Dorothy Dandridge in "The Decks Ran Red"
Dorothy Dandridge in "The Decks Ran Red"

I came across this publicity photo of Dorothy Dandridge by happenstance a few days ago, 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 probably there could be a DVD release soon. But I’ll get to that later.

The film’s premise for certain 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 by this time has hit a real slump despite the success, a few years earlier, of Carmen Jones for 20th Century Fox, and was under a long term contact with the studio. For a couple of years she didn’t work on any films and, in fact, turned down a few supporting roles that she rightly thought were too small for her. Even the studio had to admit that there was a real difficulty finding leading roles for her, let alone finding a leading man to play against her.

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 Feb HERE) which 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 her for any of their films and 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).

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 last 60’s, was very strict in what could not be shown or even implied in films such as “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races” or “white slavery”.  Black slavery was just fine, but showing white people as slaves was a real no-no for the longest. (I wonder why….)

However by the late 50’s the Production Code was steadily being weakened due to films that intentionally challenged it, such as From Here to Eternity and Anatomy of a Murder, that dealt with subject matter that had previously been forbidden, like adultery, or frank discussions of sex and 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, that 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 really expertly builds in suspense, as all of Stone’s films during his “thriller period” do. 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 Home Video’s Warner Archive DVD-on-demand specialty label.

It’s also shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies cable channel 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: