TCM’s Lena Horne biography chronicles a unique voice of film and stage

Review by C.J. Bunce

The life of the majestic singer and actress Lena Horne gets the spotlight in a new Turner Classic Movies biography out this week, Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed, by Donald Bogle.  Not only a solid chronicle of the ups and downs of her life and career, the place of Lena Horne in American history is a good story, a story of a girl thrust into the spotlight because of her skin color and looks who found her talent and became one of the first black movie stars.  How did she do it without starring in the biggest movies?  Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed tells the story, and it available here at Amazon and in bookstores this week.

Familiar to readers of biographies of people from her era, the book recounts the struggles of a star with two challenges: she was a woman and she was black.  For the first, Horne was in an industry dominated by men, including studio executives using their power to intimidate and coerce women.  Horne’s life was filled with romantic relationships with men, some in the industry, others not, from co-star to sports personalities.  How many of these were for promotion, and which were real?  Readers will learn her soulmate would be a gay man, and her love that got away, director Vincente Minelli.

The bigger challenge, and the one Horne faced first, was being a black entertainer who had a light complexion.  Practically speaking this meant new challenges for film production crews, including makeup professionals, hair stylists, and stage lighting technicians.  To the public she faced racism, especially in the South.  In her personal life, Horne had relationships with black and white men.  The author, using archival interviews and other research, recounts Horne’s path in a world coming out of the Great Depression, in a world where discrimination ran rampant, a country languishing under segregation, followed by a fight for civil rights for all.

What made her Hollywood’s only “Black Goddess” of the 1940s was Horne’s career on the stage and on the big screen–why she became an American icon.  From growing up middle-class in Brooklyn’s primarily poorer Bedford-Stuyvesant, to having a mother who dragged her cross country and pushed her into performing as a dancer in the segregation era Cotton Club, to finding her unique voice as a singer, to becoming a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and getting blacklisted in the McCarthy era, Horne clearly didn’t follow the designs expected of a black girl in mid-20th century America.  At MGM she headlined in a few films, but was featured in even more as a fill-in with songs and scenes written for movies that weren’t performing well.  It was in these parts that Horne reached audiences with her beauty, voice, and style, and they began demanding to see more.

One experience seemed to shift how she saw herself: Performing for troops in the South during World War II, she saw that only white men were in the audience so she requested to do a show for the black troops, too.  When that second show happened, the front rows were white men, with the black men off to the side.  Those white men she would learn were German prisoners of war.  Yes, discrimination was so unthinkably horrifying that the U.S. military prioritized white German enemies over its own black troops.  Horne immediately reported the event to the NAACP, prompting MGM to take her off the circuit–for upsetting the status quo.  This kind of story and more anecdotes paint a picture of a woman moving from an entitled actress “passing” as white in the wealthy parts of Los Angeles, to realizing she could be using her position to fight for black America.

Horne’s position is compared to other previous and legacy actresses with similar challenges, including Ethel Waters and Dorothy Dandridge, and her own hero and inspiration, Hattie McDaniel.  Horne would be long-time friends with Ava Gardner, not so much with Judy Garland.  Horne even had an event like Nichelle Nichols would later have with Martin Luther King, who told Nichols she must continue in her role as Uhura on Star Trek (despite her desire to quit), because Nichols’ appearance on national television made all black women seen in a new positive way.  When Horne was ready to walk away from Hollywood, the great Count Basie convinced her to stay for a similar important purpose, calling her the Chosen One.

One chapter includes Horne c0-starring with Ricardo Montalban, overlapping with some good content found in TCM’s Viva Hollywood, about Latin and hispanic entertainers.  Oddly enough Horne didn’t make the cut in Sloan De Forest’s TCM’s Dynamic Dames (reviewed here).  The challenges of Horne’s parents and grandparents, and even her own can be compared to Clint and Ron Howard’s performer parents in The Boys.  It may also be of interest to see how years later the famous black music Hall of Fame performer Darryl McDaniels would make his mark confronting similar issues, also from middle class New York City, as recounted in his autobiographical story in Ten Way Not to Commit Suicide.

Horne’s encounters and connections, personal and professional, range from Orson Welles to Sidney Lumet, Michael Jackson (Horne was Glenda in The Wiz) and Quincy Jones, Louis B. Mayer and Medgar Evers, to Artie Shaw, Humphrey Bogart, and Bobby Canavale.

A great biography with good research, and good archival photographs, all told in a thoroughly interesting manner, consider Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed recommended reading for students of history, film, race and gender in America, and fans of the biography genre–out this week and available here at Amazon.

Don’t miss the other volumes from TCM’s film library reviewed here at borg52 Must-See Movies That Matter52 More Must-See Movies That MatterMust-See Sci-FiDynamic DamesForbidden Hollywood, Christmas in the MoviesViva HollywoodFright Favorites, Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched ClassicsTCM’s Hollywood VictoryTCM’s Danger on the Silver ScreenTCM’s Rock on FilmTCM’s Essential DirectorsDark City: The Lost World of Film NoirBut Have You Read the Book?, Eddie Muller’s Noir Bar, and TCM’s 20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio.

Leave a Reply