Musical Monday: Stormy Weather (1943)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

stormy weatherThis week’s musical:
Stormy Weather (1943) – Musical #731

20th Century Fox

Andrew L. Stone

Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Dooley Wilson, Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard, Flournoy Miller, Johnnie Lee, Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace (uncredited), Ernest Whitman (uncredited),
Themselves: Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra, Katherine Dunham and Her Troupe, Fats Waller, The Nicholas Brothers, Ada Brown, Mae E. Johnson

Told as a flashback, dancer Bill Williamson (Robinson) reminisces about returning from World War I and meeting (and falling in love with) singer Selina Rogers (Horne). Bill works to get into the show business.

• Last feature film of dancer, actor Bill Robinson. The film was said to be loosely based on his life.
• Last feature film appearance of Fats Waller who died this same year at age 39 of pneumonia.
• One of six all Black films made by a major Hollywood studio between 1929 and 1954, according to “Beyond Racial Stereotypes: Subversive Subtexts in Cabin in the Sky” by Kate Marie Weber.
Those films include “Hallelujah” (1929) by MGM, “Hearts in Dixie” (1929) by 20th Century Fox, “Green Pastures” (1936) by Warner Brothers, “Cabin in the Sky (1943) by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and “Carmen Jones” (1954) by 20th Century Fox.
• First feature film of Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace
• Only feature film of Ada Brown.
• Last feature film appearance of Mae E. Johnson.
• Working title was “Thanks Pal.”
• Lena Horne was originally nervous to perform “Stormy Weather” on screen, since it was Ethel Waters’s signature song. Cab Calloway encouraged her by whispering Waters’s name to her, according to TCM host, Alicia Malone.
• Louis Armstrong was considered for the film

stormy weather2

• Bill Robinson tap dancing.
• The real footage of World War I soldiers marching at the beginning of the film.
• Cab Calloway

Notable Songs:
• “There’s No Two Ways About Love” performed by Lena Horne
• “That Ain’t Right” performed by Ada Brown and Fats Waller
• “Ain’t Misbehavin’” performed by Fats Waller
• “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” performed by Mae E. Johnson
• “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” performed by Lena Horne and Bill Robinson
• “Stormy Weather” performed by Lena Horne, danced by Katherine Dunham and Her Troupe
• “Geechy Joe” performed by Cab Calloway
• “Jumpin’ Jive” performed by Cab Calloway & his Orchestra, danced by the Nicholas Brothers

stormy weather3

My review:
With top-notch musical numbers and some of the best dancers on screen, “Stormy Weather” (1943) features several show stopping musical film performances. However, it took the government to get all of this talent in a feature film.
“Stormy Weather” (and “Cabin in the Sky”) film came as a response when the African-American community demanded better treatment in films. The federal government was involved in the drive for all Black casting, according to The Films of Vincente Minnelli by James Naremore.

During this time period, most Black performers at major motion picture studios were relegated to servants in films — such as maids and porters — or appearing as a singing or dancing specialty act. While “race films” were produced between 1915 and the mid-1950s, most of them were produced through small, independent studios outside of the Hollywood studio system.

In the 1940s, the NAACP met with Hollywood executives, demanding better roles for Black performers. In response to this, President Roosevelt’s administration advocated Black actors in major film roles in Hollywood. This was connected to the New Deal, hoping the roles would create more jobs for minorities in the film industry, according to Beyond Racial Stereotypes: Subversive Subtexts in “Cabin in the Sky” by Kate Marie Weber.

The result was “Cabin in the Sky,” produced by MGM, and “Stormy Weather,” produced by 20th Century Fox. Arguably, I’d say “Stormy Weather” is the better film between the two.

A thin plot connects the stellar musical numbers: dancer Bill Williamson (played by Bill Robinson) receives a theatrical news flyer in the mail, causing him to reminisce to the neighborhood children. Told in a flashback, Bill tells how he returned from World War I with an ambition to be a dancer. Shortly after returning home, he meets successful singer and sister to one of his military pals, Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). Bill’s star slowly rises to fame and hopes to settle down with Selina, but she is reluctant to give up her career. The two are reunited at a World War II benefit show held in Bill’s honor.

“Stormy Weather” is chockful of top-notch dance performances from some of the best. lyrical dancer Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe gorgeously dance to the title song. Bill Robinson performs his famous hoofing tap routines, including dancing up and down stairs, which he made famous. And the incredible Nicholas Brothers perform their astonishing tap routines with leaps and splits—I always wonder if they ever injured themselves! Equally terrifying and impressive. Unfortunately, some of the dancers aren’t identified so I can’t give them the credit they deserve. I really enjoyed the who dances to “Nobody’s Sweetheart.”

dunham and troop stormy weather

There are also excellent singing performances. In addition to Horne’s mournful “Stormy Weather,” I loved seeing Ada Brown and Fats Waller perform together. They were great singing together. Then there’s Mae E. Johnson singing “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City,” which is such a fun song title. And we can’t forget the fabulous Cab Calloway. I particularly liked his performance of “Jumpin’ Jive.”

Much of Lena Horne’s film career was specialty musical performances, so seeing her in this movie is something special. And as Horne’s career was on the rise, this was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s last feature film. “Stormy Weather” is a loose autobiographical tale on Robinson’s career rise after World War I.

The pairing of Robinson and Horne is an odd one, as she was 25 and Robinson was 65. Robinson was also known to be mean, according to dancers quoted in Lena Horne’s biography, but he never upstaged Horne. The title song “Stormy Weather,” was made popular by singer Ethel Walters, and Horne was nervous about singing Walters’s song. After having several issues, Cab Calloway whispered something in her ear which got the desired performance effect. Calloway later said he whispered “Ethel Walters.”

For the Black performers in the film, the 20th Century Studio lot was different compared to other major Hollywood studios. At MGM or Paramount, Horne and other performers ate in the regular commissary with everyone else. But 20th Century Fox segregated the performers to another cafeteria, according to Horne’s biographer.

The treatment wasn’t relegated to behind the scenes. While the film was created to make better roles for Black performers, there are still stereotypes throughout. For example, Dooley Wilson’s character is always broke and drinking too much. The costuming in “The Cake Walk” includes large flower hats and the face of the flower is a caricature of a black child. Some of the dance moves in “The Cake Walk” include the dancers shining shoes. And then there’s a minstrel number where two Black men put darker makeup on their faces.

Despite this, “Stormy Weather” is still an important film. It is only one of seven films made in a 30-year span that was produced by a major Hollywood studio and starring an all-Black cast.

The last few minutes of the film are really excellent, bursting with so much music and dance that it nearly takes your breath away.

I had a good time revisiting this one. And as the last song in the film says, it truly is something.

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