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Not only does this marvelous musical hold up better than most, it now seems to burst with more sheer musical and dance energy than anything made during the war. While MGM was busy adapting Broadway's superb Cabin in the Sky to the screen, Fox whipped up this delightfully entertaining all-black revue musical. Harking back to older forms, its series of great song and dance numbers are linked by light comedy and a featherweight romance. The performers are nothing less than amazing, a solid-gold succession of great artists at their best. Stormy Weather takes place in a familiar musical comedy fantasy world - far removed from social reality -- and does quite well there.
Doughboys Bill Williamson and Gabe Tucke (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Dooley Wilson) return from France to face iffy career prospects. Gabe's attempts to con his way into show business management run short when his big mouth proves easy prey for various gold diggers. Although Bill meets the love of his life in svelte performer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), he's stuck waiting tables. She manages to get Bill's superior tap dancing routine into her show, but he soon runs afoul of her untalented boyfriend.
The beauty of Stormy Weather is that its all-black performers produce an entertainment superior to practically all of the Anglo shows it was patterned after. There's nothing exceptional about the generic backstage musical plot. Romantically-inclined talents 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 ... we spend ninety delightful minutes in an all-black 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 that transcend racial distinctions. The performance set pieces constitute an evolution timeline of black entertainment. Bill Robinson's tap routines greatly surpass his 'tap-dancing babysitter' roles in Shirley Temple movies. Unlike Horne, Robinson is very dark-skinned with strong racial features, but Stormy Weather doesn't treat this as a liability. His steps aren't show-offy or spectacular but emphasize his essential good-natured dignity. See Bill Robinson dance, and one immediately likes him. Andrew Stone's lively, sharp direction abets the performances well, with an enthusiasm that matches that of his show-biz stars.
The performances are more creatively presented than those in standard Fox fare. We get some good clowns and novelty singers. The dancer on the boat that 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 gives us his top material, the classic song "Ain't Misbehaving." Some of Fats' colorful verbal expressions have us gaping in disbelief: film censors in 1943 must not have had a clue as to what "balling" meant. Ada Brown sings a blues song; 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 closing spectacle with their high-leaping radical splits. As in Fox's Orchestra Wives, Fayard and Harold should technically be listed as a special effect.
The staging is actually quite lavish, with handsome sets packed with spirited actors. The all-black performers 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.
MGM's Cabin in the Sky is great but still trades in rank stereotypes. Syncopation's integrated story celebrates what is primarily a black music experience but spends much of its running time concentrating on irritating white characters. Stormy Weather exists in an all-black universe that beats the white musical at its own game, no contest. We walk out of this show tapping our feet, feeling more alive and in a better mood.
Stormy Weather was a good DVD but the Twilight Time Blu-ray is a dazzler. The excellent B&W images really pop, making us appreciate even more just how well Andrew L. Stone directed the movie. If I recall correctly the original print held by the UCLA Film Archive was in sepia tone. I saw it every time it was screened. The beefy, bass-y soundtrack is dominated by foot-tapping, flat-four beats.
TT's Isolated Score Track will turn Stormy Weather into a 90-minute blues and swing concert opera -- this is not a dialogue-heavy movie. The one extra has been ported over from the old DVD. USC professor Dr. Todd Boyd addresses the film from a social development point of view. He doesn't go into much depth into the movie itself. His points about stereotyping and the severely limited opportunities for African American performers are all valid, even if they seem intent on arriving at the conclusion that every outdated black style or mannerism is representative of a conspiracy by the white culture. Yes, many of the performers wear giant smiles on their faces as they dance, but as this is show biz I don't read the smiles are not "submissive". I can imagine that 20th Fox may have herded every black performer within reach into this one show and then hurriedly escorted them off the lot. But Stormy Weather was surely a real boost for 'colored' pride during the war. The black stars were on the screen as big as anybody's -- and more talented to boot.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes close the gap, giving us plenty of information on the film's performers, too many of which do not receive screen credit. She has to admit that it's an exceptional film, in that Hollywood's black-oriented features can be counted on two hands. And I need to remember that it's still a white-produced picture -- was there such a thing as a black film producer in pre-1960 Hollywood? And who was the first on contract to a studio… Quincy Jones?
Seen now, the sublime Stormy Weather retains only the great performances, 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 star power that flattens racial barriers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stormy Weather Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.