Who Was Lena Horne?
Lena Horne was the epitome of jazzy elegance, as well as a groundbreaking icon. She paved the way for countless actors and singers who would follow in her footsteps. She became the very first woman of African descent to be signed to a long-term contract at the powerful MGM Studios and marketed as a glamorous starlet. Always portrayed as confident and sophisticated onscreen, Horne never allowed the studio to cast her in any roles that could be described as subservient or even the slightest bit undignified.
Always more of a singer than an actress, Horne would often make cameo appearances in films as a specialty singer. This allowed the studio the ability to seamlessly cut out her scenes when sending films to the segregated (and racially volatile) Southern states. But, although Horne’s film appearances were often all too brief, they were always memorable. A brash and jazzy singer, her star quality shines through every time she appears onscreen. Most importantly, Horne’s film career radically broke racial stereotypes, proving that American audiences were ready for a “black” actress who was glamorous and, dare I say it, even sexy. So, to get you more familiar with this iconic singer/actress, I have compiled this top five list of Lena Horne’s best films. (The reason this is a top 5 instead of a top 10 is due to her relatively small number of significant acting roles).
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my ranking by considering each film's importance in Horne’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDb, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top five). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.
Top 5 Lena Horne Films
- Stormy Weather
- Cabin in the Sky
- The Duke Is Tops
- Till The Clouds Roll By
- The Wiz
1. Stormy Weather (1943)
The movie that will forever be linked with Lena Horne, Stormy Weather acts as a nostalgic tribute to early American jazz, blues, and ragtime (as well as, the culture that surrounded it). The film stars Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as Bill Williamson, a WWI veteran who decides to pursue his dream of becoming a professional dancer. Along the way, Bill meets the beautiful Selina Rogers (Horne), a professional singer much further along in her career than him. Naturally, Bill falls for Selina instantly and as his career takes off, their evolving relationship stays ever present in the background.
The plot of this film is partially based on the life story of its star, Bill Robinson, but Stormy Weather primarily functions as an unofficial showcase for popular “black” performers of the time period, including legendary bandleader Cab Calloway, jazz singer/pianist Fats Waller, and famous dancing duo The Nicholas Brothers. Horne sings a number of songs in the film but, of course, it’s the titular “Stormy Weather” that ended up becoming her trademark number. Another major highlight is the Nicholas Brothers’ jaw-dropping “Jumpin’ Jive” dance number. Although this movie only has a light plot to tie all these musical numbers together, the performances featured in Stormy Weather are not to be missed.
2. Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Cabin in the Sky is best described as Faust set in the rural South. The film stars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Little Joe, a philanderer and compulsive gambler who is given a second chance at life after his virtuous wife, Petunia (played by Ethel Waters), pleads for his soul. In order to gain entrance into Heaven, Little Joe is given a limited amount of time to redeem himself or else be condemned to Hell. At first, it seems he may be on the right track, but Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) is intent on winning Joe’s soul for his “Pappy” and his biggest weapon is Little Joe’s immoral mistress, Georgia Brown (Horne).
Produced by landmark musical producer Arthur Freed, this soulful and stylized musical had the added advantage of being directed by Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli would, eventually, become one of Hollywood’s most well-respected directors with Cabin in the Sky marking his directorial debut. However, Minnelli did have some extra help directing the film’s great “Shine” dance sequence featuring John W. “Bubbles” Sublett. That sequence was actually directed by an uncredited Busby Berkeley (best-known for directing the iconic movie musical 42nd Street).
Although playing the pivotal role of Georgia, Horne only ended up singing two songs in the finished film. A third called “Ain’t It the Truth” was filmed, but ultimately cut. Since the song was sung while Georgia was taking a bubble bath, the studio was worried the scene might be considered too racy. To put it simply, Cabin in the Sky is an extremely enjoyable fantasy with a witty script and a talented cast. No musical lover should miss it.
3. The Duke Is Tops (1938)
Sometimes known by its alternate title, The Bronze Venus, this low-budget B-musical marks Horne’s film debut. The movie stars a 20-year-old Horne as Ethel Andrews, a singer headlining a troupe of traveling players run by her boyfriend, Duke Davis (played by Ralph Cooper). When Ethel starts being courted by talent scouts from New York City, she still refuses their offers in order to stay with her beloved Duke. But, Duke loves her too much to let her throw away her career for him, so he convinces her that he’s already sold out to another talent scout for $5000. Heartbroken and furious, Ethel leaves for NYC and Duke’s career flounders without her. Desperate and out of options, Duke joins a traveling medicine show, but can he and Ethel ever truly leave the past behind them?
The Duke Is Tops was made on a minuscule budget, to the point that Horne wasn’t even paid for her work in the film. Produced by Ralph Cooper’s Million Dollar Productions, the entire film was shot in a mere 10 days (a fact that, unfortunately, does show a bit in the movie’s dance numbers). At the time, Cooper was already gaining fame as the original master of ceremonies for the legendary Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night (he would remain the contest’s official MC for the next 50 years). His experience as an MC particularly pays off in the film’s traveling medicine show scenes.
But, one of the best scenes in The Duke Is Tops has to be the fun “Killin’ Jive” number sung by The Cats & The Fiddle, a great jazz/scat number. Although The Duke Is Tops is a very simple movie, it moves at a brisk enough pace to keep your interest and is, certainly, required viewing for any Lena Horne fan.
4. Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
Till the Clouds Roll By is fairly typical of many of Horne’s movie roles, in that she only appears as a memorable specialty singer. However, in this film, Horne is actually one of only a handful of performers to sing more than once over the course of the entire movie. Till the Clouds Roll By tells the (highly fictionalized) biography of composer Jerome Kern (played by Robert Walker) and the film is peppered with renditions of Kern’s songs sung by a seemingly endless parade of popular ‘40s singing stars, including Angela Lansbury, Judy Garland, and, of course, Lena Horne.
The film’s opening, actually, consists of an abridged version of the musical Show Boat’s first act, with Horne playing the part of Julie LaVerne. As Julie, Horne gives an unforgettable performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and, originally, she was even set to sing the song “Bill” during the sequence, as well. But, unfortunately, that song was, eventually, cut (most likely due to time constraints). When Show Boat was made into a full-length movie musical 5 years later, Horne had hoped to reprise her dream role as Julie, but racial tensions at the time caused the studio to cast the less-controversial Ava Gardner in the role. Regardless, Horne’s performances in this film are pure magic. Originally, the real Jerome Kern was heavily involved in the production of Till the Clouds Roll By but, sadly, the talented composer ended up passing away before filming could be completed. Of course, at the end of the day, Till the Clouds Roll By is really just a showcase for Kern’s songs, and there are plenty. Including Horne, this film features show-stopping performances from some of the best singers that have ever lived and that alone makes this a movie worth watching.
5. The Wiz (1978)
Adapted from the stage musical of the same name, The Wiz features a stunningly beautiful Horne in her very last film role. The movie is a modern urbanized adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s iconic novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Produced by Berry Gordy’s Motown Productions, the movie stars Diana Ross as Dorothy, a young kindergarten teacher still living with her aunt and uncle in the apartment she grew up in. During a violent snowstorm, Dorothy finds herself magically transported to the Land of Oz and must find some way to get herself back home again.
One of the unique things about this retelling of Baum’s classic story is that Oz has the appearance of a fantasy version of New York City. The New York State Pavilion left behind from the 1964 World’s Fair was transformed into Munchkinland for the film and the Emerald City sequence was even filmed on location at the World Trade Center. Behind the scenes, the casting of the 33-year-old Diana Ross as a 24-year-old Dorothy caused its share of controversy. Berry Gordy, originally, intended to cast the more youthful Stephanie Mills from the Broadway production, but was overruled by producer Rob Cohen. Original director John Badham (who had previously directed Saturday Night Fever), actually, left the production after hearing that Ross had been cast as Dorothy, believing that although she was a great actress/singer that she simply wasn’t right for the part. So, Horne’s very own son-in-law, Sidney Lumet, ended up taking over as director, instead. At the end of the day, it’s the Quincy Jones produced musical numbers that truly make this film worth watching.
Although Horne only appears in a few short scenes in The Wiz, it’s her transcendent and powerful performance as Glinda that gives this movie its resonance and emotional weight. The Wiz, also, features a rare chance to see Horne perform an R&B-style musical number, rather than the more jazzy performances she’s known for. Now a beloved cult film, The Wiz is a must-see for fans of both Lena Horne and Motown.
Honorable Mention: Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
For my honorable mention, I have chosen this little-known film that features Horne in a very rare dramatic role. Set in the 1900s, Death of a Gunfighter tells the story of Marshal Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), an old-fashioned Western lawman in a town ready to move on into the modern era. When Frank kills a man in self-defense, the citizens ask him to resign his post. However, Frank refuses to do so, reminding them that they had previously promised him that he could remain marshal for as long as he wished. The city’s elder statesmen are determined to put the town’s “Wild West” days behind them and decide that the only way to get Frank out of the way for good is with violence. Horne plays the part of Claire Quintana, Frank’s longtime girlfriend and madam of the local brothel.
Although a very enjoyable Western in its own right, Death of a Gunfighter is probably most famous for its very unusual director’s credit. The film began with Robert Totten in the director’s seat, but after several on-set clashes with Richard Widmark, Totten was replaced with director Don Siegel. However, Siegel didn’t feel comfortable taking full directing credit for the film since Totten had already directed more than half of it by the time he'd taken over. So, instead, a pseudonym was created for the director’s credit: “Alan Smithee”. Ever since then, the name “Alan Smithee” has been famously used within the entertainment industry whenever a director wishes to completely disown a film. But, ironically (and quite hilariously), the direction in Death of a Gunfighter was, actually, widely praised by critics at the time, who marveled at the great skill of its “new” director, Alan Smithee.
If you would like to learn more about the groundbreaking Lena Horne, I highly recommend the biography Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (2009) by James Gavin. The picture book The Legendary Miss Lena Horne (2017) by Carole Boston Weatherford, also, makes a lovely introduction to Lena for both younger readers and adult collectors.
© 2014 Lindsay Blenkarn
CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on March 03, 2014:
Lena Horne is definitely a true legend! Thanks for highlighting her considerable talents. It was definitely an enjoyable read. I also enjoyed the videos (especially Stormy Weather!).