Stormy Weather (Blu-ray Review)16 Mar, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, The Nicholas Brothers.
A substantial portion of my dropped jaw is likely left on what’s left of the floor at the old Kennedy Center-based AFI Theater that I used to program for and eventually run — the venue where I first saw the Nicholas Brothers’ climactic number in this black all-star revue photographed by Leon Shamroy, no less. It’s lucky that in addition to my jaw, we wouldn’t find parts of the brothers’ sheared-off ankles as well — because beyond its sheer artistry, most of their big numbers were positively dangerous. More on this later, though it’s worth noting that even on a 57-inch screen, this Twilight Timer looks even better than the Fox-supplied 35mm print that we ran.
In an apparent attempt to give black servicemen and their families their own share of the entertainment pie, 1943 became a kind of briefly sustained watershed year in Hollywood, what with April’s release of Cabin in the Sky (from Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli, no less), Stormy Weather in July and September’s great “Ice Cold Katie” number from Thank Your Lucky Stars (Hattie McDaniel sings!) — it the best of many all-star musicals that plundered most major-studio contract rosters for its casts from about 1942’s Star-Spangled Rhythm through 1951’s Starlift. Interestingly, Cabin (at MGM) and Weather (Fox) were both major showcases for Lena Horne, and in these cases couldn’t have been easy for theaters owned by (and serving) Southern crackers to simply jettison her numbers because a) her parts were too big, and b) the entire casts in both films were black. More likely, the films just didn’t get booked, though I’ll bow to Donald Bogle, Thomas Cripps and other great historians for the historical tallies.
Running just 78 minutes, Weather has a much greater percentage of its running time devoted to musical numbers, than, say, Fifty Shades of Grey has to boring sex — which doesn’t leave much room for any story to take too seriously or too much time for too much discomforting material (though this is a movie where black performers are shown applying blackface makeup in one scene). Told in flashback to a bunch of sharply-dressed kids by premier tapper Bill Robinson in a role something close to what we imagine he might have been like, the story’s central motif is a Robinson romance with Horne that never quite gets off the ground due to their clashing work schedules (she spends a lot of the movie spouting, “Wonderful to see you again” or some such greeting whenever they re-meet). This may be all well and good because Robinson was about 65 when he made this, and Horne about 25. Robinson died six years later of a heart attack — but though the youth is gone from his face, he looks to be in good shape here. I remember being astounded to read during my childhood that Robinson had run the 100-yard dash in 13 seconds and change. It doesn’t sound like all that much (though I hardly have any room to talk) — but this was the then-record for doing it backwards.
Weather is kind of back-loaded with some of its best numbers saved till the end — but not so back-loaded that you fiddle with your socks waiting for the good stuff. For one thing, here’s Fats Waller in the first half doing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” shortly before he died at 39 three months after the movie’s release (he looks much, much older here). Casablanca’s Dooley Wilson is also around (no singing but a fairly big part), and just about the time you’re asking when Cab Calloway is going to show up, here he comes making with the hi-de-ho and jumpin’ jive and flying hair all while wearing a white zoot suit — such a picture of reefer madness that you wonder to what degree he indulged that persona when he appeared at the Nixon White House back in the days when there weren’t many celebrity-performer takers this side of maybe dramatic readings by Phyllis Schlafly.
From Cab, it’s on to Horne’s rendition of the title tune (which she recorded at Victor as a tie-in around the same time), complete with Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe as backing when she was still at the top of her game — and then onto the Nicholas Brothers. It has been said that Fred Astaire called the climactic “Jumpin’ Jive” astounder here the greatest musical number he’d ever seen, and it’s hard to imagine anything topping the sight of Fayard and Harold not just dancing in perfect synchronization up and down steep stairs but taking massive leaps from the top and landing on the floor in leg-splits. You don’t know whether to bow in awe or avert your eyes over at their playing a kind of Russian Roulette game with physical damage and pain instead of bullets. Harold was married for a while to the young Dorothy Dandridge, but a few more of these, and he wouldn’t have been able to reap the rewards. But the movie got one: it’s been selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.