Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bright Road (1953)

Bright Road
(1953) is historic for giving Dorothy Dandridge her first lead role in a feature film. It is also historic as the film debut of Harry Belafonte. A little over a year later Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte would be reunited in Carmen Jones (1954), the film with which both would achieve stardom. At the same time Bright Road (1953) was a rarity for its time. In 1953 any time a film featured Black characters, it was more often than not a message film dealing with social issues. In contrast, Bright Road was a look at rural, African American life in which a young teacher attempts to get through to one of her students.

Bright Road centred on Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge), a teacher at the start of her career working at a Black rural grade school in Alabama. Among her students is C.T Young (Philip Hepburn), a student who is disinterested in school and has spent two years in every grade. The school's principal, Mr. Williams (Harry Belafonte), has little hope for Miss Richards's efforts.

Bright Road was based on the short story "See How They Run" by Mary Elizabeth Vroman, which was published in 1941 in Ladies Home Journal and re-published in Ebony in 1952. MGM bought the rights to the story, and hired Mary Elizabeth Vroman to help Emmet Lavery to write the screenplay. As a result, she became the first Black woman to become a member of the Screen Writers Guild. The movie's working title was See How They Run, after the short story upon which it was based, but it was changed to avoid conflict with a stage play of the same name.  Bright Road was produced on a budget of only $377,000. MGM also gave the movie a brief 19-day shooting schedule.

While Bright Road was made quickly and on little money, the movie had quite a bit of talent working on it. Its cinematographer was none other than Alfred Gilks, who had shot such films as Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and An American in Paris (1951). It was edited by Joseph Dervin, who was later nominated for several Emmys for his work on such shows The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Kung Fu, and won an Emmy for The Eleventh Hour. The composer for Bright Road was David Rose, who later served as the composer on the films Operation Petticoat (1959) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960), as well as the TV series Bonanza. He also composed the instrumental "The Stripper," which went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The director for Bright Road was Gerald Mayer, who found himself directing B-movies such as Dial 1119 (1950) and The Sellout (1952) despite, or perhaps because, he was the nephew of MGM Louis B. Mayer. He later did a good deal of work in television, on shows from Perry Mason to Lou Grant.

Of course, Bright Road would give Dorothy Dandridge her first starring role. She had been working in feature films since 1940 when she appeared in the race film Four Shall Die (1940). Throughout the Forties she generally appeared in bit parts in films, but by the Fifties her career had begun to improve. In 1951 she appeared as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba in Tarzan's Peril and a major role in The Harlem Globetrotters. While the role of teacher Jane Richards was less glamorous than many she would play, Dorothy Dandridge was very happy to appear in Bright Road. In the book Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy by Dorothy Dandridge and Earl Conrad, she expressed her pleasure about a movie with  "...a theme which showed that beneath any colour skin, people were simply people. I had a feeling that themes like this might do more real good than the more hard-hitting protest pictures. I wanted any black 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.'"

Both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte were known as singers, and both were given the opportunity to sing in Bright Road. It is early in the film that Mr. Belafonte sings "Suzanne (Every Night When the Sun Goes Down)." Later in the film Miss Dandridge sings the words to the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem "The Princess: Sweet and Low." Curiously, this marks one of the few times movies audiences got to hear Dorothy Dandridge's actual singing voice. Although she was known for her nightclub act, in many of her later films (including Carmen Jones) her voice was dubbed.

Bright Road received general positive, if not particularly remarkable, reviews upon its release. The movie won an Urban League award for "contribution towards interracial cooperation," as well as a George Washington Institute Merit Plaque. Unfortunately, while Bright Road was unlike any other movie out at the time and had received good notices, it did not do well at the box office. In the United States and Canada, it only earned  $179,000 at the box office. This meant it lost $263,000. Fortunately, interest in the film picked up after Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte had achieved stardom.

Today Bright Road might seem like a simple story of a teacher's attempt to reach a student, but at the time it was revolutionary for that very fact. Most movies featuring Black characters at the time were centred around racial conflict. As a story centred around a rural African American life was unique for the era, much as it is even now. While it is a much quieter film, in many ways Bright Road is as groundbreaking as such movies as No Way Out (1950) and Shadows (1959).

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