Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stormy Weather (1943)

Director: Andrew L. Stone                               Writers: Frederick Jackson & Ted Koehler
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                        Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway

One of the great World War Two musicals, 20th Century Fox’s Stormy Weather was also one of the few Hollywood films to sport an all-black cast. It wasn’t until a 1942 meeting with studio heads that the NAACP pressured the moguls into producing films that featured black performers. The other all-black musical production was Cabin in the Sky at MGM, though other popular wartime musicals like Warners’ This is the Army contained black review numbers. Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his rise to fame after World War One, but the story is a thin one and only really there to string together the production numbers. The film is basically a review that showcases the considerable talents of Lena Horne and the great Fats Waller, as well as the Cab Calloway big band and other black performers of the day. Robinson, who hadn’t done any film work since before the war, ended his career with this film. It was also Fats Waller’s final film as he died just a few months after filming was completed. Another thing that makes it great is cameo appearances from jazz greats like Jo Jones, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Freddie Green. Even though half of all theaters at the time refused to show the film it was still a big hit with audiences around the country.

The film opens with Bill Robinson teaching dance steps to some kids. When one brings over a magazine with him on the cover, he tells the story of James Reece Europe’s band coming back from Europe in 1918. Robinson’s best friend in the band is Dooley Wilson and the two go to a nightclub that night to celebrate their return. Inside, Wilson tries to be a smooth talker in order to impress the ladies, even though he’s broke. Robinson sets his sights on Lena Horne, who happens to be the sister of a friend of theirs who died in the war. She’s also performing at the club with Europe, played by Ernest Whitman, backing her with his band. Horne wants Robinson to stay in New York, but he goes home to Memphis and gets a job as a waiter in a Beale Street honky-tonk where Fats Waller plays every night. When Horne shows up in Memphis with her show, her partner Emmett Wallace hires everyone in the place. He’s jealous of Robinson, though, and sticks him on a drum in a native costume for a jungle music number. After stealing the show one night and getting kicked out by Wallace, Robinson heads to New York and hooks back up with Wilson. Eventually he makes his way to Hollywood and performs with Cab Calloway, but always has his heart set on settling down with Horne.

Even though this is an all-black cast, the production is squarely within Fox’s domain and it’s doubtful that there was very much input from the performers as to content. The first production number is “The Cakewalk” complete with black-faced masks on the back of the women’s hats, and a high-stepping routine in minstrel costumes. The dance number onboard the steamboat to Memphis is just as filled with racial stereotypes. But it’s important to remember that the performances, even in the performer’s own shows, were primarily for white audiences who had certain expectations that the performers had to meet to stay employed. However, Black composer William Grant Still was approached to be the musical director of the picture but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to take the job because he felt that it perpetuated negative black images. Despite the histrionics, and a clever Amos and Andy type skit, there is an undeniable artistry to songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Stormy Weather,” as well as the dancing of the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson. Stormy Weather may not be great cinema, and it certainly was not flattering to blacks, it was nevertheless an important milestone in an industry that has yet to fully integrate black actors and performers in any meaningful way.

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