her suite.
As Perito later recounted,
“Well, the management took a dim view of this. It was an awkward moment for them….They didn’t know how to quite tell me that this was inappropriate as far as they are concerned. And I was not giving them any indication that I would listen even if they intended to…They were treating me kind of with kid gloves because here I was just killing them all with kindness, assuming nothing was wrong. And certainly, it wasn’t wrong. But in their eyes, it was Mayday…
…here was this gorgeous woman performing magnificently in their room and not allowed, by their previous standards, to walk through the lobby. Well of course, we changed all that for two weeks.”
The Last Frontier
Perhaps the most infuriating of all Dorothy’s nightclub experiences occurred in 1953. Dorothy, now a nightclub star, was booked at the Last Frontier, a major hotel on the Vegas Strip. Dottie was permitted to stay at the hotel—something the management believed she should feel was a special privilege—but Dottie was told that she couldn’t be seen at, or use, the hotel’s pool.
Let’s take a minute to consider the situation: Dorothy Dandridge is engaged at the Last Frontier. She’s breaking all kinds of box office records, and making the hotel tons of money with her popular performances.
And yet hotel management wouldn’t let her use the pool!??
But as Harold Jovien, Dorothy’s agent at MCA, said about the situation at the Last Frontier:
“They gave her quite a rough time. Always you had to be careful though because Dorothy, at this point, didn’t take any crap. She reacted!”
Don't Mess with Dorothy Dandridge
And according to Jovien, Dorothy’s reaction to the pool situation was:
“…perhaps to rattle management…[she’d] indicate that she was going to take a swim. The hotel responded immediately, saying, ‘The pool’s under construction.’ And they’d put a sign out. And NOBODY could swim.”
Go Dorothy! What a classy, understated payback for the hotel’s ridiculous rules.
Jovien said that before the end of Dorothy’s engagement at the Last Frontier, the management actually did drain the pool to keep Dottie from swimming in it.
Is it any wonder, with situations such as this repeated in every city she performed in, that Dorothy dreamed of a film career? A film career that would allow her to stop the nightclub circuit?
When she was offered the lead role in Bright Road (1953), Dorothy Dandridge hoped she finally had her chance.
Bright Road: A Story of Love and Unity
Bright Road (1953) was based on a short story by Alabama school teacher, Mary Elizabeth Vroman. Vroman’s story, See How They Run, was about her own experiences in the classroom. As Vroman shared:
“It was a story I had to write. I merely thought—if people could know these children as I do, they would be certain to love them all. Love solves more problems than anger. That’s why this isn’t an angry story.”
Vroman wrote See How They Run in a mere twenty-four hours. The story appeared in the June 1951 issue of Ladies Home Journal, and in Ebony magazine the following year, before winning the prestigious Christopher Award.
When MGM purchased the rights to make See How They Run into a film, Vroman was hired to help write the screenplay, making her the first black member of the Screen Writers Guild.
Bright Road: A Relatable Film
Dorothy Dandridge shared Vroman’s thoughts on the short story that became Bright Road, and believed that its message of love would promote unity and soften hearts towards ending segregation. As Dorothy says in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“I was profoundly fond of the theme—a picture in which there was no violence, no rape, no lynching, no burning cross—rather a theme which showed that beneath any color skin, people were simply people. I had the feeling themes like this might do more real good than the more hard-hitting protest pictures–I wanted any white girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, ‘Why, this schoolteacher could be me.’”
Critics of Bright Road said it’s message was too much of a soft touch. But Dorothy Dandridge recognized the film as an opportunity for both her career as an actress, and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Changes at MGM
If you remember from my last Esther Williams article, as the 1950s began, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer found his power at the studio diminishing. Under Dore Schary’s influence, particularly after Schary took over control of production in 1951, films at MGM began to change: big budget, musical spectaculars were phasing out to make room for more lower budget “message pictures.”
Schary’s “message pictures” often addressed riskier subject matter. But as low budget features, these films wouldn’t break the bank if they failed. On the flip side, if these films succeeded, they could enhance MGM’s reputation, and establish the studio as a moral arbiter.
Bright Road, at a budget of $490,000, was one of these low budget “message” films. As Harry Belafonte wrote in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“Bright Road was made on the quick and cheap…”
Schary assigned a young B movie director to the film, Louis B. Mayer’s nephew, Gerald Mayer, which helped keep costs down. The casting of Harry Belafonte, a complete newcomer to Hollywood and appearing in his first film role, was also inexpensive. And Dorothy, a big name in clubs but not yet in films, was also budget casting at $1500 a week.
