Singer, Actress, Legend
Lena Horne is not only a beautiful and talented singer, but also a breakthrough actress. When she signed a movie contract with MGM studios in 1942, she made movie history. She became the first African-American actress to have a major studio contract with the stipulation that she not have to play any demeaning, stereotypical roles.
But it came with a price.
Lena Horne did not get many acting roles and by the end of her contract she was disillusioned with Hollywood.
Nevertheless, the few movies that she did make are classics and Lena Horne helped pave the way for African-American actresses who would follow in her footsteps.
Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, Lena Horne began her career as a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. Only sixteen years old at the time, she was one of the youngest members of the chorus line and this would only be the beginning of a long and illustrious career that would follow.
A singer at heart, Lena Horne eventually left the Cotton Club to travel with one of the best-known jazz bands at the time - Noble Sissle and his Orchestra. She traveled with the band headlined as “Helena Horne” because Noble Sissle thought that “Helena Horne ” sounded like a classier stage name than “Lena Horne.” She was with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra from 1935-1936.
In 1937, Lena Horne married her first husband, Louis Jones, and stopped traveling as a professional singer. However, she did occasionally sing with a friend at private home parties for wealthy people living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It was while Lena Horne was living in Pittsburgh that she was approached by a producer about starring in her first movie.
First Lena Horne Film Role – “The Duke is Tops”
Described to her as “a quickie Negro musical” that would only take ten days to make, Lena Horne was hesitant about doing the film. She just had her first child, Gail, and wasn’t excited about leaving her to go to California. But her husband and friends encouraged her to do the film.
When she arrived in California, however, Lena Horne discovered that the production company had financial problems. They didn’t have enough money to complete the film and pay the actors. Nevertheless, Lena Horne and the other cast members agreed to stay and finish the movie anyway.
Named, “The Duke is Tops”, Lena Horne co-starred in the film with Ralph Cooper. (The movie later was released under the name “The Bronze Venus.”)
Ralph Cooper was very well known at the time and was called by some people, “The Black Clark Gable.” He was also a popular emcee at the Apollo Theatre in New York and helped start the famous talent contest at the Apollo Theatre.
Unfortunately, Lena Horne was never fully paid for her role in this film and when the movie premiered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where she was living at the time), her husband refused to take her to the premier. Her husband was upset that she was not paid for the movie, so he didn’t want to take her to the premier.
Resumes Singing Career
In 1940, Lena Horne decided to return to New York to resume her professional singing career. Given her great talent and beauty, she became a successful performer in New York appearing at many prominent New York clubs like Café Society Downtown in Greenwich Village.
It was while she was performing in New York, that Lena Horne was offered an opportunity to move to California and perform at a new Hollywood nightclub. A good offer, Lena Horne agreed. But right after she moved to California, the war broke out and the nightclub didn’t open.
Eventually, her sponsor was able to open a club in Hollywood named the “Little Troc.” Lena Horne headlined at the club with Katherine Dunham and her dancers. They became a local sensation, attracting much attention. And for Lena Horne, her performances would also attract the attention of Hollywood movie studios.
Milestone Contract Negotiations with MGM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) approached Lena Horne about becoming a movie actress with their studio. When they approached her, it was also at a time when there weren’t any Black actors in Hollywood with long-term movie contracts.
Unsure of what to do and also wanting to make sure that she wasn’t taken advantage of, Lena Horne asked her father, Teddy Horne, to handle the negotiations. And handle them he did.
In her book, Lena, Lena Horne describes watching her father negotiate with the studio executives. Her father really didn’t trust the studio executives and definitely didn’t want his daughter to become another movie stereotype. According to Lena Horne her father said, “the only colored movie stars I’ve seen so far have been waiting on some white star in the picture. I can pay for someone to wait on my daughter if she wants that.”
Teddy Horne did not relent on his point, so MGM agreed to contract restrictions for Lena Horne – she would never be forced to play any maid or mammy roles. This was a first.
Not Readily Accepted by Everyone
On one hand, Lena Horne’s movie contract was great because it meant a positive change in the way that a Black woman would be seen on the movie screen. On the other hand, the contract also made Lena Horne a marked woman. Actors and actresses who had been performing in Hollywood for a long time were jealous of the special treatment that she received. Consequently, she was not enthusiastically accepted by everyone in the Black film community. However, she was warmly received by African-American stars Hattie McDaniel and Eddie Anderson.
