1958’s Tamango was one of Dorothy Dandridge’s last films. Controversial for its time because of the interracial romance and onscreen kiss between Dorothy and co-star Curd Jurgens, the theatrical release of Tamango was delayed and extremely limited in the United States.
Dorothy delivered yet another beautiful performance in the film, proving once again that she was an actress of considerable range. But in many ways, Tamango solidified Dorothy’s descent from the great stardom and acclaim she had garnered with Carmen Jones (1954) just four years earlier.
Only six years after the release of Tamango in the US, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her apartment. She was 42 years old.
The Tragic Last Years of Dorothy Dandridge
Sadly, Dottie’s last years were full of tragedy: an abusive marriage to a husband who used Dorothy for her fame and money; a career decline that her several comeback attempts couldn’t reverse; the disappearance of Dorothy’s sister Vivian; bankruptcy; pill and alcohol addiction; and the confinement of her daughter Lynn to a state institution overwhelmed this woman who’d always been a survivor. The convergence of all these tragedies led Dorothy to feel, in her own words,
“Very, very tired.”
If you missed Tamango (1958) on Turner Classic Movies, you can purchase this avant-garde film here on Amazon here [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
Tamango: The Plot
Set in 1820, after France abolished slavery at home and in its colonies, Tamango begins off the coast of New Guinea. Renegade Captain Reiker (Curd Jurgens) has just purchased a large number of slaves from a local chief.
The slaves board Reiker’s ship for the long voyage to Cuba, where Reiker plans to sell them. But it quickly becomes apparent that it won’t be an easy voyage. This is a spirited group, many of whom refuse to accept their new status as slaves. One youth in particular, whom Reiker knows will sell for a very good price in Cuba, due to his handsome face, health, and strength, is the clear leader of the descenters.
His name is Tamango.
Tamango: A Leader with a Fighting Spirit
Tamango (Alex Cressan) was a warrior before he was captured and sold to Reiker. His fighting spirit stays with him throughout the voyage, despite the warnings of Aiche (Dorothy Dandridge), Reiker’s slave and mistress. As Aiche tells Tamango after Reiker punishes him for attempting to start a slave revolt:
“A slave can never fight back, and the sooner you learn that the better.”
It’s clear that at one point, Aiche shared Tamango’s fighting spirit, but years of slavery and sexual abuse by her masters have broken that spirit.
Still, Tamango won’t listen. He spits in Aiche’s face before calling her “white man’s trash.”
Aiche doesn’t belong to the white man’s world. But she doesn’t belong to the world of the slaves either. In this moment of foreshadowing, as she reels from Tamango’s cruel words, we know that before the end of the film, Aiche will have to choose where her allegiance lies.
One night during a storm, a particularly cruel man on Reiker’s crew goes below deck among the slaves. In the midst of the tossing of the storm, he discovers the knife that Tamango snuck down to the slave quarters to secretly file through the chains that bind him and the other slaves.
Reiker’s man picks a fight with one of Tamango’s friends, and Tamango comes to his defense. The fight escalates, and Tamango kills Reiker’s man. There’s nowhere to hide the body, and the slaves will undoubtedly be punished when the man’s body is found by the white crew.
But Aiche tells Tamango of a loose floor board they can hide the body under. Rieker will think his man fell overboard during the storm. It’s a solidarity-building experience for the slaves, and Aiche’s help gives Tamango hope that she will assist them in getting the key needed to access Reiker’s guns, an element necessary to the success of their revolt.
A Complicated Relationship
The relationship between Reiker and Aiche is complicated. Though he literally owns her, there seems to be a degree of real love and companionship–not just physical relations–between the two. Reiker senses that Aiche has become sympathetic to the situation of the slaves. He also senses a revolt coming.
When Aiche will not tell him what she knows of Tamango’s plan, Reiker is hurt, and sends her down to live among the slaves. This confirms for Aiche that Reiker will never marry her, no matter how deep his feelings for her are.
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Tamango Moves the Revolt Forward
The revolt moves forward, and officially begins. Tamango and his men acquire a fair amount of guns, even though Aiche–who, after her brief time among the slaves was brought back up to Reiker’s quarters–can’t bring herself to help them get the key.
At first, it seems that Tamango’s revolt will be successful. But things turn against the slaves, and they must retreat below deck to avoid the fire of Reiker’s men.
At this point, Tamango and his people are effectively sitting ducks. But they’ve got one bargaining chip: Aiche, who they capture and take below to slave quarters with them. Tamango’s revolt still has a chance at success if Reiker’s love for Aiche is stronger than his fear of what the slaves will do if the revolt succeeds.
It’s a stalemate between the white crew above deck and the slaves below until Reiker’s men convince him that this is a “them or us” situation: if Reiker doesn’t kill the slaves, sacrificing Aiche in the process, the slaves will kill the white crew. Reiker reluctantly loads a cannon with grapeshot, and shoots it below deck.
The slaves can sense the end is near. Just before the explosion, Tamango tells Aiche she is free to return above deck and live, if she desires.
Aiche begins making her way above deck. But she’s overcome by the emotion of the song the slaves sing as they bravely await death.
Aiche chooses to stay with the slaves. She’s finally found the camaraderie and sense of belonging she’s always longed for. Aiche joins in singing the haunting tune just before the cannon booms. The singing immediately stops.
All is quiet below deck.
Aiche, Tamango, and his people have made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. But it’s a victorious death, for as Tamango tells his friends just before they sacrifice their lives:
“Even if we die, we’ll win, because they can sell living men, but you can’t sell dead ones. Me? They won’t sell me.”
And that’s the end of the film.
Superstardom and a (Disappointing) Contract
If you remember from my article on Carmen Jones (1954), in 1955, after the great success of Carmen Jones, Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck offered Dottie a dream three-year-contract. She would earn $75,000 a film to start, and $125,000 by the final film. As a non-exclusive contract, Dorothy could continue with her nightclub engagements, or even make films at other studios if she desired. Perhaps best of all, the contract guaranteed that her name would appear above the title of each film she made for Zanuck. It was an unprecedented contract for a black actress.
Dorothy interpreted the contract to mean that she would be playing leading roles, and that the leading roles she’d be offered would be black characters. After proving herself more than capable of carrying a film with her performance in Carmen Jones, and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Dorothy’s interpretation of the contract was both warranted and logical.
But Darryl Zanuck had other ideas…
Zanuck wasn’t necessarily against Dottie playing leading roles or black characters, but he also wasn’t going to search for, or create, these types of vehicles for her. In Zanuck’s mind, Dorothy’s new contract was satisfied by offering her featured roles as various “exotic” beauties. These roles had previously been played by white actresses, so this was still new ground Zanuck was breaking…
But how could Dottie not be terribly disappointed that these were the types of parts Zanuck had in mind for her?
The Beginning of the End
Worse still, the first “exotic” beauty role Zanuck offered Dorothy after Carmen Jones was that of an Asian concubine slave in The King and I (1956).
Dorothy chaffed at being offered the role of a slave. And Otto Preminger, not just Dorothy’s clandestine romance at this point, but also the guiding force of her career, advised her to turn it down. As Otto saw it, Dorothy should accept nothing but the best, and a featured role in any film, no matter how prestigious, just didn’t cut it.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision for Dorothy to make. After debating back and fourth with herself on the issue, Dorothy ultimately decided to trust Otto: she turned down the role.
It was a decision she came to regret. As Dorothy wrote in her autobiography [aff. link]
“It was a role I should have played, I now believe…my decline may have dated from that decision.
Artistically I started going downhill from that moment. My decision not to play Tuptim [the role] upset my contract….There is a subtle line you have to walk in business relations. Make one wrong move and you can be sent spinning in wrong directions for a long time thereafter, even forever after…
With that decision and with the steps that followed, I upset several years of work. Those were the years when I should have been playing in one big picture after another, whether starring or secondary roles, but I should have been performing regularly.”
A Three Year Screen Absence
A full three years passed between Carmen Jones (1954) and Dorothy’s next film, 1957’s Island in the Sun.
During those three years, it was back to the nightclubs, or “saloons,” as Dorothy called the club scene she so hated. There was still the Oscar nomination, the Cannes Film Festival, and her belief that the relationship with Otto Preminger was on the road to marriage. But it wasn’t long before Dottie realized that the high point of her career was over.
Effects of Stardom
The dizzying degree of Dottie’s stardom directly following the success of Carmen Jones (1954) had lasting consequences. One of these consequences was the beginning of Dorothy’s use of prescription pills. Sister Vivian later shared that Dorothy’s pill habit began at the time of her Oscar nomination. According to Vivian, the pills helped Dorothy deal with the anxieties that came with this great achievement. But Dottie soon became reliant on the tranquilizer Miltown.
And then, not long after the 1955 Oscars, during Dorothy’s singing engagement at the Empire Room in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, she and Vivian had an argument over money, possibly about a loan Vivian wished to take from Dottie. The argument unfortunately led to an estrangement between the two sisters, and Dorothy lost her closest confidant.
Vivian quite literally disappeared from her life.
At one point, Dottie even hired a private detective to find her sister, but Vivian, living under various aliases in a few different countries over the years, could not be found. In her autobiography, Dorothy tragically commented on her sister’s disappearance: [aff. link]
“I had a heartache over my sister Vivian. She had been married twice, and each marriage had failed. At the time of the Carmen Jones premiere, she was in New York with me, but [shortly] after that I never heard from her again. The last I heard she was in Southern France…I phoned, wrote, reached people who knew her. She was nowhere. I have not heard from her yet. Nobody has.”
Dorothy never saw her sister again. According to Dorothy’s good friend and former sister-in-law Geri Nicholas Branton, next to Lynn, losing Vivian was the great tragedy of Dottie’s life.
The End of a Romance
By the fall of 1956 when Dorothy signed on to star in Tamango, she was increasingly dependent on prescription pills and therapy to cope with the disappointing path her career had taken. During this period, Dorothy met with her therapist upwards of five times a week. On top of the career despondency, Dorothy realized that her relationship with Otto Preminger would not result in marriage. It was yet another devastating blow for Dorothy:
“I added a new dimension of failure when I grasped that Otto was yet another confrontation with a white man who would not follow through.”
The man who had molded her stardom with Carmen Jones, who Dottie trusted to guide her career, who “put champagne in her life,” by advising Dorothy to accept nothing but the best, would not give her the marriage and home life she so craved.
Surprisingly, given the significance of their relationship in Dottie’s life, Preminger’s mention of Dorothy in his autobiography is nothing more than that she was an actress he made two films with, and maybe saw a couple times through the years.
Tamango Filming Begins
By the time Tamango began filming in Nice during the spring of 1957, Dorothy had lost her enthusiasm for the project. Though a slave role, she initially saw great opportunity for character development. But now the only excitement she could find for the film was completely practical:
“The picture ceased to interest me, but it had to be made. I would be able to get out of saloon singing forever, I told myself.”
To compound matters, while sailing to France to begin filming, Dorothy read the recently revised script, only to find that it was very different from the one she had approved. Now, the focus of the film was the slave/master romance, which Dottie believed cheapened the story and took attention away from the slave revolt. Ultimately, she used her star power to get the script revised yet again, putting the focus back on the revolt.
Tamango & Dottie's Underappreicated Performance
The revised script, lavish attention of the European press, and a brief romance with co-star Curd Jurgens, were just what Dorothy needed. She received the full star treatment during filming of Tamango, including a chauffeur, maid, hairdresser, and $125,000 compensation for her work on the film.
Dottie’s performance as Aiche, so different from any other character she had ever portrayed, underscored yet again the great range Dorothy possessed as an actress. We can feel Aiche’s longing to fit in with one of the the two worlds she’s stuck between. We sympathize with Aiche’s once strong but now broken spirit that’s weathered so much abuse over the years as she’s been sold from one master to another.
