Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #216
Though producer Sol Lesser declined to sign Marilyn
Monroe as Jane, he did cast Dorothy Dandridge, known as “the black Marilyn
Monroe” as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba tribe, in “Tarzan’s Peril” (1951),
starring Lex Barker as the ape man.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio
on November 9, 1922, to minister and cabinet-maker Cyril Dandridge and
wife Ruby, who left Cyril before Dorothy’s birth, eventually moving to
Hollywood with daughters Dorothy and Vivian. Billing the girls as the Wonder
Sisters, Ruby garnered singing roles and bit parts in films for her daughters.
They also teamed with schoolmate Etta Jones (not the well-known jazz singer)
to become the Dandridge Sisters; among their credits was the Marx Brothers’
“A Day at the Races” (1937).
Seeking stardom, Dorothy went solo to become a popular,
talented nightclub singer. In 1942, she married dancer Harold Nicholas
of the famed Nicholas Brothers, but their only child, daughter Harolyn,
was born severely brain-damaged, a crushing blow to Dorothy. Following
a divorce, Dandridge returned to the screen as Queen Melmendi in "Tarzan’s
Peril," her first major role. As the kidnapped African queen, Dandridge
overshadowed Virginia Huston, who played Tarzan’s mate Jane in the film.
The role (and her sexy wardrobe) caught Hollywood’s
attention, and in 1953 she won her first lead in MGM’s “Bright Road,” based
on the story “See How They Run,” about an elementary school teacher determined
to transform a problem student. The picture marked Harry Belafonte’s film
debut; he and Dandridge re-teamed the following year in “Carmen Jones,”
a remake of the Bizet opera with an all-black cast.
The highlight of Dandridge’s career came when she the
first black actress nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, for “Carmen
Jones”; the subsequent acclaim led to a “Life” magazine cover, also a first
for a black actress.
Dandridge’s life took another bad turn following her
1959 marriage to restauranteur Jack Dennison; despite the fact that she
earned one quarter of a million dollars annually at her peak, bad investments
and swindlers bankrupted her, and she was no longer able to support Harolyn,
who was institutionalized.
Dandridge divorced Dennison and was striving for a
film comeback when she died on September 8, 1965. Her untimely death has
been attributed to a prescription drug overdose or an embolism from a broken
bone in her foot. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale,