Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Lena Horne

Her career began at the fabled Cotton Club in Harlem, when she was just 16, which is remarkable enough; it's only when one considers that the year was 1933, and her debut was with none other than the Duke Ellington Orchestra, that one gets a truer picture of the awesome scope of the lady's talent even at its outset...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLena Horne's movie debut came in 1938, in one of a series of so-called race movies* called The Duke is Tops (later retitled The Bronze Venus to capitalize on Horne's burgeoning fame); soon enough the studios came calling, and Horne signed with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, then the most prestigious dream factory in the world. Her MGM debut was in the 1942 film Panama Hattie, but her fame really exploded the following year when she starred in Stormy Weather, for which she sang the title song.

Horne's career - which could have been far more brilliant even than it was - was marred by the virulent racism of her times; often she would be featured in a film in such a way that when the film was exhibited in the South her part could be excised. In the cities of the north her appearances onscreen would be greeted by rapturous applause, while in the South she remained virtually unknown outside of black communities, due entirely to the colour of her skin.

Tired of shabby treatment at the hands of Hollywood, latterly Lena Horne was better known as a cabaret singer and recording artist. She turned her considerable fame and charisma towards making a difference in the world, by fervently embracing the civil rights movement. Currently she is retired, and no longer makes public appearances; Miss Horne's last foray into the wider world was her condemnation of Janet Jackson following Nipplegate. Jackson had originally been set to play Horne in a long-planned biopic, an idea nixed by the lady herself following the imbroglio.

A one-woman show in 1981 - Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music - still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance by a female in Broadway history.  Today would have been Miss Horne's 93rd birthday, years in which she survived and even thrived in both the recording industry and in films despite the usual pitfalls; she died in May 2010, having overcome everything else...

*In much the same way Jim Crow laws segregated blacks and whites in public spaces, the entertainment industry - especially movies and music - likewise produced 'high-minded' art for whites and far more entertaining, slightly risque, material entirely (and only) for the black market.

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