Dorothy simultaneously helped with the film’s budget and got her sister work when, thanks to Dorothy’s influence, Vivian Dandridge was cast in a bit role as a disgruntled teacher—she’s the one who doesn’t want C.T. to be added to the lunch list. Vivian was also hired as Dorothy’s hairdresser.
Dorothy Dandridge: A Natural
Gerald Mayer adored working with Dottie, who, even in her first starring film role, was already a pro. Mayer also found that Dottie was the perfect lady:
“She certainly was one of the most absolutely ladylike people I ever met. She never boasted about how good she was, she never complained. I think she was probably shy. But it didn’t show up. If you would meet her, she was pleasant and personable with great charm. The shyness didn’t show. But you know she was an actress, too.”
Mayer and Dottie became close during filming, and the relationship turned romantic.
An Unexpected Experience
Over the course of their year-long romance, Dottie and Mayer were no strangers to public disapproval when they went out together. But one experience at a restaurant turned out quite differently than either of them expected. As Gerald Mayer recalled:
“I took her to a restaurant called the Windsor. A really nice restaurant. There was a table across from us with about six or eight people, and they were looking at our table and then there’d be some laughter and then there’d be some more looking and then they’d be talking.”
Suddenly, one of the men at the table got up and began walking towards Dottie and Gerald. Preparing for the worst, Dottie and Gerald were completely surprised when the man instead said:
“‘Madam, I’d just like you to know you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.’”
Gerald Mayer remember the incident as:
“…kind of a nice story, It’s such a different story than what you might expect under those circumstances.”
Dorothy's Heartache Enhances Her Performance
Mayer could tell that for Dorothy Dandridge, the hardest part about filming Bright Road was the similarity in ages between the children her Jane Richards taught in the classroom, and Dorothy’s own little girl Lynn, now almost nine. Mayer observed that:
“The only thing I felt was locked inside was her daughter.”
While working with the children on set one day, Dorothy was overcome with emotion. Her thoughts turned to Lynn, and she began to cry. As she wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],
“…the simple act of looking at these lovely little boys and girls touched me to the core.”
A Rich Portrayal
The love Dorothy felt for the children in the film may have been heavy on her heart as she inevitably thought of Lynn, but there’s a richness to her performance because of it, an element of compassion and motherly love. It’s a critical aspect of Dorothy’s characterization of Jane Richards that another actress, one who had not experienced Dorothy’s heartache, couldn’t have brought the role. And it’s this element of Dottie’s performance that makes us believe Jane capable of so transforming the life of a troubled student.
This humanity that Dorothy brings to the role encouraged Bright Road audiences to reassess how they viewed the roles of black women, both onscreen and off. As Harry Belafonte so perfectly said [aff. link], Bright Road was:
“a human story with characters who just happened to be black…
…Here was a stunningly gorgeous black woman appearing before the camera not as a maid or a slave but as a teacher! Most of America had never seen a black woman, aside from Lena Horne, look both so beautiful and so dignified.”
The Beginning of Dorothy's Bright Road
Bright Road unfortunately was not a box office success. According to MGM studio records, the film earned only $179,000 at the box office in the US and Canada. But Dorothy’s reviews were excellent. Though MGM didn’t have a follow up leading role for her, the studio clearly wanted to keep Dottie around: the studio offered her $3000 to appear in a musical number—much as Lena Horne frequently did—in 1953’s Remains to Be Seen. It must have been disappointing for Dottie to go from a leading film role to a musical number in her next picture, but the financially generous offer was certainly evidence of Hollywood’s growing awareness of Dorothy Dandridge.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Harry Belafonte shared his tragically realistic viewpoint of what he and Dorothy could expect after the April 1953 release of Bright Road:
“Despite her great beauty and talent, Dorothy’s chances of jumping from this first starring role to another were slim. Those roles just didn’t exist, any more than black male leads did for me. Bright Road might mark our mutual screen debuts, but we sensed its soft little story wouldn’t get us anywhere. All too soon, we’d be out-of-work actors—black actors—again.”
After Bright Road, Harry went back to New York and his music career, and Dorothy Dandridge once again found herself singing in the saloons she so wished to break free from.
Dorothy Dandridge and Carmen Jones
But little did either Harry or Dottie know that by the end of that same year, Otto Preminger would sign with Twentieth Century Fox to direct a film version of Carmen Jones, a 1943 stage musical with hauntingly beautiful lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II, set to the music of Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen. The cast would be all black, and the lucky actor and actress to win the leading roles in the film were destined for stardom.
Harry and Dottie would get those coveted leading roles.
And with her vibrant, electrifying performance in Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman to achieve undebatable leading lady status.