Back to IndieWire

‘The Decks Ran Red’ and Dorothy Dandridge’s Final Years as an Actress

'The Decks Ran Red' and Dorothy Dandridge's Final Years as an Actress

I came across this publicity photo of Dorothy Dandridge by happenstance, which was obviously made during the golden age of studio publicity
photos. There was no caption for the photo other than her name, but judging
from how she’s (ahem..) dressed and
the nautical looking door, it was easy to guess what film it’s from.

It’s from one of her more interesting and oddest films, and definitely worth a couple of words, which I shall say right here.

It’s a publicity still from her 1958 MGM suspense thriller “The
Decks Ran Red,” starring, along with Dandridge, James Mason, Broderick Crawford, Stuart Whitman and Joel Fluellen. To date, it’s never been available on DVD and is rarely
seen, if at all, but there could be a DVD release soon. But I’ll get
to that later.

The film’s premise is a rather odd one in
which Mason plays the newly commissioned captain of a freighter docked in New Zealand
(the film was actually shot in California) about to take off on its next voyage. Among his crew
are two scuzzy thugs (Crawford and Whitman) who have come up with a bizarre
scheme to kill the entire crew and the captain and take
over the ship which they intend to sell off for a fortune.

Things get complicated however when the ship‘s cook (Fluellen)
arrives with his Maori wife played by Dandridge who turns out to be a very flirtatious
woman, to say the least, with a penchant for wearing very tight clothes.

Needless to say, she immediately attracts the attention of
the captain and the entire crew who lustfully watch her every move,  which she loves. Crawford and Whitman take advantage of her
presence since everyone is too distracted, eyeballing her curves to notice what they’re
up to.

Meanwhile, both Mason and Whitman start falling in love
with her as Fluellen gets increasingly incensed with his wife’s antics, who is obviously bored with him and her life as a cook’s wife, and revels in the attention
that she’s getting from the other men.

It all leads to a suspenseful action climax; and you
probably can guess how it’s going to turn out, although that doesn’t make it any less
entertaining, as there are some genuine surprises along the way.

Dandridge’s career at this time had hit a real slump, despite the success, a few years earlier, of Carmen Jones for Fox.

She eventually had a significant role in Fox’s “Island in the Sun” and then she went off
to France to act in the low budget independent slave revolt film “Tamango” (which I wrote about in here) a film that was barely released in the U.S.

The same year, however, she was cast as the only female
lead in “Decks” for MGM, written and directed by Andrew Stone, a truly underrated director who, during the 50’s to early
60’s, made a slew of solid suspense thrillers that are real gems, such as “The Steel Trap,” “Highway 301, “Julie” and
the really nutty, but incredibly effective “Cry Terror.”

Stone also directed the Fox 1942 musical “Stormy Weather” with Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles”
Robinson, and the spectacular dancing team of Fayard and Harold Nicholas,
who, at the time the film was made, was married to Dandridge.

“Decks,” at the time it was released, was considered to be
a major comeback for Dandridge, but, unfortunately it wasn’t the box office hit
as expected and neither was her next film, Otto Preminger’s film
version of “Porgy and Bess.”

After the failure of both films, Fox saw no future in Dandridge as a star for the studio, and they released her from her contract. She only made one last feature film, in 1960,
the British-produced thriller “Malaga” (which has never been available in any kind of video format, although you can see in
four parts on YouTube here). She was to appear in French filmmaker Christian-Jaque’s “Marco Polo” in 1962, but the production ran out of money, and was never completed. She would die 5 years later.

But it’s interesting to note that, in “Decks,” as she was in “Island in the Sun” and “Malaga,” although she is the object of desire, nothing ever
happens between her and her romantic leading men.

The Motion
Picture Production Code, which was in force from 1934 to the
late 60’s, was very strict on what could not be shown or even implied in films; for example, sexual relationships between the
white and black characters or what they deemed “white slavery” were a real no-no. Although black slavery was just fine of course (I wonder why).

However, by the late 50’s the Production Code was steadily
being weakened thanks to films that intentionally challenged it, such as “From Here to Eternity” and “Anatomy of a Murder,” which that dealt with
subject matter that had previously been forbidden, like adultery, or frank
discussions of sex, as well as depictions of violent crimes.

But, of course, segregation was in full effect in the South, and studios were fully aware that it didn’t take a lot to get Southern theater
exhibitors to refuse to show a film, especially
one in which a white man showed any romantic interest in a black woman (or a
black man and a white woman). And, most likely, a number of Southern theaters still
refused to show “Decks,” which probably accounted for its less then stellar box
office performance.

And some could criticize the film for objectifying Dandridge
and black women; but remember, again, it was made in 1958, during a less than PC time (as if there’s no objectifying of
black women that goes on today). And besides, name me another film made during
that time where a black woman is presented as an object of beauty and desire?

It’s a neat, trim (running just under 90 minutes) little
thriller that expertly builds on suspense, as all of director Stone’s films did, during his “thriller
period.” Unfortunately, it’s not yet available on DVD, but since it is an
older MGM film, it will eventually come out one day on Warner’s Archive DVD-on-demand specialty label.

It’s also shown occasionally on Turner Classic
Movies, so keep an eye out for it.

It’s no major classic, but it’s definitely a film that’s
well worth seeing, especially for a little seen or known Dorothy Dandridge film.

Here’s the trailer:

This Article is related to: Features and tagged