Thursday, March 13, 2014


In one of the few instances I can recall from my youth where everyone in my family was in agreement over what movie to see (and as there were five of us, this was a rare occurrence, indeed), one Friday evening my dad fired up the trusty Oldsmobile and took us all to San Francisco’s Northpoint Theater to see That’s Entertainment in 70mm and Six-Track Stereo.

It was 1974, and I was a 16-year-old, self-styled cineaste in the first blush of a full-tilt, head-over-heels love affair with The Movies. And if my adolescent over-earnestness was made obvious by a myopic preference for the films of the 60s and 70s above all others; I have Ken Russell’s charming 1930s musical pastiche, The Boy Friend (1971) to thank for opening my eyes to the joys of second-hand nostalgia and for awakening the latent classic film fan within.
That’s Entertainment, a compilation film highlighting 50 years of MGM musicals through clips and misty-eyed reminiscences by Golden-Age stars, was one of the few examples of the real thing to emerge out of the largely revamped/revisionist nods to the past that typified the 70s pop culture nostalgia craze (The Great Gatsby, The Way We Were, Happy Days, The Divine Miss M, et al.)
Released at a time when the public’s appetite in films ran chiefly to disaster movies, black-themed dramas, irreverent comedies, and kung-fu actioners; That’s Entertainment – part Old Hollywood eulogy, part tribute to the very sort of escapist, purely-for-entertainment, studio-system fare the New Hollywood aimed to discredit – tapped into something in the cultural zeitgeist that sought relief from the tensions of Watergate, Vietnam, inflation, and the oil crisis. Its intentions made explicit by the poster tagline: “Boy. Do we need it now,” That’s Entertainment was originally conceived as G-rated counter-programming for the largely-ignored elder demographic; but the film’s reverent, gently self-mocking tone and invitation to “Forget your troubles, c’mon, get happy!” proved irresistible to young and old alike. The relatively low-budget That’s Entertainment became one of the top-grossing films of 1974.
For a youthful disciple of the auteur theory like me, That’s Entertainment represented an unexpectedly welcome change from all the sturm und drang of post-classical cinema, reminding me what a joy it was just to have FUN at the movies for a change.

I saw That’s Entertainment several more times that summer, standing foremost in my mind being the memory of the unrecognizably young Joan Crawford always drawing the film’s biggest laughs with her “spirited” Charleston; the way the lively “Varsity Drag” number from Good News always put a smile on my face; and how surreal and marvelously loony those Esther Williams water extravaganzas seemed to me.
But in the end it was one of the non-musical moments of That’s Entertainment that ultimately made the strongest and most lasting impression on me. It's only a few seconds long, but it stood out like a beacon, and the image haunted me for many years after.
Greenbriar Picture Shows
In newsreel footage documenting a massive luncheon thrown by MGM in 1949 to commemorate its 25th Anniversary, a slew of the studio’s biggest contract stars are lined up and seated … not unlike ducks in a shooting gallery  … at a bank of tiered dining tables. As the camera dollies along the aisles capturing the stars in various states of conviviality (Ava Gardner & Clark Gable), mortification (Errol Flynn), clowning (Buster Keaton), or chowing down heartily (Angela Lansbury); we’re given a fleeting glimpse of Lena Horne, seated between Katherine Hepburn and an actor I believe to be Michael Redgrave.

What burned a hole in my retina and seared a tattoo on my 16-year-old mind was the look on Lena Horne’s face: She’s not having any. Seriously. In stark contrast to That’s Entertainment’s sparse parade of subordinate black performers (and regrettably, but inevitably, white performers in blackface) wearing beatific smiles, eager to entertain, grateful merely to be allowed to “sit at the table” (in Ms. Horne’s case, a term both literal and figurative); there sat this (very) solitary black woman, poised, dressed to the nines, and displaying a self-possession and look of utter disdain that, in context with the place and time, looked to me like nothing short of an act of militancy.

