Stormy Weather (1943)

Film Review

STORMY WEATHER

Release Date: 17 November 1943

Studio: Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Andrew L. Stone

Stars: Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Dooley Wilson, Emmett "Babe" Wallace

Writer: Frederick J. Jackson and Ted Koehler

Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

Stormy Weather was shown as part of the Essentials theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speakers were Donald Bogle, film historian and author of books about African Americans in film, and Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming for Film Forum theater in New York City.

Synopsis

Bill Williamson (Robinson) reminiscences about his career. Returning from France after WWI, Bill and Gabe Tucker (Wilson) live it up in New York. In a nightclub, Bill dances with Selina Rogers (Horne), the sister of a buddy who died in the war. Chick Bailey (Wallace), Selina’s manager, becomes jealous of her attention to Bill. Soon, Bill moves to Memphis to work in a Beale St café. Appearing in Memphis, Selina and Chick drop by and offer jobs to the café's entertainers. Chick gives Bill a small position as a tom-tom player. Frustrated, Bill jumps on the tom-tom and tap dances across the drums behind the back of Chick, who is singing center stage. Bill is fired. Back in the present, Bill, putting on his own show, is running low on money. Gabe helps him get the money, and the show proceeds. Bill marries Selina who leaves him to perform in Paris; Selena quickly becomes a star. Bill lives alone in their home. One night, Cab Calloway takes him to party where Selina is performing. Bill and Selena, reunited, appear together, and all ends happily.

Discussion

This all black musical showcases many African-American entertainers, highlighting Robinson and Horne. A slight story carries the film between the musical numbers. Horne’s beauty and singing are presented stylishly. Robinson was nearly forty years older than Horne, but he was one of the best known and most admired black performers of his time; his presence adds stature to the film.

American film before WWII did not address the subject of racial discrimination. Racial stereotypes prevailed in Hollywood films. Most African-American actors had small roles as maids, porters, or shoeshine boys. Some actors, such as Mantan Moreland or Willie Best, frequently had fairly prominent roles in programmers; their characters, however, although willing supporters of their white friends or employers, remained stereotyped as inherently subservient and as "comically" ignorant and cowardly. Only in the few mainstream films made with all black actors could blacks be portrayed as real people.

Films with all-black casts were limited in their theatrical distribution. In Northern States, all black films had their highest patronage in cities, with much lower attendance in rural areas. In Southern States, all-black films could be shown only in black patronized theaters. Limited distribution meant a film would not make money. For example, Green Pastures (1935), adapted from a successful Broadway play and a prestigious picture for Warner Bros, lost money. Until racist attitudes altered during the 1960s, Hollywood studios had no incentives to go against the prevailing social arrangements.

Lena Horne's first film was a low budget black musical, Duke Is Tops (1938). She was appearing in a Los Angeles nightclub when she was signed to a 7-year contract by MGM, the second black performer given a contract (the first had been Nina Mae McKinney in 1929). Horne had one song in Panama Hattie (1942), her first MGM film. Subsequently, she sang one or two songs in a succession of all-star musicals. In the Jerome Kern biography, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), she and Kathryn Grayson play Julie and Magnolia, respectively, in a scene from Show Boat. Horne wanted the role of Julie in the film version of Show Boat (1951) but did not get the part (Ava Gardner, with slightly "browned" skin, played Julie). She starred in two all-black films for MGM, Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather. After her contract ended Horne did not have another film role until Death of a Gunfighter (1969), by which time racial barriers had weakened, and Horne plays the love interest of white actor Richard Widmark. A beauty with a fine figure, her looks complemented her silky and expressive singing. The song Stormy Weather, composed by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1933, was her signature piece.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who devised his own dance routines, appeared in vaudeville and musical theater from childhood. On Broadway he starred in the all-black musicals Blackbirds of 1928, Brown Buddies (1930), and The Hot Mikado (1939). He has a solo dance in his first film Dixiana (1930) and a starring role in the black-made film Harlem is Heaven (1932). He teaches Will Rogers to tap dance in In Old Kentucky (1935) and dances with child star Shirley Temple in four films, Little Colonel (1935), Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), and Just Around the Corner (1938). Robinson has one of his few leading roles in Stormy Weather, his final film appearance.

Dooley Wilson, comedian, had appeared in seven films from 1939 prior to his role in Stormy Weather, mostly in small roles, the best known of which is Sam, the piano player, in Casablanca (1942).

Emmett "Babe" Wallace, singer and songwriter, appeared in musical theater and cabaret across the US and Europe. He made a handful of feature films of which Stormy Weather is the best known.

Guest Introduction

Bogle and Goldstein described the film as unique in Hollywood that had produced few films with black casts. Black soldiers fought in WWII but lacked rights at home. By the end of WWII, the Hollywood studios had made five black cast talkies, King Vidor's Hallelujah and Hearts in Dixie in 1929, Green Pastures in the mid thirties, and Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky in 1943. These films abandoned black stereotypes and made black characters real people.

Donald Bogle

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson had been a headliner in vaudeville and musical theater. Lena Horne was a dream girl at MGM, she was glamorized and publicized. She was disappointed at the way her singing was handled in the film, not part of the storyline, except for the title song. She was also unhappy with her leading man; "Bojangles" was famous, but he was over 60 years old and too old for her. The director, Stone, was cold, and she did not care for him.

Andrew L. Stone took pride in working with African-American performers; he let the acts do their thing, Katherine Dunham and her Dance Troupe from New York, Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, Fats Waller, and uncredited performers including Illinois Jacquet and Jo Jones. The Nicholas Brothers bring the film to a fever pitch with their athletic dancing that makes for rousing entertainment.

Mathew Beard, "Stymie" from Our Gang comedies has an uncredited part as a stagehand.

References

Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92. New York Times Obituary. May 10, 2010

Bill (Bojangles) Robinson Dies; “King of Tap Dancers” was 71. New York Times Obituary. November 26, 1949.

Passing of Bojangles. Editorial, New York Times. November 27, 1949.

Warner Bros Story. Clive Hirchhorn. 1979.

Outside the Mainstream in the Talkies, American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. Donald Crafton. 1997. UC Berkeley Press