Today is the birthday of Lena Horne (1917-2010). She got her start singing in Harlem’s Cotton Club and other swank New York night clubs, performing with the likes of Adelaide Hall and Noble Sissle. Always classy and graceful, she was not a part of the earthy black vaudeville scene I often write about here. But she did have an excellent role in the 1943 MGM film version of the hit Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, which is a veritable Who’s Who of black vaudevillians and performers: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters, Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong, Mantan Moreland, Ernest Whitman, Duke Ellington, and Buck & Bubbles. The priceless plot has devils and angels vying for the soul of Eddie Anderson, who has a weakness for gambling and sin. It’s a good thing he has a religious wife (Waters) to keep him on the straight and narrow, because Lena Horne is a wanton woman out to take him for all he’s got. NOW…everyone knows Lena Horne. Words I would use to describe her include “fine”, “dignified” and “classy”. So this part was very much against type, and I have to say casting Horne as a femme fatale has to be this wonderful movie’s main weakness. Horne was a beautiful woman but try as she might she could not radiate “bad” in the carnal manner the script called for. And that may well have been why MGM cast her, in those highly restrictive times.
For more about black vaudeville and performers like these, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.