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Vol. LXIV, No. 20
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
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DVD Review

Stormy Weather Then and Now: Lena Horne’s Song Is Also America’s

Stuart Mitchner

America evolves, and sometimes those evolutions are painful.

Barack Obama

Lena Horne, who died May 9 in New York, didn’t write “Stormy Weather.” Credit for that goes to Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Nor was she the first to sing it. Ethel Waters has that honor. And while it would not be a stretch to say that she lived it — Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne is the title of James Gavin’s recent biography — she survived to the proverbial ripe old age of 92 while two of the song’s most inspired interpreters, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland, died at 44 and 47, respectively. Lena Horne may have lacked the sheer genius of incomparable artists like Holiday and Garland, but if anyone owns the song, she does, having claimed it in 1943 at the age of 26 in the 20th-century Fox musical of the same name.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

After mentioning Lena Horne’s “beautiful voice” and onscreen performances in his message of condolence, President Obama stressed her contribution to the struggle against racism and her refusal to play before segregated audiences. Most obituaries followed the same pattern, with summaries of her career as an entertainer sharing space with citings of her encounters with bigotry, such as the one in The New York Times relating what happened when she rented a house in Hollywood early in her career. According to Lena, when the neighbors passed around a petition “to get rid of me,” the man across the street, who happened to be Humphrey Bogart, “raised hell with them.”

Instances of celebrity racism also turn up in James Hirsch’s new biography of Willie Mays. Even when he was the toast of San Francisco, Mays ran into problems as soon as he bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. On the other hand, if you look in the index of David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (from which the statement at the top is quoted), you’ll find only three references under “Racism, experienced by,” two of which are minor episodes dating back to high school days in Hawaii (as Remnick says, “hardly moments worthy of Manchild in the Promised Land”). The third indexed reference is to “the racial component of the opposition” to Obama’s nomination and election to the presidency. So it goes: as soon as a black man moves into the most hallowed piece of real estate in the great American neighborhood, he runs into “problems” like, for instance the toxic witch’s brew the “birther movement” is busy bringing to a boil.

If the index to James Gavin’s biography had a category such as “Racism, experienced by,” it would dwarf the other listings. Seemingly every step of Horne’s remarkable but beleagured professional career had a racist subtext. Although various obituaries credit her for “shattering racial boundaries” as the first black actress to appear on screen with “her dignity intact,” she usually performed in a vacuum, doing stand-alone scenes, segregated from interaction with her white co-stars because the films she appeared in had to be constructed so that her appearances could be removed in states where theaters refused to screen films with black performers. Whether singing on the road with Charlie Barnet’s band in her early twenties or headlining in top venues a decade later, she had to swallow her pride and suffer the humiliation forced upon her by Jim Crow. Not allowed to sit on the bandstand between numbers with Barnet, she would “hide in a ladies-room stall.” Playing the Copacabana in New York, she was infuriated when she found that friends coming to see her were being turned away because of their color.

Draining the Pool

In Las Vegas, “the Mississippi of the West,” celebrity racism was so bizarre it would almost be “funny ha-ha,” if it weren’t so “funny crazy.” Into the late 1950s, even with show biz stars who were Las Vegas like Sammy Davis Jr., the applause (like the cheering Willie Mays heard at Candlestick Park) wasn’t enough to change the rules when it came to black entertainers sharing the same dining facilities or swimming pools with the white clientele.

According to Gavin’s biography, “Horne seldom shunned a job because of racism; rather than walk away, she went in there and fought” so that in the mobster-enforced segregation of Las Vegas, for example, she would be allowed to sleep and eat at the hotel where she was performing, and her children would be allowed to swim in the pool and her musicians to use the main entrance. Gavin chooses not to mention the widely circulated report that the swimming pool Horne’s daughter swam in was drained after she used it. Go online and you can find other accounts of the draining of Las Vegas hotel swimming pools after “pollution” by infectious creatures like Dorothy Dandridge, Hazel Scott, and Josephine Baker.

It would be consoling to write such things off as apocryphal or bizarrely exaggerated, but if you read enough in the sordid history of racism in Las Vegas, you have to believe that episodes no less appalling actually took place. An even weirder outrage involving Lena Horne is reported in the obituary notice in the May 9 Oakland Tribune. In 1947, when Horne was to perform at mobster Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel, she insisted that unless she were allowed a room on the premises there would be no show. Siegel’s compromise was to closet her in a cabana and order the black maids “to collect her bed linens every night and burn them.”

Stormy Weather

Now it’s time to stop harping on race and appreciate Lena Horne. But first, I should mention the racist lunancy in reverse that marked her first film role as Ethel Andrews in The Duke Is Tops (1938). Because it was an all-black production, the director and crew felt Lena didn’t look dark enough. “They wanted to paint me black,” James Gavin quotes her as saying, “and my mother wouldn’t let ‘em do that. But they put some white stuff on my lips.”

Thanks to YouTube, you can see 23-year-old Lena Horne singing “I Know You Remember” from The Duke Is Tops, or kibitzing with the panel in a funny voice as the Mystery Guest on What’s My Line; or looking remarkably bright and beautiful at the age of 80 chatting with Rosie O’Donnell, or singing a duet with Judy Garland in 1963.

Of the two versions of her song, “Stormy Weather,” I found on YouTube, the one from 1981, when she was 64, is the bravura performance of a diva pulling out all the stops and throwing herself on the mercy of the audience.

The version of “Stormy Weather” to see and see again, however, is the one from the 1943 movie of the same name that features special effects, a storm to reckon with, and at the end some street jive and a free-form ballet. The 1981 version is heroic. The earlier, definitive rendition, which begins with Horne on a night club set standing by a window as wind and rain sweep across the street outside, is much more subtle, in spite of the stormy special effects. First, her beauty alone is enough to stop the show. It challenges definition; it’s tender, fresh, sweet, vulnerable, submissive, open, and erotic. Rather than forcing the song the way she does in 1981, she gives herself up to it, lets the lyrics compel her. The first time she comes to the line, “Can’t go on, everything I had is gone,” she’s walking toward the camera, and when she gets to the word “go” in “Can’t go on,” her voice drops, almost as if the wind has briefly been knocked out of her and she’s bravely recovering herself. With that unexpected falling away, she takes you and your heart into the soliloquy-style interlude in the middle, a sort of play within a play that if sung too dramatically can sound silly, even laughable (“This pitterin’ patterin,’ beating and spattering drives me mad”), but all bets are off when she takes the word “love” and gives it four different voicings, each one as if torn from her, taking her by force so that as she comes to the song’s most explicit moment (“This misery’s just too much for me”), it’s no longer a mere performance, you’re there, in the moment, and when she reaches just a little heartbreakingly higher to return to “Can’t go on, everything I had is gone,” you’re all hers, done for, blown away, or, as my mother used to say at such moments, “reduced to rubble.”

If you want to see Lena Horne as the devil’s own seductress, check out the YouTube sequence from Cabin in the Sky (“Consequences”) where she devotes all her formidable allure to the seduction of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Unfortunately DVDs of Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather can’t be found at either Premier Video or the Princeton Public Library. Netflix is a possibility; otherwise, Turner Classic Movies will be celebrating Lena Horne on Friday, May 21, beginning at 8 p.m. with The Duke is Tops; at 9:30, Cabin in the Sky; and at 11:15 Panama Hattie.

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