Monday, May 10, 2010


It's difficult, from a twenty-first century perspective, to evaluate the life arc of Lena Horne, who has died at the age of 92.  It's impossible to imagine the difficulties, both professional and personal, faced by black Americans in the thirties and forties, when Horne's career was gearing up.  And yet, given the very real barriers even the wealthiest and best educated African-Americans faced at the time, it must be pointed out that Horne was a child of privilege, and a bit of a snob. 

In other words, yes, she deserved better than she got, particularly from Hollywood, but as a singer she was never really all that special.  Good, yes, but she was arguably no better than hundreds of other singers, both black and white.  Horne was never shy about using her race to her advantage, or attempting to deny it when that, too, was to her benefit.  Her skin was lighter than that of, say, Ethel Waters, her co-star in Cabin In The Sky, and she knew that would get her places Waters could never go.  In retrospect, it makes Horne look conniving, but she did what she felt she needed to do.  Not that it got her very far; Hollywood had no use for a black leading lady at that time, no matter how beautiful she may have been.

So she went back to nightclubs, and fashioned a career as an all-around entertainer.  She may not have been a truly great singer, but she was very good, and she had something more than talent: She had presence.  Once she took the stage, you couldn't look anywhere else.

Here she is dueting with improbable singing partner Eddie Anderson on a Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg classic.  The movie, of course, is Cabin In The Sky, Vincente Minnelli's first film as director, and it's impossible to watch it without wondering how he might have handled it with a bit more experience behind the camera. Though sometimes maddeningly static, it's much better than its reputation, and if some aspects of it seem a bit, uh, insensitive when viewed today, it was almost progressive by the standards of the time.  In those days, merely allowing black actors to play romantic scenes was a big deal.  If it had been a bigger hit, Horne's career may have gone in a whole different direction.  But at least she had this one shot, and it was a good one.