Lena Horne movies: Velvety-voiced singer generally relegated to specialty numbers during heyday of the Hollywood musical
Had things been different, it’s anybody’s guess whether or not three-time Grammy winner Lena Horne, Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” performer of the day (Aug. 6), would have become a major Hollywood musical star in the mid-20th century.
The crucial reason is that apart from a couple of modestly budgeted, big-studio, all-black musicals – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Cabin in the Sky, 20th Century Fox’s Stormy Weather – Horne was relegated to “specialty numbers” in more opulent musicals usually built around somebody else.
As is widely known, the reason for that is what in the 21st century – in publications like the New York Times and The Washington Post, and news networks like MSNBC and CNN – is commonly referred to as either “economic anxiety” or “cultural anxiety.” In other words, the United States’ economically and/or culturally anxious pigs and sows had no desire to watch movies focused on performers who back in those days were referred to – in polite society, that is – as “darkies,” no matter how pretty their faces or how velvety their singing voices.
Having said that, even if racism weren’t a fact of life there’s no guarantee that Lena Horne would have become a major movie star. After all, other equally talented – and fairer-skinned – singers and/or dancers failed to reach and/or remain at the top in the movie business at that time – e.g., Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Ginny Simms, Dinah Shore, Vera-Ellen. (The last three can be found on the TCM movie list further below.)
You can surely reach your own conclusions while watching Lena Horne in some of her best-known film appearances. Besides the generally well-regarded Cabin in the Sky (1942) and the more run-of-the-mill Stormy Weather (1943) – Horne’s rendition of the title song is easily the film’s highlight – TCM is also presenting just about every major Lena Horne showcase of the 1940s.
Four notable titles – all at MGM – are the black-and-white Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), and, in Technicolor, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), and Words and Music (1948).
All but unwatchable fluff, Richard Thorpe’s Two Girls and a Sailor is notable for having helped to turn both June Allyson and Van Johnson into major MGM stars. In a specialty number as herself, Lena Horne sings Johnny S. Black’s “Paper Doll.”
An all-but-plotless – and seemingly endless – compendium of musical numbers, Ziegfeld Follies – filmed in 1944/1945, released in New York City in 1946 – was both a major box office hit and a poor investment for the studio: it cost so much money that it ended up in the red. William Powell plays Broadway’s Florenz Ziegfeld in a prologue. Lena Horne gets to sing Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Love” in a number directed by Broadway’s scenic and costume designer Lemuel Ayers (who’d previously worked as an art director on MGM’s Meet Me in St. Louis).
Featuring a thin plotline about composer Jerome Kern (played by Robert Walker), another endless musical is Richard Whorf’s sumptuous and highly successful (and profitable) Till the Clouds Roll By. Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat and “Why Was I Born?” from Sweet Adeline – both songs originally performed by the grittier Helen Morgan on stage.
Norman Taurog’s handsome but infantilized Words and Music stars Mickey Rooney, nearing the end of his Hollywood superstardom, and Tom Drake as, respectively, composers Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh are the women in their lives – and never mind the fact that Hart preferred the company of guys. Lena Horne gets to sing “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When,” but the film’s musical highlight is a pert June Allyson performing “Thou Swell,” while Vera-Ellen – a superb dancer and a pleasant actress – proves in the number “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” that having loads of talent did not assure Hollywood stardom.
Missing from TCM’s movie roster is George Sidney’s inconsequential but commercially successful Thousands Cheer, an all-star effort in which Lena Horne performs what’s probably her most memorable big-screen number, singing Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Lena Horne had only one non-musical role in movies: at age 51, she was cast as a Hispanic (!) brothel madam in the troubled – but, according to Roger Ebert, “extraordinary” – 1969 Western Death of a Gunfighter, opposite Richard Widmark. Don Siegel and Robert Totten directed, though “Alan Smithee” was the pseudonym seen in the credits.
Suggestions that Horne could have played the Jeanne Crain part in Pinky (1949) come from people who apparently know nothing about the movie. After all, Horne could never have “passed for” white. On the other hand, cast against type, she might have been an interesting Paulina Breedlove, one of the troubled characters in The Bluest Eye (1970), the first novel written by Toni Morrison – who, coincidentally, died today at age 88. As for the title character in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), it wholly belongs to Dorothy Dandridge.
In addition to her three competitive Grammy Award wins, Lena Horne received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is her granddaughter. (Lumet’s father is Dog Day Afternoon and Network filmmaker Sidney Lumet.)
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Lena Horne movies: TCM schedule (EDT)
6:00 AM SWING FEVER (1943). A bandleader with hypnotic powers tries to train a boxer. Director: Tim Whelan. Cast: Kay Kyser. Marilyn Maxwell. William Gargan. Lena Horne. B&W. 81 mins.
11:30 AM DUCHESS OF IDAHO (1950). During a Sun Valley vacation. a woman tries to solve her roommate’s romantic problems only to get caught in a love triangle of her own. Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Esther Williams. Van Johnson. John Lund. Lena Horne. Color. 98 mins.
1:30 PM TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR (1944). Singing sisters create a World War II canteen and become rivals for the same man. Director: Richard Thorpe. Cast: June Allyson. Gloria DeHaven. Van Johnson. Tom Drake. José Iturbi. Jimmy Durante. Gracie Allen. Harry James. Lena Horne. Xavier Cugat. Henry Stephenson. Henry O’Neill. Ben Blue. Carlos Ramírez. Donald Meek. Cameos: Virginia O’Brien. Helen Forrest. Lina Romay. B&W. 124 mins.
3:45 PM ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1946). Legendary showman Flo Ziegfeld imagines the kind of Follies he could produce with MGM’s musical stars. Director: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: William Powell. Fred Astaire. Lucille Ball. Lucille Bremer. Fanny Brice. Judy Garland. Kathryn Grayson. Lena Horne. Gene Kelly. James Melton. Victor Moore. Red Skelton. Esther Williams. Cyd Charisse. Virginia O’Brien. Edward Arnold. Hume Cronyn. Keenan Wynn. William Frawley. Color. 110 mins.
5:45 PM WORDS AND MUSIC (1948). Songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart search for love while rising to the top. Director: Norman Taurog. Cast: Mickey Rooney. Tom Drake. Ann Sothern. Janet Leigh. June Allyson. Judy Garland. Perry Como. Cyd Charisse. Betty Garrett. Vera-Ellen. Lena Horne. Gene Kelly. Marshall Thompson. Mel Tormé. Jeanette Nolan. Richard Quine. Gower Champion. Edward Earle. Color. 121 mins.
8:00 PM STORMY WEATHER (1943). A relationship blossoms between an aspiring dancer and a popular songstress. Director: Andrew Stone. Cast: Lena Horne. Bill Robinson. Cab Calloway. B&W. 78 mins.
9:30 PM THE DUKE IS TOPS (1938). A producer’s romance with his star ends when the latter is offered a better job in New York. Director: William Nolte. Cast: Ralph Cooper. Lena Horne. Lawrence Criner. B&W. 73 mins.
11:00 PM CABIN IN THE SKY (1943). God and Satan battle for the soul of a wounded gambler. Director: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Ethel Waters. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Lena Horne. B&W. 99 mins.
1:00 AM BROADWAY RHYTHM (1944). A retired vaudevillian clashes with his producer son. Director: Roy Del Ruth. Cast: George Murphy. Ginny Simms. Charles Winninger. Lena Horne. Color. 115 mins.
3:15 AM TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946). True story of composer Jerome Kern’s rise to the top on Broadway and in Hollywood. Director: Richard Whorf. Cast: Robert Walker. Van Heflin. June Allyson. Lucille Bremer. Judy Garland. Kathryn Grayson. Van Johnson. Tony Martin. Lena Horne. Dinah Shore. Gower Champion. Cyd Charisse. Viginia O’Brien. Angela Lansbury. Frank Sinatra. Harry Hayden. Cameo: Esther Williams. Color. 135 mins.