It was more than the fact that she wasn’t smiling. It’s that she held herself with this kind of removed, regal aplomb while assuming a wilfully casual posture that communicated to any and all that she wasn't on exhibit and wasn't going to be putting on a show for anybody’s benefit. Her expression: a raised-eyebrows/lowered eyelids combo familiar to anyone who’s ever been sized-up; her jaw: set; her gaze: cool. Lena Horne had flipped the script, folks. The one on display was doing the judging. Miss Lena Horne, to use the vernacular, was a diva throwing shade.
(Horne, whose ongoing battles with MGM have been well-documented in several biographies as well as her as-told-to 1965 autobiography, Lena, was at the end of her seven-year contract with the studio when this footage was shot, so by this point she was fairly fed up with the studio and obviously didn't care who knew it.)
And that’s precisely what struck me most about this sequence. Lena Horne at that table – subtly rebellious in the simple act of daring the camera to capture who she was at that moment, not what the studio wanted her to be – was the first glimpse of a contemporarily recognizable black reality I had ever seen in the context of classic film.

As a teen, I’d watched many old movies on TV, but I'd never seen a single image of a black person in any of those films whom I even recognized, let alone could relate to. The shuffling, smiling, obsequious blacks that appeared on The Late, Late Show bore no resemblance to me or anyone I’d ever met or known. They seemed strange and alien to me, the blatant disrespect and caricature inherent in their depiction and representation in no way nullified by their frequently being imbued with near-superhuman levels of kindness and compassion. These images were lies, and my resistance to them inhibited my exposure to classic film (pre-1950s films) for many years.

So while I wasn't sure then, I now understand why Lena Horne in that brief bit of black & white newsreel footage from That’s Entertainment stayed with me over the years. I was responding to the "truth” she presented. In place of the fetishized ebony goddess segregated to stand-alone cabaret sequences in all-white musicals (all the better to be excised from prints screened in the South) or the ornamental siren in well-intentioned but patronizing all-black epics, I saw a glimpse of a real black woman reacting authentically and appropriately to her circumstances and surroundings: 

“I disconnected myself to shield myself from people who would sway to my songs in the club and call me ‘nigger’ in the street. They were too busy seeing their own preconceived image of a Negro woman. The image that I chose to give them was of a woman who they could not reach and therefore can’t hurt.” - Lena Horne

I would come to learn that such candor was a hallmark of Lena Horne, a pioneering actress/singer of astounding fearlessness whose battles with racism, sexism, and institutionalized ignorance have earned her the labels "embittered" and "hard" in many a biography, but which qualify her as a warrior and hero in my book. (Similar behavior attributed to an actress like Bette Davis is called being a "fighter" and a "survivor.")

"The only time I ever said a word (onscreen) to another actor who was white was Kathryn Grayson in a little segment of 'Show Boat' included in the film, 'Till the Clouds Roll By' "

This production still is proof that such a scene was shot, but in my copy of the film it appears to have been excised. Horne sings "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" (Lena was not about to use the offensive black dialect, "dat" ) and is seen in an ensemble shot, but has no lines at all. Those familiar with Horne's biography know that "Show Boat"s Julie LaVerne, an archetypical "tragic mulatto" character, was a role Horne coveted. Although she was offered the part in a 1946 Broadway revival that MGM refused to release her from her contract for, but given the racial prejudices at the time and the essential "reveal" aspect of the role itself, it's unlikely Horne was ever seriously considered for the 1951 film version.

It’s not exactly the easiest thing being both an aware African-American man and a huge fan of classic film. Often it means finding ways to make peace with wonderful movies that nevertheless include disrespectful, ofttimes painfully degrading racial clichés and promote heinous stereotypes. It means having your comments on the topic downplayed by missing-the-entire-point comparisons (“The marketing of stereotypes is Hollywood's stock in trade!"), or minimized by over-broad generalizations (“That’s how they thought back then. You gotta overlook it!”).

It means you sometimes have to be “that guy” who brings up the alternative point of view at a Gone With the Wind screening or Busby Berkeley film festival (Berkeley had a distinct fondness for blackface numbers), or you’re Mr. Buzzkill who’s accused of politicizing the arts when you contradict the suggestion that the largely all-white world depicted in classic films reflect a “simpler, gentler time.”  You're the wet blanket out to subvert people’s cherished memories of sweet-natured mammies, childlike slaves, and benevolent servants; and you’re the PC guy who insists on applying contemporary attitudes to works that are essentially historical records of cultural attitudes of the time in which they were created.
Lena with Eddie Anderson in Cabin in the Sky (1943), the film that made her into a star
But films are not frozen in time, they live. And to me it's an important part of the cinema experience to continue to see the old through new eyes.

What I saw in Lena Horne's very contemporary rebellious spirit paved a way for me to see the humanity behind black stereotypes in movies I'd previously felt so offended by, I simply shunned them. I have since developed a profound respect for the black actors who had to play these roles, knowing that it couldn't have been easy, and in many instances, must have been soul-killing work. Lena Horne may not have been the first black actor to refuse to play maids or servants, but she certainly must have been one of the few to still have her job after doing so.

Today, when I look at that clip from That’s Entertainment, I am impressed as hell with Lena Horne's attitude. She's a hero to me because at a time when nothing was expected of her but to be a sepia-toned fantasy object, she owned her anger, expressed her resentment, and voiced her outrage.  And that she did so a time when so many others couldn't ... well, for me, that just made her the biggest star MGM had on the lot that day, and certainly the most memorable and inspiring woman I saw on the screen that Friday evening back in  1974.

Photograph © Carol Friedman

The complete 10-minute newsreel covering the MGM 25th Anniversary luncheon is available for viewing on YouTube  HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Hi Ken, thanks for turning the spotlight on a great lady indeed, the fabulous Lena Horne. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to see her live on Broadway in her one-woman show, The Lady and Her Music. She truly was one of the most exciting singers of all time...and it's fitting that the haunting Stormy Weather was her signature tune.

    So interesting that you use the MGM 25th anniversary luncheon footage to point out Horne's indentured servitude as a contract player int he 1940s. I had just mentioned to Poseidon on his blog a few weeks ago how exciting that scene seemed to me as a child, "more stars than there were in heaven"...but your article also made me realize why the dream factory was also referred to in the industry as a stable. And I recall distinctly that Miss Lena Horne in particular did not look happy to be there--being trotted out as one of the corporation's assets. As Faye says as Joan Crawford, "Might as well have property of MGM tattooed on my backside!!"

    The sad part is, as you recount, Horne spent most of her tenure patiently waiting for a movie break that never came to fulfill the promise of Cabin in the Sky. She was a bird in a gilded cage, unable to soar, trapped by the glass ceiling of her own talent and success. Oh, how I wish I could have seen her play Julie in the color remake of Showboat. The creative team at MGM could not convince the studio brass to take that risk and set an example...after all, that's exactly what Showboat is supposed to be about!! As a result, we have Ava Gardner, practically in blackface, a lovely woman and fine actress, but who can't sing worth a damn, ruining one of the great musical roles. God, what Miss Lena Horne would have done with that role.

    I too adored That's Entertainment as a child. And I had the big, heavy MGM Story coffee table book that was published around the same time, which listed each and every MGM release from 1924-1974...I studied it like eggheaded kids used to study the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

    Also wanted to note that just a few months after that anniversary luncheon, Judy Garland, who looked so at home chatting with her coworkers in that footage, would be suspended, censured and ultimately fired by the studio who worked her so hard that she ended up a nervous wreck and dependent on pharmaceuticals to function for the rest of her short life. If Miss Horne had made too much money for the studio as a real movie star, they might have done the same to her. Big corporations exploit (and hoard) their resources...

    Another fascinating and thought-provoking article, Ken. I look forward to each and every Le Cinema Dreams post!

    1. Hi Chris
      How terrific that you were able to see Lena Horne perform live! Her screen appearances are so sparse, and like Dorothy Dandridge, I always look at her and wonder what heights she could have hit had there not been so many restraints on how she could be used in film in those days. She's a real trailblazer and hero to me.

      Though not an actress of range (although, to be honest, I can't say she was ever given much of an opportunity to work at it) she was certainly no worse than say, Esther Williams, and I know it was groundbreaking for a black woman to be presented as glamour figure.