But the racial argument eventually became a moot point because Lena Horne did not get many acting roles. MGM gave her the glamorous studio treatment but primarily used her for cameo singing roles in films. She sang in one movie after another.
Lena Horne became increasingly frustrated by her lack of real acting roles and her continuing to be used for cameo singing roles. In her autobiography, Lena, she states, “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either. I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland.”
During the course of her seven year contract with MGM, Lena Horne appeared in thirteen films. The first movie that Lena Horne did for MGM was "Panama Hattie"which starred Red Skelton and Ann Sothern. She did a Latin styled number that was directed by Vincente Minnelli and her performance was so good that many of the moviegoers thought that she was Latin. (Click here for purchase information for Panama Hattie. This movie has not been released on DVD, but you can find old VHS copies by using this link.)
Black Classic Films – “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky”
During her MGM career, Lena Horne did manage to make two very important African-American classic movies – “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.” These were the only two all-Black cast movies made by major Hollywood studios that year. Practically all of the leading African-American actors, actresses, singers and musicians of the time performed in one or both of these films.
Lena Horne was very excited about finally getting a chance to star in these films. Of the two, she was more excited about her role as Sweet Georgia Brown in “Cabin in the Sky” because it gave her a chance to do more acting than she had ever done before.
“Cabin in the Sky” Bubble Bath Scene
But even with “Cabin in the Sky”, Lena Horne did not escape controversy. There was a scene in the movie where Lena Horne sings “Ain’t it the Truth” while sitting in a bathtub full of bubbles. Because censors thought that it might be too stimulating for moviegoers, they cut it from the film. It was never shown again until “That’s Entertainment III” featured it in a special segment almost 50 years later. (This deleted, controversial scene is included on the “Cabin in the Sky” DVD in a bonus feature segment named “Studio Visit.”)
Once her MGM contract ended, Lena Horne was blacklisted. The main reason was because of a long-term friendship that she had with actor Paul Robeson who was also an outspoken and controversial social activist. Lena Horne was able to eventually get herself removed from the Hollywood Blacklist but before this happened, she was not offered any movie contracts. It took her almost ten years to get her name removed from the Hollywood Blacklist.
During this time, she toured in Europe and appeared on some stages in the United States. She also married her husband, composer/musician Lennie Hayton. In 1947, she secretly married him in France, because there were laws in the United States against inter-racial marriage.
“Death of a Gunfighter” and “The Wiz”
The end of Lena Horne’s movie contract did not end her movie career. In 1969, she co-starred with Richard Widmark in the western movie, "Death of a Gunfighter" in which she plays his ex-lover. She also sings the songs over the opening and closing credits for the film.
Then in 1978, she played Glinda the Good Witch in the all-Black cast movie “The Wiz.” Lena Horne’s son-in-law, Sidney Lumet, directed this movie.
Indelible Mark on Film History
Although she did not have the movie career that she hoped, Lena Horne did leave an indelible mark on the film industry. She created a glamorous image of Black women on screen thereby helping to change moviegoer’s perceptions of African-American women.
Lena Horne also helped move the movie industry further along in making more positive portrayals of African-Americans on screen.
Lena Horne Biography Books
If you are interested in learning more about Lena Horne’s life, there are two interesting biographies about her.
The first one, Lena, is an autobiography that Lena Horne wrote in 1965 about her life up to that point. This book is a very good personal account of Lena Horne’s life from her own perspective. It was written long before she went on to achieve even more in the entertainment industry. Lena is no longer being printed, but you can find copies of it from used booksellers online.
Lena by Lena Horne (and Richard Schickel)
Autobiography by Lena Horne that was first published in 1965.
This book is no longer being printed, but you can often find copies of it from sellers at Amazon. Use the button below to go directly to a page with details.
The second one, "The Hornes: An American Family", was written by Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. This book gives a fuller account of Lena Horne’s life and goes into more detail about the Horne family history. The Horne family was very active in the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement. This book is still available for purchase in paperback.
The Hornes: An American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley
Lena Horne family biography by her daughter.
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for purchase details.