Stormy Weather (1943)

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Synopsis: When Bill Williamson (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) returns from World War I, he yearns for a way to make it into show business so he can make the most of his talents as a dancer. Although his buddy Gabe Tucker (Dooley Wilson) tries to convince Bill to have fun with what he’s got, Bill longs for something more. His desire for success is amplified when he meets beautiful nightclub chanteuse Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) and promises he’ll return to her when he “gets to be somebody.” However, it is Selina who ends up giving Bill his big break when she convinces her manager Chick Bailey (Emmett “Babe” Wallace) to give Bill a role in their show. But with Chick cramping his style and Selina refusing to put her own career aside and settle down, will Bill ever find the success and happiness he truly deserves?

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was born in Brooklyn, New York City, to an upper-middle-class family. After dropping out of high school, she joined the chorus line at Harlem’s world-famous Cotton Club in 1933. From there she worked her way up to a featured performer and singer, touring with the orchestras of Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet. She made her film debut in the 1938 low-budget musical The Duke Is Tops, but it wasn’t until 1942 that she was approached by MGM talent scouts and became the first African-American performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. She appeared that year in Panama Hattie and went on to make four films for MGM in 1943 alone; however, with the exception of Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (for which she was loaned out to 20th Century Fox), Horne was never featured in a leading role, due to the fact that she had to be edited out of her own films for distribution in states which prohibited the appearance of African Americans in motion pictures. She worked consistently in film up until the early 1950s, when she became disenchanted with Hollywood (not to mention blacklisted for her so-called “radical” political views) and returned to her nightclub roots. She became an internationally-renowned singer, and in 1957 her live album, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, became the biggest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label. In 1981, after a career of nearly fifty years, Lena Horne was given a special Tony award for her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for 333 performances in New York (still the longest solo run in Broadway history) before embarking on a 41-city North American tour, finally ending its run in Stockholm, Sweden, in late 1984. She was also honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and an inductee into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. Lena Horne worked up until the age of 82, when she quietly withdrew from the public eye. She passed away on May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.

When someone is a fan of classic film, I think many people make the assumption (whether it’s true or not) that that person is fascinated by the past because they think it was a better time, or that they wish they had been born in an earlier era. Speaking for myself, I sure as hell don’t want to live in a time when an incredible performer like Lena Horne had to be edited out of her own movies! I’m interested in classic film not because I like the clothes or the melodramatic storytelling (although I do love those things), but because I’m fascinated by the way films reflect and influence contemporary attitudes, morals, and political situations. I’d much rather be living now, when things certainly aren’t perfect, but at least I am given the tools to analyze and understand why things aren’t perfect, and look back at films like Stormy Weather and people like Lena Horne and understand their importance and significance in a broader historical context. That being said, I don’t feel like I know enough about this film or the specific context surrounding it to give you a full-out academic analysis. Plus I don’t really feel like I have any particular duty to be any more political in my analysis of a film with an all-black cast than I am in my analyses of the countless films with all-white casts. Just sayin’.

Lena and her zebra minions.

So! Stormy Weather was made in 1943 by director Andrew L. Stone for 20th Century Fox, to which Lena Horne had been loaned out by MGM. This film was intended to be Fox’s answer to MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, made the same year, and while Cabin is generally considered to be the better film (honestly, who can beat Vincente Minnelli?), it’s the theme from Stormy Weather which ended up as Horne’s signature tune. The movie is intended as a semi-biopic of its star, groundbreaking tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – although Lena Horne’s character was simply invented to provide a love interest. But the biographical elements and love story between Bill and Selina are played fast and loose; it’s really just a musical revue disguised as a linear narrative. I shouldn’t say just a musical revue; Stormy Weather is considered a time capsule of contemporary African-American entertainment, cramming twenty musical numbers into its short 77-minute running time and featuring appearances by such greats as Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, and Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe.

Shout out to these ADORABLE children. They didn’t do anything in the movie but they sure were cute.

I don’t have much to say about Stormy Weather except that I loved it. I mean, it’s basically an accepted fact that there is no plot to speak of, which is really a shame, because now that I know who Bojangles Robinson is I’d like to know more about his life. But if Lena Horne’s character was invented, and Robinson didn’t really get his start working with Fats Waller and Cab Calloway (who were contemporary to the 1940s, not the 1920s when the film is supposedly set), really all that’s accurate is that he was in World War I. I agree with the New York Times’ original reviewer, who noted that “the story scope is too narrow to be truly representative of the Negro’s great contribution to the world of entertainment.” Alright, well, I might not use those words exactly, but you get what I mean.

ME: (watching this scene) Cab Calloway! KIDS IN MOVIE: (two seconds later, in unison) Cab Calloway!

However, with Stormy Weather, the plot is not the point. It’s truly an incredible musical with some jaw-dropping and unforgettable numbers, most of which I rewound and watched twice. Some of my favorites were Lena Horne’s short-but-good “Diga Diga Doo” number featuring chorus girls dressed up as zebras (which of course is the only one I can’t find online), Fats Waller’s cheeky rendition of his signature tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and of course Robinson’s mind-blowing number where he steals the show from that nasty Chick Bailey and starts tap dancing on the huge tom-tom drums (video below). And don’t forget Cab Calloway (swoon)! I’m not a girl who’s usually very interested in dance numbers, but I was blown away by Robinson’s skills and the brilliant performances of everyone in this movie. These people are the very definition of entertainers; I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

Watch a high-quality version of this video here.

This is the kind of film we’re lucky to have. Because of Hollywood’s prejudices, a lot of these entertainers did not get the exposure they deserved, so it’s marvelous to have some of their greatest talents preserved forever in Stormy Weather. This was Bojangles Robinson’s final film appearance; he would die just six years later at the age of 71. (Yes, folks – he was 65 when he made this movie, a whopping forty years older than his leading lady!) Poor Fats Waller, who is so totally adorable in his scenes with Ada Brown, died suddenly of pneumonia just five months after the film’s release. This is a brilliant and vivacious little film, and our honoree Lena Horne personifies class and grace in her flawless performance. However, it’s the entertainers who drive this piece rather than technical prowess on the part of the filmmakers, and one does miss having a legitimate narrative to hold everything together. Add to this the truly incomprehensible inclusion of one very unfunny and cringe-worthy minstrel skit, and I cannot in good conscience give this film a perfect score. Even so, it’s definitely one you shouldn’t miss.

Stormy Weather (1943) – 4/5 stars

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