Lena Horne is a woman who very much deserved to be a bigger movie star. She probably would have been a bigger movie star had she worked in the film industry of today, not of the 1940s. But unfortunately, she worked in movies during a time when the film industry couldn’t make full use of her talent in movies purely because she was a black woman. In 1941, Lena was performing in nightclubs when MGM composer Roger Edens saw her perform and knew he had found someone special. Edens convinced Arthur Freed to listen to her sing, Freed got Louis B. Mayer to listen to her, and Louis B. Mayer signed Lena to a seven-year contract at MGM.
Unfortunately, through a lot of Lena’s career, her race kept her from being able to have her cake and eat it, too. When she was offered the chance to come to Hollywood, she wasn’t even able to rent her own house because black people weren’t able to live there. A white man had to rent her house for her and when the neighbors found out about this, they started a petition to make her leave. One of her neighbors, Humphrey Bogart, put a stop to that nonsense. Sure, she had that long-term contract at MGM, but she got few starring roles. Most of her movies had to be shot in a way where she could easily be edited out because theaters in the South were reluctant to show movies where a black person wasn’t playing a stereotypical role. Since Lena didn’t want to play those stereotypical roles and the studio couldn’t afford to not have their movies play in the South, MGM didn’t have much of a choice but to make it easy for the South to cut her out. Although she did occasionally have the opportunity to truly shine in some all-black musicals like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut. When she married her husband Lennie Hayton, a white man, it had to be kept secret for three years. After Lena got out of the movie world, she had a very successful career performing on stage. However, she could often bring down the house at a nightclub in a hotel and still be denied a room at the hotel.
Not only was Lena a wonderful singer and actress, she was very active in the civil rights movement. During WWII, Lena was a vocal critic of the way African-American soldiers were treated and refused to play USO shows to a segregated audience. She attended the March on Washington and teamed up with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. She also met with John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers shortly before each one was assassinated.
Lena died on May 9, 2010 at the age of 92. Of course, 92 years is a very long, full life, but I’m still truly sad to see her go. Not only has the world lost a fantastically talented, beautiful, classy lady, she was one of the last great talents from that era in film history. TCM has changed their prime time schedule for May 21st, 2010 to pay tribute to her. The movies they will be playing are: The Duke is Tops, Cabin in the Sky, Panama Hattie. In the meantime, enjoy some Lena Horne fabulous-ness right here: