The sultry Ava Gardner also starred as "Julie," the mixed race (mulatto) character. However, before she was cast, the beautiful (African American) Lena Horne was considered.
While Lena Horne was employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM), her appearances in movies were shot so that they could be cut easily from the films she appeared in. This was because MGM feared audiences of that time, especially those in the South, would not accept a beautiful black woman in romantic, non-menial roles.
This was probably the main reason she lost out on playing "Julie." I remember seeing her on a talk show back in the '80s explaining how MGM's makeup department had come up with a foundation for her to wear as "Julie," called light Egyptian. Shortly afterwards, however, Ava Gardner was the one being slathered with it and not her!
Another irony for Lena is that she had been invited by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II themselves to play "Julie" in the 1946 Broadway revival of Show Boat, but had had to refuse because MGM would not release her from her contract.
Shortly after her death in 2010, Time Magazine provided a biography on what Lena Horne's film career could have looked like:
Gorgeous, gifted and preternaturally poised, the 24-year-old actress-singer came to Hollywood in 1941 and quickly became the first African-American movie star. She was a sensation in her first leading role, as the Congo goddess Tondelayo in MGM's White Cargo. She earned an Academy Award nomination as the light-skinned black girl passing for white in Elia Kazan's Pinky, then capped her first decade of stardom playing Julie and singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the 1951 film Show Boat.
Those roles were eventually played by Hedy Lamarr, Jeanne Crain, and Ava Gardner, respectively. It's a shame we'll never know what Lena Horne could have done with them!
Have you ever seen Show Boat? Thanks for visiting!