Making her film debut in the 1938 musical The Duke Is Tops, Lena became the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio when she joined MGM in the early 1940s. For the most part, Lena's film appearances during the 30s and 40s were in "specialty" roles in which she'd perform a song that wasn't essential to the film's plot. This allowed her appearances to be easily edited out when the movies aired in Southern states. This tactic is deftly illustrated during the outstanding 1998 documentary Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X, which explores the portrayal of blacks in American films throughout the 20th century. The two exceptions during this period where Lena had substantial film roles were Cabin In the Sky and Stormy Weather (which ironically was produced by one of MGM's rivals, 20th Century Fox).
Although Hollywood rarely made proper use of Lena Horne's talents, she was a trailblazer in the truest sense. Every black actress from Dorothy Dandridge to Gabourey Sidibe owes Ms. Horne a debt of gratitude.
Below is the lineup of Lena Horne films that TCM will air on Friday, May 21st:
8:00 PM ET The Duke is Tops
9:30 PM ET Cabin in the Sky
11:15 PM ET Panama Hattie
You can read TCM's article on the career of Lena Horne by visiting the following link:
TCM Remembers Lena Horne
Shortly after Lena's death, I was contacted by someone at Newsy.com who wanted to know if I'd be interested in sharing the following short video with my readers. The video is a tribute to Lena's career that showcases the media response to her death and her comments on racial identity. If you have problems watching the embedded video, please click here.