It would be fair to state that Lena Horne – who was born on this day, June 30th, in 1917 (and would’ve been 99 years old today) – being the legend that she was, would herself say that her film acting career was something of a disappointment.
She appeared in only about 18 films over almost 60 years – from her first, the 1935 short film “Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party,” in which she appeared unbilled as a dancer; to her last in 1994, where she appeared as herself to introduce some MGM film musical sequences in “That’s Entertainment III.”
For much of her screen acting career, she was mainly relegated to appearing in brief musical numbers in movies, most of them for MGM where she was under contract, in which she usually just sang a song or two and then left, never to be seen again.
And most of the time, her appearances were separated and totally unrelated to the rest of the film, so that, in the South, her scenes could be easily cut out, so as to not offend southern audiences and their delicate sensibilities, who would have been disturbed to see a beautiful black woman on the screen.
Horne, herself, speaking on her limited screen time in movies, once remarked that, in most of her films, she felt like she was “like a butterfly pinned to a pillar.”
The one exception during her earlier acting years was, of course, in Fox’s 1943 musical “Stormy Weather,” in which she played the romantic female lead to dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who was literally 39 years older than she was, when he co-starred with her in the film. (Grandpas needs love too)
But It wasn’t until 1969, at 52 years old, and some 13 years after her previous film role, did Horne finally get her one and only chance to play a major dramatic character in a film (and got above-the-title billing to boot); it was in the Universal western “Death of a Gunfighter.”
Starring Richard Widmark in the lead, the film follows a sheriff who, over the years, has spent his life taming the town into peace and respectability. Conflict arises when the town’s citizens, all now good, respectable folk, want him out, being a relic of its violent past that they want to forget. Naturally he refuses to leave his post, which eventually leads to a tragic climax, as the title of the film suggests.
It’s not a classic by any means, and it has a flat, studio-bound, over-lit visual quality to it, similar to TV shows from the period. But the film does have a haunting, sad, elegiac quality of impending doom that makes it worth watching. (The film is currently available on Universal Home Video’s DVD-on-demand label, Universal Vault, through Amazon).
However it is definitely Horne – who plays Widmark‘s longtime lover – who captures your attention. Admittedly, though the film could have fleshed out her character more, one cannot deny that she really commands the camera’s every scene she’s in. She gives a good performance and you just can’t take your eyes off her, every time she’s on the screen. Her relationship with Widmark, like the film itself, has a gentle, wistful quality. They both make it obvious that they understand, by what they don’t say, that their relationship is doomed.
And keep in mind, back in 1969, it was pretty radical to portray a loving interracial relationship in any movie, made more interesting by the fact that Horne’s character’s race is never once mentioned in the film.
That the movie turned out better than expected is a miracle, since it had a chaotic production.
The original director was Robert Totten, a TV helmer, but he and Widmark did not get along at all, and Totten was finally fired with two weeks left on the shoot.
Widmark then brought in director Don Siegel (the original 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Dirty Harry,” “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” and “Escape from Alcatraz”) who directed Widmark the year before in the critically-acclaimed excellent cop movie, “Madigan.”
However, Siegel refused to take credit as director of the film since, of course, he only served as director for the last couple of weeks of filming. And Totten refused credit, since the finished version was not what he envisioned for the film. So the Director’s Guild of America created the pseudonym “Alan Smithee” for the picture, which immediately became the official DGA pseudonym for any film on which a director refused to take credit for any reason.
“Smithee” has, since 1969, directed some 76 feature films and TV movies, making him maybe the most prolific director in film history!
But as for Horne, not surprisingly, she never got another opportunity to show off her serious acting chops. It’s a pity too because one can only imagine what she was capable of achieving if given the opportunities.
Here’s the trailer for “Death of a Gunfighter” below: