Some years ago I had the bittersweet pleasure of sitting next to Lena Horne for the Broadway debut of Fences in New York City. Even at 70 plus, her beauty and magnetic smile drew fans, many of whom unknowingly stood on my foot as they fawned over her.
So I can imagine the singed feelings of one Ethel Waters, 47, as she played opposite Horne, then-26, in the overwrought black musical Cabin in the Sky (CITS). Waters is the devout Petunia, whose gambler husband can’t resist the charms of sweet Georgia Brown (Horne).
During filming, Horne hurt her foot, and the crew doted on her more than usual. Waters, famously insecure, tried to keep her anger to a simmer. But Horne’s unprecedented seven-year-contract with MGM had to weigh on her mind, especially since Waters, like the rest of the black pack, had to stump for every part she got.
As she continues to watch the crew cater to the comely Horne, Waters boils over. After a nasty rant, she finishes the film, but can’t find work in Hollywood for several years.
In the Los Angeles Tribune, black columnist Almena Davis writes about visiting the set of Cabin on the MGM lot in October 1942. She arrived as they shot the cabaret scene, where Davis observed the “arrogant Ethel Waters,” “adored Lena Horne,” and “pompous [Eddie] Rochester.” She saw Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who had bit parts, as well.
Davis digs in, pegging Hollywood as the place where they “portray your race in such a state of ridiculousness that you cringe in your seat… You try and match the continual parade of stereotypes: the crap-shooting scenes, the dialect, the traditional ignorant, superstitious celluloid darky, with the camaraderie with which the director displays toward the colored actors… And it doesn’t match.”
Hollywood stood on the black person’s foot, Davis asserts, and it would take a Herculean effort to force it to budge.