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Bright Road (DVD Review)

28 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Dorothy Dandridge, Philip Hepburn, Harry Belafonte.

Louis B. Mayer wanted the studio of Andy Hardy to tell screen stories viewed through rose-colored glasses, while Dore Schary (who in 1951 became Mayer’s MGM successor — and not without rancor) preferred projects that reflected changing times and more expansive audience tastes. This not un-engaging footnote in African-American cinema is something of an oddball because it seems to combine both approaches, having been shot early in the latter’s Metro regime (late summer, 1952). An all-black cast (with one exception) gets plunked into a schoolroom that totally oozes rose-colored sensibilities — and the result was released a mere year before the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared separate schools for blacks and whites (read: blacks had lousy ones) unconstitutional. 

If the result seems aberrant even down to its presto 68-minute running time, the result is so benignly good-hearted — and (arguably) even light on the syrup — that it’s tough to come down on it very hard. What’s more, Bright Road has not insignificant historical value — though even here, one can get into an argument over whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. In her first major movie lead aside from an unlikely highly-billed role in 1951’s The Harlem Globetrotters, singer Dorothy Dandridge toned down her nightclub-ish glamour to become fully convincing as an uncertain but fully ladylike instructor running a rural schoolroom full of the usual assortment of class jesters (one named Booker T. Jones, though you put any thoughts of Green Onions out of your mind). And as the principal who dubiously never gets beyond asking his gorgeous new hire out for a soda, Harry Belafonte made his screen debut looking most uncomfortable in a strictly coat-and-tie role — except, perhaps, for in one scene where Dandridge discovers him singing and strumming an acoustic guitar in his office.

As a result, Road is another of those “might-have-been movies” because the two could have made one hot big-screen couple — an opportunity far more realized just one year later in Otto Preminger’s splashy Carmen Jones, for which Dandridge became history’s first black lead (as opposed to Hattie McDaniel’s Gone With the Wind supporting performance) to earn an Oscar nomination. In the ‘50s, Dandridge had wattage equal to what Marilyn, Grace and Audrey had — and should have been a superstar for the ages. Donald Bogle’s biography of her personal and career tragedies is a must, by the way  (and, of course, there’s the HBO Dandridge biopic that got Halle Berry both an Emmy and a Golden Globe).

As the classroom problem child her character struggles to reach and teach, Philip Hepburn (whose only feature this was) is quite persuasive as a daydreamer of untapped intelligence who’d just as soon keep his mind on the collection of bees he keeps as part of a home business making honey to help support his family. In one scene where bees invade the classroom, the kid knows what to do, and to my eye it looks real when we see his arm fully covered by the creatures in the manner they usually are in documentaries about beekeepers. I’d like to know how director Gerald Mayer (the L.B. nephew who ended up having a real-life affair with Dandridge) pulled this off — or what Hepburn thought of it. Or for that matter, whatever happened to the young actor.

One sorrowful subplot involving one student seems a bit shoehorned in, but otherwise, the story’s tightness (plus a musical score that seems just right) works in its favor. It’s regrettable that the picture didn’t have more to it, but it we’re talking a near-miracle that it got made in the first place — at which point, it then had to be marketed. The original ad art included on the cover of this on-demand DVD hints at the challenge: combining a huzzah from the Ladies Home Journal with a yummy shot of Dandridge in a slinky dress from her nightclub act (one impossible to reconcile with her schoolmarm role). In my hometown, Road played a formidable (and still-operative) downtown movie palace second-billed to the fairly sprightly Jane Powell-Busby Berkeley musical Small Town Girl (a pairing with more bang for the buck than anything currently on the marquee of the multiplex that’s about five minutes from where I live). But at the time, a rival theater just one street over was in the middle of a three-week run of House of Wax during the brief but frenzied initial 3-D craze — hardly a fair box office fight.

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