She had class. She had elegance. She had grace, talent and beauty. And possessed one of the greatest voices in jazz. She was Lena Horne. And her filmography may only include seven total in films and because of her race, most of them were not starring roles. But her enigmatic presence in classic film broke barriers for future generations of African-American actresses.
After being sick of traveling from night club to night club to perform, Lena Horne decided to head towards Hollywood for a more income and life. However, when she arrived, Miss. Horne was offered less-than-respectable roles as housemaids and prostitutes. She outright refused all of them because of the stereotype those roles had on the African-American community. In 1938, Miss. Horne starred in a musical-film titled “The Dukes Is Tops” (1938) and her performance made enough impact to become a contract-player at MGM Studios. With signing to MGM Studios, Miss. Horne became the first African-American performer to sign a contract with a major film studio.
At MGM Studios, Miss. Horne was cast as a performer in musical-films utilizing her beauty and her voice. But it came with a price. Because of the racist attitudes divided amongst the American states, Miss. Horne could never get her hands on a leading role because of the color of her skin. The parts of films she was included in had to be stand-alone scenes, so when the film was distributed it would be re-edited when segregated states would object to having an African-American woman on the big screen.
At the beginning of her career, Lorne debuted in “Panama Hattie” (1942) as “Singer in Phil’s Place”, lent her voice to “Stormy Weather” (1943) and recorded the title song, and was performed the song “Love” in “Ziegfeld Follies” (1945). In 1946, Miss. Horne was featured in the bio-film of musical composer Jerome Kern’s life, “Til The Clouds Roll By.” She briefly portrayed the mulatto character “Julie” from Kern’s “Show Boat.” She sang a stirring rendition of “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” At the studios, there was talk of a new remake of “Show Boat” with Miss. Horne as a serious consideration for “Julie” after studio heads saw her performance in “Til The Clouds Roll By.” But when it came time to cast the remake, Miss. Horne was dropped for Ava Gardner. While Gardner’s portrayal was exceptional and has often been referred to as an Oscar-worthy role ignored by the Academy, there is always the question of “what if?”. What if the studios had cast Miss. Horne as “Julie”? It would have without a doubt broken another barrier in both Hollywood and African-American history if Miss. Horne was allowed to take the leading role. Miss. Horne was also considered for the starring role of “Pinky” (1949), but once again history and the then society roles were at play; studio heads played it safe and cast Jeanne Cain instead.
By the 1950s, Lena Horne grew tired of Hollywood and returned to being a nightclub performer. From there, Miss. Horne successfully headlined nightclubs and performed on various television shows including “The Perry Como Show” and “The Flip Wilson Show.” In 1981, Miss. Horne conquered Broadway as well with her one-woman show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” It won a special Tony at the 35th Tony Awards and won two Grammy’s for “Best Musical Show Album” and “Best Vocal Performance, Female.” Miss. Horne officially retired from performing in 2000.
Instead of ending with a sad recount of Miss. Horne’s passing on May 9, 2010, we will leave with one of her inspiring quotes, “My identity is very clear to me now, I am a black woman, I'm not alone, I'm free. I say I'm free because I no longer have to be a credit, I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else.”