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)



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