Monday, April 30, 2012

Lena vs. Ava in the Role of Show Boat's "Julie"

Lena Horne
One of my favorite movies from the Hollywood heyday of musicals is Show Boat, made in 1951, starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson.

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!

Ava Gardner
Ironically, Ava Gardner was one of Lena's closest off-screen friends.  She practiced for the role by singing to Horne's recordings of the songs, since Lena had already appeared in the "Show Boat" segment of Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).  In that, she had appeared as "Julie" singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (which was, as all her MGM appearances, shot in such a way that it could be easily edited out of the film).

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!


Old Kitty said...

Lena Horne! What a voice! What a beauty! And what a shame she was never cast as Julie in the musical film! :-(

I love Ava Gardner but even I could see she was painted up for the role! Good grief!

Take care

Saumya said...

I've never seen the movie but definitely want to. Thanks for teaching me about it! It's so interesting how roles have changed in the years. I was just telling my boyfriend yesterday that now, funny, intelligent women are more respected than ever, regardless of how they look. It's wonderful!

The Desert Rocks said...

Every time I see Lena Horne she takes my breath away and it's hard to impress me because my mother was like a twin to Ava Gardner. I liked Showboat but honestly whenever I saw those old movies (that were obviously miscast) I was very confused.

William Kendall said...

My aversion to musicals would keep me from seeing the film, but Lena Horne had an amazing voice.

Norma Beishir said...

Lena Horne was an incredible talent. What she could accomplish if she had begun her career today!

Maria McKenzie said...

@Old Kitty: She was a talented beauty. I love Ava, too, but that light Egyptian was clearly visible in Show Boat;).

@Saumya: Roles are changing! Thank goodness more value is put on what's on the inside now:).

@Eve: You're mother must've turned some heads! There's something painful (and confusing) about watching miscast roles;).

@William: So you have an aversion to muxicals? Now I know why you hate The Wizard of Oz!

@Norma: She was! I've wondered about that, too, and I'm so thankful it's a different day:).

lovemydesignergenes said...

See a very short clip of Showboat (including Lena Horne singing)... in the 1946 film Till the Clouds Roll by! She sings Can't Help Lovin Dat Man. Sad we didn't get her in a full length version!

charles said...

william Warfield's version of old man river had people crying in the theaters in 1951. I saw it at 13. It was a big hit