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Stormy Weather is a song-and-dance musical featuring a cast that is entirely made up of famous African American performers. It is one of the few classic Hollywood films to feature an entirely African American cast and a good production budget by a major studio (one of the other rarities that existed around the time-period being Cabin in the Sky). The effort was produced by William LeBaron (It's a Gift, Cimarron).
The basic premise of the storyline is pretty simple and straightforward to follow. The focus is on Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson, also known as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson) as he recounts to his kids a story of his attempts to succeed in the career of professional dance. The film explores the ups and downs of Williamson's attempts at his career and his on-off romance with Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), who is also working in show business. The story is largely about these two characters and their experiences together (both on and off the stage). It's a traditional American dream film with the heroes finding recognition for their great talent.
The film uses this sketch-pad idea of a storyline to stitch together otherwise unconnected sequences of song and dance. The story concept is a good one but the film barely places emphasis upon it at all. Stormy Weather is all about the entertainment and spectacle. In ultimately placing entertainment as the driving force the film's brief 78 minute run-time essentially serves to remind the audience that this is an entertaining collage featuring an exceptional group of talented individuals. (Alas, narrative ambition was not on the table.)
It is important to consider the historical context of the film. It feels incredibly dated today and less progressive than it could have been. Many in Hollywood probably considered the film as highly progressive but the film still falters by having some sequences which are clearly racist. These moments portray stereotypical images of African Americans: one sequence uses racist imagery of the time as the art on the back of dancers performing. Another scene portrays the dancers in dramatically over-the-top "African costumes". There's even a moment where one of the actors wears blackface for a short routine. These moments take away from other aspects of the film. It is disappointing and depressing to see such scenes in a film that was otherwise (for the time) helping to pave the way for better opportunities for African American actors to work in the Hollywood filmmaking system. More roles (and better parts) were finally starting to be given to prominent African American performers in Hollywood cinema. Stormy Weather feels a lot like a time capsule of American history and cinema at the time: both showcasing some of the positives of changing times and the unsettling racism of the time-period during which the film was made and released.
There is an element of war-time propaganda to the film as well. It was incredibly common for many Hollywood films of the time-period to try and include some sort of war-time focus. It's something that is also on display here. There is a scene in which a performance is given for the soldiers. This scene feels like an offensive moment in historical context when one considers the film was made when segregation still existed between soldiers. Moments like this are clear time-stamps of when the production was made. It is another reflection of the time.
The film has around 20 different musical sequences in it and this is the backbone of the entire experience. In addition to the performances by Bill Robinson and Lena Horne, the film also features appearances and performances by Fats Waller, Cab Calloway & his band, and the Nicholas brothers. These performers were considered amongst the best around at the time (regardless of race). They make the film legendary by being so good at song, dance, and spectacle. These performers know how to amaze and are not simply "winging it" during production. You can tell they were actually performing. (Even though music is recorded separately... as per the studio norm.) Lena Horne is absolutely tremendous as a performer: demonstrating her immense beauty, talent, and stage presence. Bill Robinson's work is also equally terrific and he delivers some of the finest tap-dancing ever put to film. Even the great Gene Kelly might be jealous.
The performers in Stormy Weather were amazing performers who rarely got an opportunity by the Hollywood system to star in leading roles and with good supporting performances. This unfortunate aspect of Hollywood history is an important note in the historical context of considering this production. This is a film that gives better moments to highlight these remarkable contributions of artistry by these talented individuals. There is a sequence orchestrated by the popular Nicholas brothers which showcases their dance abilities in tremendous fashion and is one of the film's standout scenes.
Music for Stormy Weather was by composer Harold Arlen. Arlen was one of the most acclaimed composers of the time-period. He worked with lyricist Ted Koehler (most famous for "Over the Rainbow" but he also wrote many popular songs for Hollywood musicals). Additional music featured in the film was done (un-credited) by Cyril J. Mockridge. The film featured the great title track Stormy Weather (which was one of the most successful and moving sequences) and there's also a tremendous performance of "Ain't Misbehavin" by Fats Waller.
