Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Loving That Man” (music by Jerome Kern, lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, 1927) in the star-studded bio-pic of Kern, “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946.) The film features lavish renditions of famous songs from his musicals, performed by MGM’s stable of musical stars of the time, including an extended staged sequence from the ground-breaking 1927 musical Show Boat.
“Can’t Help Loving That Man” is first sung in the show by the character Julie, the mulatto leading lady of the showboat Cotton Blossom, and provides a key plot point because it foreshadows that Julie is “passing” as white. She and her white husband will soon be thrown off the showboat for miscegenation, the beginning of Julie’s tragic downward spiral.
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” was a signature number of torch singer Helen Morgan, who played Julie in the original 1927 stage production of Show Boat, as well as the 1932 revival and the 1936 film version. (Helen Morgan died young, in 1941, much like the tragic figures she portrayed.) Lena Horne’s performance in Till the Clouds Roll By should have nailed the role for her when MGM remade Show Boat in 1951. However, uneasiness by studio executives about casting an actual light-skinned African-American in the role of a light-skinned mulatto caused them to hand the part to Ava Gardner, whose singing had to be dubbed.