      Too bad for MGM she was such a talented and headstrong flesh-and-blood woman and not just a symbol. Reading her autobiography and bio, I had no idea how many suspensions, sanctions and blacklists were imposed upon her merely because she objected to being so marginalized.

      The whole "Show Boat" thing differs depending on what sources I read. In her autobiography she claims the film role was a real possibility, but biographers cite not only the onscreen segregationist practices of the time, but a plot which necessitated the real racial identity of her character be a surprise as reasons to believe it may have been a role that was perfect for her, but unlikely that a studio like MGM would take such a risk with such a big budget film. Either way, I think it’s our loss.

      Curious too that you had actually brought up this luncheon on Poseidon’s blog! That’s one of the things that always fascinates me about old Hollywood – it definitely has it’s glamorous side, but it’s so eye opening to me when I read about people of color in the business reacting in very contemporary way to things we’ve long been told “That’s how it was back then”. (For example: it wasn’t until I saw this documentary about Carmen Miranda titled “Bananas is my Business” that it ever occurred to me that she was ever less than pleased with her screen persona, or that many Latin groups at the time hassled her about it).

      Just a fascinating flip side to the Golden Era of Hollywood. I flattered by your compliments Chris, as I am gratified by your finding these posts in some ways interesting and thought provoking. Thanks!

  2. Ken, Though I don't agree on all your points, I respect your point of view, and what a multi-layered piece, all starting from you seeing Lena in that brief newsreel footage as a teenager. This is one of your best pieces, I think.

    It is jolting when one is watching an golden era movie comes on and you unexpectedly see a black performer playing a grinning butler or mammy. My sister and I watched "The Great Lie" on TCM recently and we were jolted by how much footage was spent on Bette Davis' southern mansion, with Hattie McDaniel and her real life brother playing servants who had no other worries in their lives than fussing over Bette's romantic life! There were even black boys performing spirituals on the lawn when Bette marries...we thought we were watching "Jezebel" for awhile!

    Regarding MGM. Did they ever treat ANY of their leading ladies well? Shearer, Garbo, and Crawford were unceremoniously put out to pasture! Stable, indeed! Garland, who I have read the role of Julie was earmarked for, was given the boot at 28, when she could no longer perform. Ava left on bad terms (and her singing was dubbed in Showboat, fyi), and finally Liz Taylor was forced to do Butterfield 8, despite a gentleman's agreement that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof be her last Metro film. Hollywood Royalty...more like glorified indentured servants...

    I have always been fascinated by Lena and love watching clips of her on YouTube...there's one priceless clip with Dino and Bing...she hated Crosby...and she totally ignores him in their number together!

    Sorry for this stream of consciousness...your article was very thought provoking on a lot of levels!

    1. Hi Rico
      Thanks for the very kind compliments! I’m glad you found the piece thought-provoking, which is far more gratifying to hear than having you agree with me on all points, which is a goal one never is sure one reaches in writing (a writing teacher once said that if you write something everyone agrees with, you’re probably not writing from your truth).

      And yes, it’s all rather amazing how much impact a brief, flickering film image can have on a young mind. Although at times reluctant to admit it, I think Hollywood is well aware of the power of imagery and representation onscreen, as Dirk Bogarde once remarked about the industry, you can show all manner of inhumane violence, but show a character smoking a cigarette and you catch holy hell.

      That experience you had with your sister watching “The Great Lie” mimics one a friend and I had several years ago at a revival theater screening of “The Little Foxes.” The film is a favorite, but I always forget how much I hate how the black characters are portrayed. Nothing on par with Mickey Rooney’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” embarrassment, but enough to appear jarringly cartoonish against the thoughtful care given the other characters. The black characters feel as if they are from another movie.

      And yes, the patriarchal attitude of MGM certainly made life rough on its roster of actresses. That’s why I felt I had to pay tribute to Len Horne, because she was the only major star who had the same treatment doled out with the extra helping of segregation and institutionalized racism - of having certain hairdressers and makeup people refuse to work on her; initial refusal to be allowed in the MGM commissary; who, after the cameras stopped rolling, knew she could never be seated in the same theater section as her co-stars to even watch a film she starred in. She experienced a very unique and solitary kind of injustice. How she survived that without cracking up or self-destructing is beyond me.

