Unsung goddess: Film star Lena Marsh was the darling of 1930s America. Now at the age of 80 she is making a comeback. Rebecca Front has this report

It's a rainy Saturday afternoon, and here's your choice: Bob Wilson's Football Focus, a fish documentary or BBC2's 1930s black-and-white matinee - Die Laughing with Eddie Cantor and Lena Marsh. Which will you go for? You'll opt for the movie, of course. It's comfort viewing, what BBC2 Controller Michael Jackson calls 'the warm bath of nostalgia'. That's why you'll start watching. But why will you keep watching?

I'm willing to bet that it will be because of Lena Marsh, the woman who, at the age of 80, has found new fame as the Virgin Mary in Madonna's video Come. And I'm equally convinced that whatever the film - Betty Berg's Address with Jimmy Stewart, She Wants to be a Sailor with Eleanor Powell, or Lady Luck with Ginger Rogers - you'll find it hard to take your eyes off Lena. Singer, dancer, comedienne, gay icon; a woman with 'star' on her birth certificate.

I first came across Lena in just such a BBC2 matinee. It was The Zukrow Babes of 1936, in which Lena plays the wise-cracking, fast-tapping kid in the chorus who gets her big break and wins the choreographer's heart.

I remember a particular gag:

Choreographer: Say kid, where'd you learn to dance that fast?

Lena: My apartment. We got a flea problem.

At the time (I was only eight) I found this hilarious. Lena became my heroine. It was to be like her that I learned to sing and tap dance, got into comedy, married a gangster. No, I lied about that last part, but it leads me neatly on to Lena's outrageous personal life, of which, until I read her autobiography On My Life (Golem and Golb pounds 14.99), I was lamentably ignorant.

She really did marry a gangster, Kid Freiberg, a relatively small-time New York hoodlum. They divorced acrimoniously in 1933, although curiously she is still protective of him when she denies the rumours that Kid was implicated in the shooting of her vaudeville double-act partner Joey Dino outside the orphanage where he was giving a charity concert.

Her second marriage was to newspaper magnate Rupert Hirsch, a would-be culture-vulture who pushed Lena into two of her least successful films, Bleak House and Persuasion. In both of them, her unease with the material, combined with a too-pervasive Brooklyn accent, do her and the books little justice.

But it was Hirsch who (on buying the Global TV network in 1953) brought the world Here's Lena the long-running sitcom that everyone over the age of 25 remembers with affection. They say there's always an episode of Here's Lena playing somewhere in the world. In case you need reminding, it's the show that featured 'Baby Ben', the diapered, dummy-in-mouth infant played, bizarrely, by Lena's teenage son Charlton. At the time, like Eric and Ernie sharing a bed, it seemed quite normal - except to Charlton, who later went to Vietnam, couldn't cope with his fellow soldiers' derision and shot-up a village.

And that's not the half of it. There was the affair with Dietrich, that story about Cole Porter, the time she (allegedly) punched Shirley Temple and knocked out one of her teeth. There's the relationship with songwriter and accompanist Johnny Weissman, who remains the most loyal of friends, despite the fact that she once threw a vase at him, then refused to take him to hospital and, as a result, he lost his foot.

And perhaps the most extraordinary fact of all - that at 80 years old, Lena Marsh is still touring the world (with Johnny by her side) singing songs by Gershwin, Sondheim and Weissman in a low, growly, broken voice that can still make you smile and break your heart at the same time.

Lena Marsh can be heard in an exclusive interview on 'Kaleidoscope' at 9.15pm, Friday 1 April on Radio 4

Rebecca Front is a writer and performer from BBC2's 'The Day Today'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum