May 11, 2010


8:00 PM ET The Duke is Tops
9:30 PM ET Cabin in the Sky
11:15 PM ET Panama Hattie

TCM Remembers Lena Horne, 1917-2010

Although Lena Horne never had the movie career she deserved, she managed to make an electrifying impact in her guest appearances and occasional acting roles. An exotic beauty with velvet skin, flashing eyes and a uniquely vibrant voice, she was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major film studio (MGM). Because of the tenor of the times (the 1940s and '50s), the studio confined her mostly to isolated numbers that could be cut when the films played the American South. Horne was blacklisted by the film and television industries in the 1950s, possibly because of her sympathetic relationship with Paul Robeson. She compensated for her limited exposure in Hollywood with enormous success in nightclubs and recordings.

Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Horne left school at age 16 to join the chorus at Harlem's Cotton Club. She made her Broadway debut in a small part in the play Dance with Your Gods in 1934, and her recording debut two years later. Her first film role was in the low-budget, all-black musical The Duke Is Tops (1938), in which she plays a young singer with a small-time band who gets a shot at Broadway. Memorably, she sings "I Know You Remember."

Horne's MGM contract began with one of her "specialty" appearances, singing "Just One of These Things" in the Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie (1942), starring Ann Sothern. Then came a major role in Vincente Minnelli's all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943), in which Horne is the seductress who ties to lure Eddie "Rochester" Anderson away from faithful wife Ethel Waters. Horne's songs include "Honey in the Honeycomb" and "Life Is Full of Consequence."

As one of several guest stars in the Gene Kelly/Kathryn Grayson starrer, Thousands Cheer (1943), she sings "Honeysuckle Rose." The specialty routines continued with Horne singing "You're So Indifferent" in Swing Fever (1943), starring bandleader Kay Kyser; "Jericho" in I Dood It (1943), starring Red Skelton; "Paper Doll" in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), starring June Allyson; and "Brazilian Boogie," "Amor" and "Somebody Loves Me" in Broadway Rhythm (1944).

In Till the Clouds Roll by (1946), a fictionalized biography of Jerome Kern, Horne was given the role of Julie in a condensed version of Show Boat and provides one of the movie's highlights with her smoldering version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." When a full-length version of that musical was made by MGM five years later, Horne -- despite having proved how powerful she could be in the role -- was passed over in favor of her friend Ava Gardner.

It was back to the "guest role" routine for Horne, singing "Love" in the all-star Ziegfeld Follies (1946); "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Where or When" in Words and Music (1948), starring Mickey Rooney and a host of MGM stars; and "Baby, Come Out of the Clouds" in Duchess of Idaho (1950), starring Esther Williams.

After a long absence from films, Horne returned in a dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in the Western Death of a Gunfighter (1969). In the movie version of the stage musical The Wiz (1978) she played Glinda the Good Witch in a cast that also included Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

In the 1980s Horne won a Tony for her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, in which she subsequently toured with huge international success. Her many honors have included three Grammy Awards including a lifetime achievement award in 1989, and a Kennedy Center award in 1984. In June 1997, her 80th birthday was celebrated with the presentation of the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry.