Dorothy Dandridge @ 100: “The Island in the Sun” – Blog


by Claudio Alves

“The Island in the Sun” | © 20th Century Fox

After carmen jones proved a financial triumph and earned Dorothy Dandridge a breakthrough Best Actress nomination, 20th Century Fox signed her to a three-movie deal. As Baby Clyde mentioned in the first part of this centenary, Darryl F. Zanuck has been invested in Dandridge’s success, planning to make him an on-screen icon like no other black performer in Hollywood history so far. Unfortunately, almost every project failed, including a remake of The blue angel it would have seen Dandridge take on the starring role of Marlene Dietrich. Even so, while she was away from the big screen, her fame grew.

Dandridge’s profile was so high that she became the target of Confidential magazine’s defamatory articles. The former Carmen Jones was one of the few stars to testify against the publication in a series of lawsuits that led to its downfall. In 1957, Dorothy Dandridge’s victory in court coincided with her return to the big screen. island in the sun was his first film in three years…

Zanuck bought the rights to Alec Waugh’s book before it was even published, considering a island in the sun film as early as 1955. The homonymous novel concerns race relations in a former British colony, a fictional location somewhere in the West Indies. It involves an assortment of characters from various races whose stories juxtapose each other, as well as instances of interracial romance. The potential for heightened drama and sprawling vistas made it an appealing cinematic prospect, perfect for a star-studded cast shot in a brightly colored cinemascope. Additionally, breaking social taboos on miscegenation was to cause controversy with the American public, hopefully increasing ticket sales through the controversy.

The movie mogul’s faith in the project was so unshakable that when Zanuck decided to leave Fox and return to producing his films, the rights to the book were part of the deal. island in the sun would be one of the main films made by Darryl F. Zanuck Productions, with guaranteed distribution by 20th Century Fox. Robert Rossen was signed to direct and the budget grew to an impressive three million dollars. Ensuring a return on investment was imperative, the casting of the image then became a delicate matter on which much depended. James Mason is first introduced as Maxwell Fleury, a plantation owner with a troubled marriage and political aspirations, not to mention a host of secrets hidden in the closet of his family heritage.

Next is Joan Fontaine as Mavis Norman, daughter of one of the region’s oldest and wealthiest clans, whose love for Harry Belafonte’s David Boyeur causes much melodrama. He’s a black politician turned beloved leader for the outcasts, a paragon in his island community, and the closest the film has come to a moral center. Many other players walk around, including Joan Collins as Maxwell’s sister and Diana Wynyard as a mother. A pre-Ben Hur Stephen Boyd plays Alexis Carrington’s current future boyfriend, while Michael Rennie is a war veteran in an affair with Maxwell’s wife, played by a fragile-looking Patricia Owens.

You may have noticed that, among all these names, Dorothy Dandridge is nowhere to be found. Indeed, contrary to what her former director and lover Otto Preminger wanted, the role of the actress in island in the sun is relatively small, a supporting role from all angles. It’s Margot, a native of the island who works as a store clerk and shares a close friendship with David Boyeur. She is first seen arriving with him at a party thrown by the white elite to welcome the new governor. A vision in rich orange, it is dazzling to behold and immediately breathes new life into the film. The camera loves it like nobody’s business, with Freddie Young’s cinematography making it look better than ever.

And yet, it’s not all about stunning features, sleek suits, expert lenses and a good color story. Even pushed away from the frame, Dandridge is magnetic, a bottomless pit of charisma whose chemistry with Belafonte is positively explosive. island in the sun marks the third and final of their on-screen collaborations, the only one where they are not meant to convey the sparks of romance, but still does. It’s easy to imagine a different, more exciting movie where the two are paired up, but instead, Waugh’s story sees Belafonte playing love with Fontaine. At the same time, Dandridge is invited to convey the ardor of forbidden passion with John Justin’s Denis Archer, the Governor’s devoted assistant. Oh, also, he’s white.

This factor, more than any other element of the script or the demands of the role, is key to understanding why Zanuck wanted Dandridge to be his Margot. At the time, the star had gained a reputation for mostly dating white men, including the aforementioned Preminger. The Confidential magazine story even suggested an illicit alliance with an open-air white musician from some woods, highlighting how entangled Dandridge’s public persona had become in his tabloid-ready relationships, sex life and their perceived racial preferences. So if studio executives planned to sell island in the sun based on the interracial romance scandal, Dandridge was a logical name to splash in the credits, posters and magazines.

In other words, although imperceptible to most modern viewers, the presence of the actress in this real soap opera is akin to a stuntman’s feat. The bet paid off for Zanuck. Despite poor reviews and censorship issues, island in the sun was a commercial success, finishing as the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1957 at the US box office. For his part, Dandridge hated the final product and often spoke negatively about the manufacturing experience. island in the sun. There is not much to say to contradict the assessment of the actress. Beyond gorgeous visuals and a melodious soundtrack, the film is a stiff affair, dripping with unconvincing exchanges while lacking the sentimental pyrotechnics its premise promises. It also doesn’t have any eros to speak of, but you can probably blame the production code for that.

Maybe Sirk would have blackmailed the material, but Rossen falls short. Surprisingly, neither do most of its actors, regardless of their terrific filmographies. The big exception is Dandridge, who, regardless of his feelings for the project, negotiates a delicate balance between star power and barely sketched characterization, hints of interiority dancing with bright smiles and graceful poses. Although the plot insists on foregrounding the white characters, reducing the black islanders to an exotic setting, every time Margot enters the frame, the very essence of the film seems to shift around its gravitational pull.

Intermittently, island in the sun becomes a Dorothy Dandridge vehicle, and only then is it truly worth watching.

If you want to see a film from this era that better showcases the star’s talents, look for John Berry Tamango from 1958. This transnational Euro-production details a failed revolt aboard a slave ship at the beginning of the 19th century. As island in the sun, it ran into problems with the Hays Code in the United States and was further banned from showing in various West African colonies. However, unlike Zanuck’s dirge, Dandridge can actually do something in the film. She plays Aiché, the enslaved mistress of the Dutch captain whose shifting alliances pose an exceptional challenge. The moment when this woman makes her final and fateful choice is perhaps the pinnacle of Dandridge’s work as a dramatic actress.

you can rent island in the sun on many platforms. If you are curious to know Tamangoit streams on The Film Detective and Fandor.

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