      Oh, and thanks for the heads-up on that great clip of Lena on the Dean Martin Show. It is indeed a priceless freeze out by Ms. Horne! It would be uncomfortable to watch if it weren't so hilarious a display of what I so admire about her: she fought when so many others crumbled.

      Thanks Rico. I really appreciate the thoughtful consideration you gave your comment. Sharing with me your experience and feelings on the topic is a huge contribution to the topic!

    2. Ken, I hope I don't show MY ignorance, but have your written any books about film...because I would certainly buy them! Friends of mine are always telling me I am a walking IMDB, and that I should write about film, but I realize there are so many out there writing great blogs, like you.

      Headsup back: If you thought "The Little Foxes" had distracting stereotypes, then skip "The Great Lie," because it's far worse! And it wasn't even a period piece like "Foxes" or "Jezebel"!

      I hear people say "That's just the way it was back then" about a lot of social mores, like race...sexism, and of course homophobia. But that's a misconception that the average filmgoer makes, I think. That Hollywood film in the golden era was a reflection of the world, and particularly, life in the US. I often did people really buy Andy Hardy as real life? Or Ozzie and Harriet? And that all blacks shuffled and jived like Amos and Andy? And all wives wanted to be like June Allyson? And the more I talked to people of those eras...the answers were often a laughing...NO! It was considered an idealization...sometimes meant harmlessly, but often exclusionary and negative to the people that didn't measure up to the "ideal."

      And Lena deserves applause for surviving that era at MGM that you described. You mentioned some writers/critics later described her as hard and bitter...whereas Bette Davis was described as a survivor, etc. I think during more sexist times, both women were described with the same adjectives, which I won't repeat! But it was hard enough to be a strong white woman in that era, much less a black one. I am glad Lena lived long enough to rise above it all...

      If somebody could make a great film bio of Lena, who would you pick to DIRECT and STAR, Ken?
      (I am glad that Nipplegate cause Janet Jackson to drop her planned biopic! Would director Steve McQueen or Scorsese do a good job? I always thought Alicia Keyes looked a bit like Horne...
      What say you?)

    3. Hi again Rico. Boy! You make so many interesting points and ask so many fascinating questions it’s going to be a challenge to keep this brief.

      First off, no, I haven’t written a book on film (flattered you think I might), but have a project I put aside a while back that I really need to return to. When it’s done, now I know I have at least one sale. 

      And yes, there are so many good film blogs out there, but not so many that someone with your thoughtfulness wouldn’t be a welcome addition. You really should consider writing about movies. Like the internet itself, there are a lot of film facts and statistics out there, but not as much as you’d think in the way of analysis and thought provoking examination of movies in a cultural context.

      By the way, I absolutely love the point you make about the widely-held misconception behind the “That’s the way they thought back then” line of justification. I think you’re right and you state it very well. You could write an entire essay on that point alone.

      I’m not at all for censorship and think every racially offensive image and reference should be left in books and films, not edited out for new sensibilities. But to do so, I don’t think we should not be allowed to get ourselves off the hook (culturally speaking) by saying these images and words merely reflect the attitudes of their times and are therefore beyond criticism. They’re only useful now if we take historical responsibility for them. Especially since we’re not exactly talking about attitudes that have magically disappeared from the face of the earth.

      As far as a bio of Lena Horne, I too think Alicia Keyes looks a great deal like her, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief Janet Jackson is no longer involved in any such plans. But I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a problem with celebrity bios. I tend to think they have nothing new to say and seem to always cover the same ground. They tend to be either overfamiliar rags to riches stories (I saw the trailer for the new James brown bio, and it looks like it could be about Ray Charles); triumph over adversity stories, or the cruelty of show biz stories.
      Even taking to account the different individuals in question, the treatment often looks so similar.

      If there is someone I’d LOVE to see a movie bio of it would be Hattie McDaniel (starring Octavia Spencer?) chiefly because she is someone who is just not as well known as she deserves to be. I always have a love/hate thing going with her roles. She is almost the best thing in “Alice Adams” but it still makes me cringe a bit.

      Rico, you should start a blog just to have a place to posit your interesting questions! Thanks for giving me an opportunity to moth off even further on the Lena Horne topic. This response is like an unofficial Part II to my post! Thanks, pal!

    4. Sadly, I think you are right about most film bios...
      Perhaps a great documentary on Lena, docs have become very popular in the last decade...perhaps for HBO ; )
      Well, I just read your original post on Lena for the 3rd time.
      Lots of great stuff. I am finishing my last semester in an MFA program...and much of what they have been drumming in my head about personal essays are in yours! So this is my justification for taking a homework break ; )
      Great writing, Ken!

    5. I second Ken's motion - rico, you need to do a blog too so we can benefit from your encyclopedic knowledge of film!!

    6. Thanks so much, Rick! And, echoing Chris there, I guess it's time for you to think about doing a little film writing of your own. Seems like you have a built-in audience already!

  3. Hi Ken, thank you for your very interesting article about Lena Horne. It was fascinating to read about how a few seconds of film can affect someone and change a teenagers perspective. I have seen too few movies with Lena Horne. She could have been huge had people back then not been so intolerant and afraid of change.

    I too think you should write a book or two about the movies! I'd buy them. You write with such insight about cool films and now of the depiction of african americans in the so called "classics". Are there any good books about african american actors in Hollywood films of the 1930-50s you know of? Please review Lena Horne films on your site.
    Thanks, Wille

    1. Hi there, Wille
      What you say about that split-second thing that can happen in movies - a single image can spark a veritable emotive or intellectual conflagration - is why I've never held to the axiom "It's only a movie." Images are too subliminally powerful. You never know what's going to capture someone's imagination and why.
      You are always so complimentary about my writing and these posts, so I thank you for that. But mostly what I always appreciate about you is your genuine interest and curiosity about films and players you are unfamiliar with. That's a quality that even I can't claim to possess in large amount (I stick to genres and films that are close to my already calcified tastes).

      I know there are many wonderful books out there on the subject, but two books I actually liked enough to purchase are "A Separate Cinema" by John Kisch which enlightened me so much about black film history, and a book I got back in 1975 after seeing this movie (so I think it might be out of print); it's title "Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies and bucks" by Donald Bogle. I'm sure there are many more terrific books on the market. Every time I explore a film book, I'm surprised to be confronted with how little I know!

      I might review a Lena Horne film sometime in the future, but I honestly find it difficult to review her work independent of her cultural significance. I've always been so in awe of her as this survivor and fighter, that I'm not quite sure I'm a good candidate for objective appraisal of her film work. You can't really be fair about someone you regard as a hero.
      Thanks for your continued interest in my blog, and should you catch a Lena Horne film sometime (like her only dramatic role in the so-so western "Death of a Gunfighter") let me know!

  4. Great post Ken.
    Hollywood has a lot to answer for in the squandering of so much black talent over the years. Whenever I see Lena Horne or Diana Ross in 'Lady Sings the Blues" I want to weep over the way their talent was ignored and/or sidelined.
    The same goes for Dandridge, of course, and a particular favorite of mine, Diana Sands.

  5. Thanks so much, Joe
    What you say about the squandering of talent is one of the top reasons I wish the discussion regarding Hollywood's continued racial myopia was one engaged in by more than just people of color. In the end and culturally speaking, we ALL wind up losing so much.
    Oh....and Diana Sands. If you ever want to make me melancholy over what was potentially lost to us all by Hollywood's short-sightedness, just mention Diana Sands and Rosalind Cash. Two amazing actresses whose names should be more well known.

  6. As one who grew up eating in front of the television and not the table, those images of Hollywood stars sat at dinner tables the length of a football field, one row behind the other, have always made me feel as uncomfortable as my fellow Australian Errol Flynn looks here! (I also love the fact that Our Errol puts both his elbows on the table!) I've never understood the whole thing about taking a simple exercise such as eating and turning it into a social extravagance, complete with a set of draconian rules. Eating (like love and sex) is meant to be fun, sensual, and sometimes a little bit messy. It's one of the few things that we do that is genuinely essential, and as such, should be a joyous thing unencumbered by stuffy regimentation.

