I used to wish for Lena Horne to get a day on TCM for Summer Under the Stars. But then I realized that she couldn’t; she had only starred in five films after all. And five just isn’t enough for a 24 hour marathon. But this year, TCM has granted my wish.
I’ve seen 12 of the 13 films TCM is airing, with Studio Visit (1946), a non fiction short film that I never would’ve known about if not for TCM, being the exception. Lena appeared in the majority of those films briefly, in musical numbers that would be cut in order to appease the censors down south. Madness, isn’t it?! I’ve written about this sad editing process before, and I don’t want to revisit it. I’m not all that interested in revisiting most of these films to tell the truth, and that’s because they’re so dull and lifeless. Exceptions include Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Words and Music (1948), and The Duchess of Idaho (1950). Lena’s brief appearances lend a lot of vitality and magic to movies like Swing Fever, Broadway Rhythm, Panama Hattie, and I Dood It. And then she’s gone; so is the magic.
Maybe you’re a stubborn completist like me, so you have to watch these movies. Or maybe you also happen to like the other actors so sitting through them is somewhat bearable…
But I have to recommend the three films where Lena actually portrays lead characters: The Duke Is Tops (1938), Cabin in the Sky, and Stormy Weather (both 1943).
Here’s what I wrote about Lena’s debut in The Duke Is Tops a few years ago when I first watched it:
Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper) and Ethel Andrews (Horne) are in love. Duke is a stage show promoter, Ethel one of the performers in his company. When she gets spotted by some bigger promoters, she hesitates at being whisked away into fame but Duke reluctantly lets her go. Even for a low budget film like this, I was still entertained. It might be unpolished but it’s a lot of fun and worth seeing for its unique place in black Hollywood history. And the first glimmers of Lena’s radiant star power were just starting to blossom.
As one of the race films of that time, it has an all black cast, which also sets it apart from other low budget films of the era.
Lena really was just a baby here; 21 years old and already a wife and mother of two.
Essentially a religious parable, Cabin in the Sky tells the story of a wayward soul caught between Heaven and Hell. Little Joe Jackson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) gets a second chance at life after dying in a drunken brawl. He lands in Purgatory, where he learns that he will be sent back to Earth – he just has to prove he’s eligible for Heaven. His devout wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) strives to keep him on the straight and narrow, but temptation continues to beckon, and even takes on physical form in Lena’s seductive Georgia Brown.
This film is entertaining, with exquisite performances by Lena and the amazing Ethel Waters, who was not kind to Lena. It was her first polished Hollywood production under the direction of Vincente Minnelli.
The film does have charm, but I can’t say I’m much of a fan. It is worth watching for its place in history and because Lena is involved in the plot and doesn’t just sing and disappear for the remaining run time.
Stormy Weather, another all black musical the following year, was released by 20th Century Fox. As I recall, the film has a wafer thin plot and is a thinly veiled biopic of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. A romance between he and Selina Rogers (Lena) is the central storyline. It is a gem of black Hollywood, although it too can’t escape the racism that makes it a product of its time like Cabin in the Sky. (Two black actors appear in blackface in this film). Other notable cast members include Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the legendary dancing duo of the Nicholas Brothers.
Lena’s rendition of the title song would become her signature tune. She is just marvelous.
Ultimately, Lena Horne’s career is a prime example of What Could’ve Been. What if she had been granted equal opportunities alongside her white contemporaries? What if her home studio MGM, which boasted “more stars than there are in the heavens” had given one of those stars more room to shine? The answer is right there in all these movies, both good and bad. Even in just her brief scenes, we see a striking performer who easily could have headlined those same films.
This post was written for the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film and Samantha of Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Click the banner below for more posts on each star!