Though Tamango was a great success in Europe, the interracial love scenes proved too daring for American film distributors. Tamango was not shown in the US until August 1959, and then only in very limited release. The film unfortunately did very little for Dorothy’s career.
Carmen Jones (1954) co-star Brock Peters beleived Tamango was indicative of the downward projection of Dottie’s film career:
“When she did that one, I knew she was going down.”
By the US release of Tamango, Dorothy’s personal life had also reached new lows as she tried to make her second marriage work.
Dorothy and Jack Denison
Dorothy met Jack Denison—the white man she married in 1959—back in 1955 while performing at the Riviera in Las Vegas, where Denison was maitre d’. At the time, Denison went to great lengths to convince Dorothy that he was much more than a maitre d’. Jack told Dorothy that he held interests in various Vegas casinos, and had tons of money stashed away. In an interview with Jet before their marriage, Denison went so far as to say that when he and Dorothy first met, he was Vice President of the Riviera. It was a position he never held anywhere, and was typical of the many lies Jack told Dorothy throughout their courtship and marriage.
Jack Denison took advantage of Dorothy’s weakened emotional state following her breakup with Otto Preminger, and inserted himself into her life. Depressed over her career, Dottie eventually convinced herself that Denison could provide her with the steady home life she craved, and the financial stability that would allow her to work only if she desired.
Dottie’s friends couldn’t understand her interest in Jack, or the growing seriousness of their relationship. Gerald Mayer, Dorothy’s former flame and director of Bright Road (1953), described Jack Denison as:
“almost a cliché of a slick smooth maitre d’ who would smile a lot and would say complimentary meaningless things. There was something really not likable about him despite his being good looking.”
Geri Nicholas Branton believed it was a self-destructive streak that led Dottie to marry Jack on June 23, 1959. Geri’s analysis seems accurate, for Dorothy had to sedate herself to get through the wedding. She even fell asleep at the dinner reception following the ceremony.
On their honeymoon, any remaining illusions Dorothy had that Jack Denison would be a provider were squashed when Denison informed her that he was broke. Despite all the savings she’d just invested in the opening of Jack’s new restaurant in Hollywood, Denison told Dorothy that if she didn’t give him more money, his place would go under.
Denison also informed Dorothy that he needed her to start performing at his restaurant…ASAP.
The man Dorothy married not only wanted to take her money, he also wanted to force her back into the life she believed he would rescue her from.
Once again, Dorothy Dandridge found herself singing in the “saloons.” Her husband’s saloon, no less.
But for the first time, Dorothy’s name didn’t bring the customers in. It was a terrible blow to her confidence as a performer, and further hurt her reputation in Hollywood. Denison’s restaurant went under, and Dorothy’s pill and alcohol cycle worsened. Only now she had a husband to support and his debts to pay. When Denison became habitually abusive, Dorothy finally filed for divorce in 1962.
The Blows Keep Coming
It seems impossible, but the blows to Dorothy Dandridge kept coming after her divorce from Jack Denison.
Having sunk all her savings into Denison’s restaurant, Dorothy next discovered that the investments she planned to retire on were all a scam. Jerry Rosenthal and Sam Norton, the same attorneys who swindled Doris Day out of her lifelong earnings with their fraudulent oil well scheme, swindled Dorothy Dandrige as well.
Dorothy estimated that she lost $150,000 in bad investments with Rosenthal and Norton, about the equivalent of $1.3 million in 2020.
Then the government claimed Dorothy owed back taxes.
Then Dorothy’s home was foreclosed on after she got too far behind on mortgage payments.
In March of 1963, Dorothy filed for bankruptcy.
Dorothy's Greatest Hurt
But the most difficult of Dorothy’s tragedies occurred the day after bankruptcy court: Helen Calhoun, the woman who had cared for Dorothy’s daughter Lynn over the past decade, suddenly informed Dorothy that Lynn would be returned to her. Helen would no longer care for the now teenaged Lynn. With Helen’s unexpected announcement, in Dorothy’s own words,
“the whole world tumbled around my head.”
After ten years of never missing a payment to Helen Calhoun, Dorothy had recently missed two. And apparently that was all it took.
Dorothy’s worst fear came true when Lynn, now age nineteen, was ruled a danger to herself and others by the state of California. She was sent to live at Camarillo State Hospital (CAM), a state psychiatric institution. Dorothy had vowed her daughter would never be put in a state institution, but now she didn’t have the means to provide for Lynn’s care in any other way.
A Fighter to the End
Despite the seemingly never ending tragedies and hardships, Dorothy Dandridge miraculously still had a bit of her fighting spirit left.
Dottie picked herself up, and tried for another career comeback. As Dorothy assessed her financial situation in her autobiography [ aff. link],
“It was only a million bucks, I told myself, so go get another.”
It’s possible Dorothy Dandridge’s final try at a career comeback would have succeeded. But we’ll never know.
On September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her apartment by her manager, Earl Mills. She was 42 years old.
Initially it was reported that Dorothy’s death was caused by an embolism in her right foot, the result of a sprained ankle Dorothy sustained just days before her passing. But in November 1965, the LA County Chief Medical Examiner concluded that the cause of death was an overdose of Tofranil, a drug used to treat psychiatric depression.
An independent team of psychiatrists led an investigation into whether the overdose was suicide or accidental. The team questioned Dottie’s friends and family about her emotional health in the days before her death, and concluded that the overdose was a “probable accident.”
The Death of Dorothy Dandridge: Was it Suicide?
Despite the fact that Dorothy left a handwritten note with her manager Earl Mills, entitled “To Whomever Discovers Me After Death—Important,” with instructions for what do with Dorothy’s body and money in the case of her death, Mills maintained that Dorothy’s death was not a suicide. Earl Mills believed Dorothy had too much to look forward to with her promising comeback: on the day of her death, Dorothy had been preparing for her latest series of nightclub bookings, which Mills insisted she was enthusiastic about.
But Dorothy’s good friend Geri Nicholas Branton was confident that Dorothy’s death was a suicide:
“Dorothy had been trying to kill herself for a long time. I know it was a suicide. She had talked of it many times….I always listen to that when people—from their gut—say ‘I’m tired.’ It’s a different thing than ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I need some sleep.’ No. It’s ‘I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of going on. I give up.’ And that happened with Dottie…”
Geri Nicholas Branton was the best friend Dorothy Dandridge ever had. No one, with perhaps the exception of her sister Vivian, knew Dottie better. I trust, however sadly, Geri’s analysis of Dorothy’s death.
The Beautiful Legacy of Dorothy Dandridge
The life of Dorothy Dandridge was full of the highest of highs, and lowest of lows. As a talented and beautiful black woman during one of Hollywood’s most restrictive eras, Dorothy remarkably broke through the prejudice and racism of the time to a previously unheard of degree. She became the first black leading lady, proving that black actresses could carry films, and should be given the opportunities to do so. Black actresses today continue to benefit from—and expound up—Dorothy’s trailblazing path.
Dorothy’s career accomplishments alone were great contributions to civil rights and the fight for equality, but towards the end of her life, Dorothy became directly involved with the Civil Rights Movement. In May of 1963, Dottie spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights rally at Wrigley Field. I can’t help but wonder what other tremendous contributions Dorothy would have made to the Civil Rights Movement had she stayed with us longer.
Dorothy Dandridge left this world much too soon. But her pure heart and pioneering achievements will never be forgotten.
More Dorothy Dandridge
That wraps up my series on Dorothy Dandridge.
Read the rest of my Dorothy Dandridge series in the articles below:
Dorothy Dandridge: The Trailblazer
Dorothy Dandridge: Bright Road (1953) & Nightclubs
Carmen Jones (1954) and Dorothy Dandridge
Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King with Foster Hirsch