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Stormy Weather
Cinema Classics Collection

Stormy Weather
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 78 min. / Street Date January 10, 2006 / 19.98
Starring Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Fats Waller, Fayard Nicholas, Harold Nicholas, Ada Brown, Dooley Wilson
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Art Direction James Basevi, Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor James B. Clark
Dance Director Nick Castle
Original Music Harold Arlen, Nat 'King' Cole, Andy Gibson, James P. Johnson, Jimmy McHugh, Fats Waller
Written by Jerry Horwin, Frederick Jackson, Ted Koehler, H.S. Kraft, Seymour B. Robinson
Produced by William LeBaron
Directed by Andrew Stone

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

While MGM was busy making the superb Broadway-based Cabin in the Sky, Fox whipped up this delightfully entertaining all-black revue musical. Harking back to older forms, it's mainly a series of great numbers linked together by a light comedy and romance plot. But the performers are nothing less than amazing - a solid-gold succession of great artists at their best. Stormy Weather takes place in a familiar fantasy world of musical comedy - two steps to the side of social reality -- and does quite well there.


Doughboys Bill Williamson and Gabe Tucke (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Dooley Wilson) come back from France to iffy career prospects. Gabe's attempts to con his way into show business management run short when his big mouth proves easy prey for golddiggers. Although Bill meets the love of his life in svelte performer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) he's stuck waiting tables. She manages to get him into her show, he gets himself fired but demonstrates his superior tap dancing routines, and things eventually work out.

The beauty of Stormy Weather, a generically-plotted backstage musical, is that its all-black performers produce a superior entertainment to almost all of the Anglo shows it was patterned after. There's nothing exceptional about the plot --- romantically-inclined performers aspire to greatness, get to show their stuff, meet, part and finally get back together just in time for a quick fade-out, preferably while dancing. The closest thing to reality is a jealousy subplot. Bill and Selina are kept apart by Chick Bailey (the uncredited Emmett "Babe" Wallace), a hissable smoothie with the thankless role. The film supposedly takes place in the years just past WW1 yet the musical styles and costumes have no correlation to the calendar ... it's a musical fantasy land.

Top-billed Lena Horne gets to belt out the killer title tune and interact with other performers in ways never allowed in her highly restrictive MGM pix, Cabin in the Sky excepted. She's not a natural actress but has beauty and grace above that transcend racial distinctions. Bill Robinson does all kinds of tap routines (part of the movie is like an evolution timeline of black entertainment) and greatly surpasses his 'tap-dancing babysitter' roles in Shirley Temple movies. Unlike Horne, he's dark-skinned with strong racial features, but Stormy Weather doesn't treat this as a liability - Andrew Stone's direction and angles are color blind. Robinson's steps aren't show-offy or spectacular but emphasize his good-natured dignity.

The other acts are more creatively presented than those in standard Fox fare. We get some good clowns and novelty singers. The guy on the boat who shakes his face into a distorted mask makes us realize that much of the performing we now think of as stereotyped or demeaning only became that way through Anglo attitudes - blacks obviously thought a lot of this stuff was great too. Fats Waller, the stride-piano alley cat with the obscenely arching eyebrows also gives us his top material, "Ain't Misbehaving." Film censors in 1943 obviously didn't have a clue as to what "balling" meant - some of Fats' colorful, um, expressions have us gaping in disbelief. Ada Brown sings a blues song and Cab Calloway is in for a hot number decked out in a full-fledged 1940s Zoot Suit. The Nicholas Brothers provide the show-stopping zowie spectacle with their high-leaping radical splits. As in Orchestra Wives, Fayard and Harold should technically be listed as a special effect.

The staging is actually quite lavish, with handsome sets and spirited actors. The all-black performers in Stormy Weather are obviously having a great time showing what they can do, proudly. This enthusiasm and commitment overpowers the occasional iffy detail, like the 'mammy faces' on the hats worn by the female dancers in a minstrel-themed dance number. The show pointedly presents many Lindy-hopping swing dancers wearing Army uniforms.

Fox's Classic Cinema Collection DVD of Stormy Weather looks and sounds terrific. The beefy, bassy soundtrack (lots of foot-tapping, flat-four beats) is presented both in mono and in a two-track stereo that might be a reprocessed mono signal. The B&W image is sharp and clear. It isn't in sepia tone, which was, I believe, the format of the Fox studio print that ran frequently at UCLA. Savant saw it at every opportunity.

The only extra on the show is a commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, a USC professor who addresses the film from a social development point of view. He's a bit slow and doesn't go into much depth into the movie itself, and his points about the stereotyping and severely limited opportunities for African American performers are all valid, even if they seem intent on arriving at the conclusion that every dated black style or mannerism is representative of a cultural conspiracy. Yes, many of the performers wear giant "submissive" smiles on their faces as they dance. It's impossible to ignore the issue of race - it's quite possible that Fox herded every black performer within reach into this one show and then hurriedly escorted them off the lot.

Seen now, the sublime Stormy Weather retains only the talent, the glory and the fun. When the camera trucks through rows of Zoot-suited dancers past Cab Calloway happily jamming away and up to Horne and Robinson beaming on stage, it's a case of starpower that flattens racial barriers.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Stormy Weather rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by UCS professor Dr. Todd Boyd
Packaging: Keep case in card slipcover
Reviewed: January 15, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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