    I was privileged a short number of years ago to catch "Stormy Weather" in its original 35mm print format the the Astor Theatre. One thing I did notice was that the male cast members were permitted to be any shade of brown (typically at the darker end of the scale), whereas the female cast members tended to be rather fair by comparison (i.e. most if not all were about the same colour as Miss Lena Horne). I can only guess that unless actress portraying a "mammy" role, Hollywood had little to no time for women who were a deeper shade of brown. They certainly wouldn't have liked the notion of such a darkly-complected woman tantalising a "white male audience" in (by the standards of the time) risqué dance numbers. This is not to suggest that Miss Horne did not deserve her role in "Stormy Weather", nor is it to suggest she had it any easier than darker-complected actresses--if anything, I believe that Miss Horne must have faced a double stigma of sorts--not white enough for the whites, not black enough to truly represent the blacks--it couldn't have been easy for her. Just what was Hollywood to do with Miss Lena Horne? What was she to do with them?

    By the way, in case you haven't already seen it, the episode of "Sanford and Son" with Lena Horne as the special guest star (playing herself) is available to view on YouTube in its original aspect ratio! I remember seeing this when I was a child, back when reruns of "Sanford and Son" were screened at six o'clock in the morning on weekdays! You really think I got up that early for school?

  7. Hi Mark!
    I had no idea Errol Flynn was Australian! Just goes to show .. m aversion to action films and their stars goes back as far as Erroll Flynn swashbucklers. I should read more about him!
    You bring up an interesting point about the light skin/dark skin issue re; blacks in films. MGM was considered quite courageous and groundbreaking in actually taking a black actress and fashioning her into a glamour star. Rather unheard of outside of the independent, black made and produced "race films" that served black audiences in the 20s and 30s before the big studio monopolies helped put them out of business.
    From Lena Horne arguably up to today, the application of European standards of beauty has been the way studios have made women of color "acceptable" to white audiences.
    From the perspective of patriarchal racism, the sexuality of black men was more to be feared, so there was little to no sexualizing of the black male onscreen. no one wanted white women swooning over a black man who looked like Clark Gable. So the whole "color" issue was established and is difficult to shake even today.
    Thanks for bringing up a fascinating point. one worthy of more backstory than I can go into here. Maybe you've inspired a future post...!
    I am going to check out the Lena Horne clip you mentioned. I never liked the TV show, but I do enjoy Lena Horne, and can only imagine what a fuss Fred Sanford would make over the first black screen goddess. Thanks, Mark!

  8. I, too, was struck by the regal Lena Horne's apparent disdain for the panning camera. She was the only one who ignored the command to chat happily while eating. (In the second pass, we do see her conversing with apparent seriousness with Kathryn Hepburn.) The other thing that struck me about the MGM 25th Anniversary luncheon was poor Judy Garland, chattering and gesturing all over the place in that suspiciously twitchy way she had when on speed, talking with exaggerated animation to someone who wasn't Fred Astaire who sat next to her, but an apparently invisible figure behind him. I think she was clearly mocking the proceedings. She also sat distinctly hunched over, as if to accentuate Mr. Mayer's pet name for her, "my little hunchback."

    1. That entire clip is really a fascinating bit of Hollywood history. You get a real sense of the assembly-line/dream factory aspect of MGM, and, by guessing about the darting eyes and body language, how easily some stars took to it.
      I had to take another look at it to remind myself of Judy garland, and indeed your description is apt. She is animated as hell and seems to be talking to Alexis Smith at the table behind her.
      It's anybody's guess, but her turning her face away from the hoards of press people who were gathered to gaze at MGM's stars eating (as though livestock on display) always looked like an act of subtle rebellion. They were there to get a load of her, and wasn't giving it them.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughtful impressions on what to me is an evocative bit of documentary footage!