The screenplay for Stormy Weather was written by Frederick J. Jackson and Ted Koehler. The framework for the script was the adaptation by H.S. Kraft (based on an original story by Jerry Horwin and Seymour B. Robinson). It's almost hard to believe this film is even credited with having a screenplay! The film only has a few short scenes with dialogue in them. One might imagine the script having ten pages. The script was essentially done just to loosely connect the sequences of song and dance. The plot and characterizations are all simple. However, the script positively reflected the ambitions for performance success and romantic love from the lead Bill Williamson in a way that is clearly notable and relevant for its important historical context.
The cinematography for the film was done by Leon Shamroy (The King and I, Cleopatra) and un-credited work was also done by Lee Garmes (Scarface,Duel in the Sun). This is another element of the film that positively works. The cinematography is beautiful. Magnificent! It manages to make this film feel every bit as important and artfully done as any other major Hollywood production from the time-period. The implementation of the fantastic black and white photography is sheer perfection from a technical standpoint. You will be in awe.
Stormy Weather was directed by Andrew L. Stone (The Last Voyage). The direction effectively showcases the many dazzling sequences with exquisite framing and with stylistic flourishes that smoothly transition the various scenes. This was certainly a effective directing effort as the film maintains an unmistakably steady flow and rhythm which could have easily faltered given the assembly-line continuation of performances at times. While the greatest strength of this film is ultimately not in the direction (but the performances), Stone did an effective job of highlighting the many remarkable performances.
Stormy Weather will ultimately be remembered as a historically significant film which was made with an array of amazing dance performances, breathtaking music, and as something important within the context of understanding American culture in film and the ways in which the culture has shifted over time. The film was an effective showcase of talent and it stands the test of time because of these talented artists. The talent still stands triumphant. If there is any reason to still enjoy a viewing of Stormy Weather today it's undoubtedly because of these performers (who were so good at what they did). They brought their absolute best to these performances.
Stormy Weather arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time with an MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p High Definition presentation. Presented in the original 1.37:1 (full-frame) aspect ratio, this is a faithful and impressive presentation. The print used shows absolutely no signs of print damage, which is rather remarkable given the age of the film. The image is crisp, clean, and well detailed. There is a nice layer of fine film grain as well. This presentation should please classic film buffs: it's absolutely stellar from start to finish.
The included DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono audio presentation is a delight. It preserves the original sound design utilized for theatrical exhibition when the film was originally released. I found the clarity to be quite good. The dialogue was easy to understand while music sounded pleasant throughout. Given the age of the film, this is a tremendous sound presentation that is wonderful to behold.
Optional English SDH subtitles (for the deaf and hard of hearing) are also included.
This release includes a booklet featuring an essay written by Julie Kirgo. On-disc, the release contains an isolated score track option. There is also a feature length commentary with Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC. His commentary is informative, entertaining, and noteworthy. He gives a detailed rundown on the film with a lot of added insights into the time-period and the performers who contributed to Stormy Weather.
Stormy Weather is an interesting film from a historical perspective. It's one of the earliest big budget Hollywood productions to feature an all African American cast of performers. This attribute certainly makes it forward-thinking and progressive for the time. Yet this film is simultaneously holding on to depressing stereotypes and it has some racist imagery. This ultimately makes the film stand out as an important landmark in cinema representing how America was culturally and historically during the time of the film's production and release.
Stormy Weather features tremendous performances with great song and dance numbers. This musical certainly works as a highly effective example of why the medium has been so beloved for showcasing music and dance. The cast included Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway. The cast makes this significantly more enjoyable and are the main reason the film was so entertaining. Many of these performances are absolutely stunning in execution and the high-caliber of artistry coming from the performers is a great joy to behold.
Twilight Time has done an exceptional job with regards to the presentation quality. This feels like a noteworthy effort of film preservation. The supplements also include a well-done commentary track which is worth a listen for the commentators intelligent insights.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.