Lena Horne’s tumultuous life and controversial career receives a curious treatment in the documentary “The Incomparable Lena Horne.” The film, which comes without any credits whatsoever, offers a mix of Horne’s classic musical performances along with a thumbnail biography which seems to have been lifted from an encyclopedia article.
Most everyone knows the importance of Horne’s Hollywood career: as the first African American sex symbol, she avoided the stereotypical roles of being a maid. Yet racism in the film business prevented her from enjoying any acting role outside of two all-black productions (“Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather”), so her film work was largely relegated to guest starring appearances in which she performed a song or two.
Yet a Lena Horne appearance was inevitably a show stopper and her distinct performing style created classic moments in such films as “Thousands Cheer” (singing “Honeysuckle Rose” while dressed in a diaphanous white gown which made her look like a goddess), “Till the Clouds Roll By” (with her astonishing interpretations of “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine” and “Why Was I Born?”) and “Words and Music” (putting her sexy mark on “The Lady is a Tramp”). And, of course, there is her landmark version of the title song from “Stormy Weather” – this is easily among the greatest musical numbers ever captured on film.
However, “The Incomparable Lena Horne” often seems to be two films at once. There is the line-up of her great musical numbers, which is always a delight to behold, but these are presented against a narration which highlights her career high and lows. Frequently the narration has absolutely nothing to do with the footage – triumphs and challenges from her later career are mentioned, but they are put up against unrelated performances from her early career. Television appearances and hit records are cited by the uncredited narrator, but they are never shared in this film.
The film also kicks some facts around. There is no mention of her well-known attempts to get cast as Julie in the 1951 MGM version of “Show Boat” (the part went to Ava Gardner, who wore the same Max Factor make-up that Horne wore for her Technicolor movies). The film cites her being listed in the notorious publication Red Channels, which resulted in blacklisting during the early 1950s, yet during this period Horne did make a few TV appearances including “Your Show of Shows” and “What’s My Line” and even tested for Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones.”
Even worse, Horne herself is never shown speaking for herself. She’s been the subject of many interviews, yet none are present here. What is present on this DVD is the full-length 1938 all-black indie feature “The Duke is Tops,” which was Horne’s movie debut. It is an awkward but okay film which Horne fans will enjoy as long as she is on camera.
Still, the joy of watching Horne bring beauty and style to Hollywood’s hit parade is more than sufficient. One can easily ignore the mistakes of “The Incomparable Lena Horne” as long as the ever-vibrant performer is front and center with a great tune.