hollywood canteen

Star Wars Episode VII: Lena Horne by Karina Longworth

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Signed to a contract by MGM in 1942, stunning singer/actress Lena Horne was the first black performer to be given the full glamour girl star-making treatment. But as the years went on and her studio failed to make much use of her, Horne started feeling like a token — and she wasn’t just being paranoid. A tireless USO performer during World War II, Horne and MGM were deluged with fan mail from African-American soldiers, an outpouring of support which still didn’t change the fundamentally racist institutional attitudes holding Horne back. We’ll trace her journey from the stage of The Cotton Club to the Hollywood Hills; her two marriages and her relationships with Vincente Minnelli, Orson Welles and Ava Gardner; her triumphs and disappointments on screen and off throughout the war era; the final insult which soured LenaHorne on Hollywood for good, and her remarkable late-in-life comeback.

Show Notes:

Before even listening to this episode, you might have noticed that there’s something a little different about it: it’s loooonnnng. This is not because I’ve suddenly fallen in love with the sound of my voice; it’s because I’ve fallen in love with the sound of LenaHorne’s voice. In the middle of my research for this episode, I discovered this public radio interview with Horne originally broadcast in 1966 and distributed by the Black Media Archive, and I thought it was so great that I immediately devoted the next couple of days to listening to all of the LenaHorne interview audio I could find. The episode is long because I included Lena’s version of her own story whenever possible, whether spoken or sung. 

There are several excerpts in this episode from the autobiographical stage show Lena mounted in the early 1980s, “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music.” Some of these excerpts come from a television version of the show that’s been posted on YouTube; others are from the official soundtrack album.

Other audio-video sources used in this episode, not including music:

LenaHorne on the Tonight Show

LenaHorne on Good Morning America, 1981

Clip from Cabin in the Sky

Jubilee! Episode #89, from Armed Forces Radio Service, July 24, 1944

Other sources include Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James GavinBright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle; A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin; and the book that got me started on the idea of including an episode on Lena into our Star Wars series, Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen by Sherrie Tucker.

Discography:

Stormy Weather instrumental, from a compilation called “Relaxing Jazz Instrumental 1940s Music”

Passing Fields by Quantum Jazz

Money by Jahzzar 

Dances and Dames by Kevin MacLeod

Make a Wish (For Christmas) by Lee Rosevere

Laserdisc by Chris Zabriskie

I Knew a Guy by Kevin MacLeod

Stormy Weather part 1, performed by LenaHorne in “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music”

Derelict by Beck

Main Stem performed by US Army Blues

Dagger by Slowdive

Gnossiennes No. 1 by Eric Satie

Can’t Stop Loving Dat Man performed by LenaHorne in ’Til The Clouds Roll By

There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriskie

Stormy Weather part 2, performed by LenaHorne in “LenaHorne: The Lady and Her Music”

YMRT #27: Star Wars Episode I: Bette Davis and the Hollywood Canteen by Karina Longworth

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Today we’re launching a new series for the new year, Star Wars, which will focus on movie stars and their lives and careers during times of war. Our first eight episodes will explore stories of women during World War II, and we’ll start with the woman who dominated all aspects of Hollywood, including its war effort, in the late 1930s-early 1940s: BetteDavis.

This is the story of how BetteDavis evolved from a wannabe starlet who was constantly told she was too ugly for movies, to the most powerful woman in Hollywood, by playing heroines that had never been seen on screen before — to borrow a term from Davis herself, sympathetic “bitches.” After Pearl Harbor, the tenacious Bette became the figurehead of the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by stars, which was the locus of the industry’s most visible support of the troops on the home front.

The Hollywood Canteen was a catalyst for propaganda in more ways than one, aims Hollywood furthered by telling the story of the Hollywood Canteen in a movie called, um, Hollywood Canteen, starring Davis, John Garfield, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Lorre and other celebrities as “themselves.” The movie and most press accounts of the Canteen portray it as a miraculous force for good in the world, which it probably was, but that narrative leaves out a lot, including illicit affairs, a murder, and an FBI investigation whose findings would have an impact on the blacklist of the following decade. 

Show Notes

This episode was a hell of a thing to research. BetteDavis published two autobiographies and both are very, very far from being impartial, but I consulted The Lonely Life a bit, as well as the authorized biography The Girl Who Walks Home Alone by Charlotte Chandler. I’d also recommend the Mysteries and Scandals episode on Davis, mostly to marvel at all of the ways in which A.J. Benza manages to call her a bitch without actually using the word “bitch.” Mark Harris’ Five Came Back was useful, particularly in its shading of the relationship between Davis and William Wyler.

More difficult was nailing down the story of the Hollywood Canteen. Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in The World is as prosaic as its title; at least Hollywood’s propaganda about the Canteen, including the Delmer Daves movie Hollywood Canteen (excerpted in the episode) makes the spin fun. Much, much better is Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen. by Sherrie Tucker — a fascinating, beautifully written and researched study of the Canteen which goes into deep consideration of the social/racial/class/political conflicts enmeshed into this supposedly squeaky-clean nightclub which has become an icon of the supposed uncomplicated patriotism of the generation who fought WWII.

Discography:

Dance of the Stargazer performed by the US Army Blues Band

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Lonely Town performed by Blossom Dearie

Ghost Dance performed by Kevin MacLeod

Au coin de la rue by Marco Raaphorst

I Knew a Guy by Kevin MacLeod

The Insider Theme by The Insider

5:00 AM by Peter Rudenko

Will be war soon? by Kosta T

Off to Osake by Kevin MacLeod

Balcarabic Chicken by Quantum Jazz

Hi Ho Trailus Bootwhip by Louis Prima and His Orchestra

Divider by Chris Zabriskie

My Country by Tune-Yards