Yeah, that’s the forecast for 1943’s STORMY WEATHER, one of the most addictive, euphoric and melodious musicals ever to come out of the Fox Studios (or ANY studio), now on limited-edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
Listen, when the mere mention of a movie title at once propels you into the “get happy” mode, the announcement of its availability in the Blu-Ray format is kick-ass impetus to immediately place it on your “must-have” list.
What is STORMY WEATHER – besides costar Lena Horne’s signature tune? In a rose-colored nutshell, it’s basically the story of African-American entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century. That it’s all wrapped up in a stereotypical narrative (with lots of credentials: screenplay by Frederick Jackson and Ted Koehler; as adapted by H.S. Kraft, from an original story by Jerry Horwin and Seymour B. Robinson) is immaterial. The talent isn’t. The amazing Horne aside, STORMY WEATHER is the only major motion picture starring the great Bill Robinson. And that alone is major! As with most Hollywood fare, he slightly ages over the four decades in which the scenario is played out (gray-temple syndrome) while lady love Lena never passes her mid-twenties (Dorian Gray syndrome; damn, now I have the idea of some attic-hidden horrific demonic Lena Horne painting tormenting my so-called mind).
The picture flashes back as legendary showman Bill Williamson (guess who?) looks back at his humble beginnings – returning from WWI as a doughboy (some extraordinary actual news footage of the African-American troops marching down Fifth Avenue) with buddy/finagler “Angel” Gabe (Dooley Wilson) as his unofficial promoter.
From Harlem speakeasies to Mississippi barges to New Orleans after-hours clubs, Williamson brilliantly struts his stuff, eventually, through mega-star Selina Rogers (Horne-a-plenty), conquering Broadway and then the Movies.
Fact checkers beware, as this quasi-historical pic is about as authentic as Warners’ Night and Day and Yankee Doodle Dandy…put ta-gither! But, as for the wow factor: WOW! The cast of characters – many already iconic figures in the black music and comedy world appear as themselves. Regarding all the writing wrongs of the gaggles of scribes assigned to STORMY WEATHER: forget it! The movie is almost wall-to-wall socko numbers that send its trim 78-minute running time unspooling before you can say “One never knows, do one?” which actually is said by its originator, Fats Waller (five months before his death), who also smashingly enthralls us with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Aside from the aforementioned (albeit brief) post-WWI footage, STORMY WEATHER interjects the name Bert Williams, depicts how black stars, like their white counterparts, had to “cork up” when performing minstrel shows. It’s culture shock and shocking culture in one fell swoop.
Much of this is due to the flourish of the unusual directorial reins of Andrew L. Stone. Stone, who often chided the folks who preferred the studio soundstages in lieu of non-suit interference of location shooting, unravels the entire picture at Fox. It’s a mid-stopping point between his fluctuation between the surreal (Hi Diddle Diddle) and the real (Cry Terror, The Last Voyage, the latter where he infamously killed off the Il de France and almost a good portion of his high-profile cast).
Ironically, STORMY WEATHER may be Stone’s finest work – a genre he later shunned, but eventually went back to, and which ultimately murdered his career (Song of Norway, The Great Waltz, 1970 and 1972).
Musically and visually, there’s not one false note in STORMY WEATHER. Fox musicals, especially from this period, are perhaps the most underrated pictures from American cinema’s Golden Age. In retrospect, they are so slick, so vastly entertaining and so influential that they frequently grind contemporary MGM titles to a screeching halt.
Which brings us to 1943’s mini-flare-up of all-black musicals. Yup, it sure was a banner year for Lena Horne – coupling this triumph with the far more acclaimed Cabin in the Sky (which beat STORMY WEATHER into theaters by three months). But is Cabin in the Sky the better movie? In actuality, yes. In 2015 replay value, not so much. True, Vincente Minnelli’s riotous biblical parable is a stylized pip, and has a fine score. But, what can I say? It’s so MGM. Preachy, treacly and creaky, Cabin, when tallied for sheer enthusiasm, moxie and pure fun, can’t hold an umbrella to STORMY WEATHER.
STORMY‘s dialog is hep-cat cool – hilarious period slang that remarkably doesn’t rust its swinging gate. Instead it comes off as a “so old it’s new” time capsule. Wilson (whose year it also was, concurrently appearing as Sam in Casablanca) is a master at the jibe, showing off his braggadocio with or without a bounty of floozies (most notably, Florence O’Brien), even when working as a Lenox Avenue bootblack.
Bill Robinson, probably best known to the masses as the guy who danced up and down the stairs with Shirley Temple in two Fox pics, is a freakin’ force of nature. It’s a tsunami of fantastic to see him carrying an entire feature, which he admirably does. Admittedly, while some of his line delivery isn’t the greatest, his body language qualifies him for poet laureate. I’m still a bit stunned at how short he was, but, man, when he leaps up on a giant kettle drum or moondances across the deck of a cotton boat, it’s like “FU, CGI!” He’s a human special effect, truly a vision to behold. Incredibly, Robinson was in his mid-sixties when he made this movie, which, to the movie’s critics, sort of muddied the waters regarding his romance with the forty-years-his-junior Horne. Personally, it never bothered me; he sure don’t look like a retiree, and definitely doesn’t move like one. One final comment on his acting; several times during STORMY WEATHER, Robinson is called upon to register anger, impatience for imperfection and or/downright annoyance. This he does effortlessly, and, I suspect, might be a real glimpse at the artist, as captured by Stone (interestingly, but not surprisingly, I’ve notice an almost identical expression on rehearsal candids I’ve seen of Astaire).
Horne, of course, is simply gorgeous – sexy, sensual and flat-out superb. Having her biggest hit at a rival studio must have groused her home Metro base a bit (who usually ended up cutting her numbers for Dixie distribution). Still, Fox ended up removing another Horne torch song from the final cut, “Good-for-Nothin’ Joe,” which she had recorded in 1941 with the Charlie Barnett Orchestra.
The unsung hero of STORMY WEATHER is the smooth presence of Emmett “Babe” Wallace. Playing Robinson’s rival for Horne’s affections, Wallace beautifully manages to balance the unsympathetic tightrope between slimeball/talented artist. With his “conk”-ed hair and tux elegance, Wallace presents a definite precursor to Billy Dee Williams. But “Babe” Wallace is a show biz encyclopedia all his own. Seriously, Google this dude – he did it all: acting, singing, dancing, writing, composing, producing, directing (when not flooring ‘em at the Apollo, the Cotton Club and you-name-it – he became the first black star of Les Folies Bergere, in 1952). Outrageously, he gets no billing in STORMY WEATHER (and he’s really the third lead), I surmise, because perhaps he wasn’t a registered member of any guild.
One particularly spectacular dancer has occasionally been incorrectly pegged as Dorothy Dandridge (later directed by Stone in his 1958 psycho-drama The Decks Ran Red); it’s actually her sister Vivian, stunningly sporting an unmistakable family resemblance (and, yeah, that’s Matthew Beard, aka Stymie, as a stagehand). Jazz aficionados will undoubtedly spot Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter in the fray of on-camera top-notch musicians.
While it’s impossible to downplay Bill Robinson, the ensemble encompassing STORMY WEATHER valiantly attempts to at least keep the entertainment on an even keel. Aside from Waller, there’s Ada Brown, Katherine Dunham and her ballet-in’ ‘n’ sashayin’ dance troupe, the comedians Miller and Lyles and, for a slam-bang finale, Cab Calloway and his Orchestra.
Calloway actually tops his Bob Clampett-drawn appearances in Warner Bros. cartoons. He’s totally nuts – jumpin’, jivin’, gyrating that unruly mop of his all over the place. His leaping out of the screen in zoot-suit splendor is one of the joys of flickerdom (recalling Bob Hope’s comments about the garment: “They’re cutting the leg holes in the sleeves now.”). And, one of the sizzling images of this pic is an array of dazzling chorus girls, adorned in lady-zoots; any budding fashion folk who see this B-D and DON’T steal this look, should be F.I.T. to be tied!
The show-stopper of the concluding gargantuan number in STORMY WEATHER is the segue from Robinson to Calloway to Robinson to The Nicholas Brothers, who send goosebumps up and down your “damn-I-wish-I-could-do-that” spine. Dual staircases, slides plus Fayard and Harold are really all you need. Their final split will absolutely leave you breathless, and likely applauding wildly.
To call the music in STORMY WEATHER outstanding is an understatement. Every number (of the nearly twenty!) is executed with verve and panache. It’s a songbook treasure, and includes “Jumpin’ Jive,” “Cakewalk,” “Walkin’ the Dog,” “Linda Brown,” “That Ain’t Right,” “Moppin’ ‘n Boppin’,” “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” (my favorite), “Geechy Joe,” “There’s No Two Ways About Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” and “My, My, Ain’t That Somethin’.” Complementing the jammin’ are the background arrangements by those iconic Fox masters, the Newmans (with Emil getting the screen credit). The Fox “sound” is another instantly identifiable aspect of the musical genre and the studio itself. I used to think that Fox adapted the Glenn Miller feel, after Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives, but now I’m convinced that it was likely a mutual collaboration that stuck. Alfred Newman was renowned for crossing the color lines when selecting his musicians, and for stacking the hip deck with jazz masters. Sadly, another number cut from STORMY WEATHER (but less surprising than the Horne omission), was a Calloway-penned parody of his classic “Minnie the Moocher,” an affectionate homage entitled “Alfred the Moocher,” no doubt in tribute to Newman.
The black and white cinematography in STORMY WEATHER is, dare I say, picture perfect. Gleaming, effervescent monochrome photography, this dreamlike noir et blanc tapestry was the result of two of the industry’s greatest practitioners, Lee Garmes and Leon Shamroy. The gliding, sweeping crane and tracking shots perfectly complement the seemingly phantasmagorical Bill Robinson experience.
The Blu-Ray of STORMY WEATHER is simply terrific, one of the best discs Twilight Time has ever put out. The sharp-as-a-tack 35MM materials mercifully appear to have been preserved in pristine condition, and the audio, with a thumping bass and detailed evocation of every instrument on view is the baddest-ass Forties soundtrack on the planet. Like all Twilight Time discs, STORMY WEATHER‘s music can be accessed as an IST, and, trust me, you WILL! Remember, it’s a limited edition – so you best grab your copy NOW. One never knows…
So, do you think I like this movie or what? Hey, I couldn’t wait to play it. I spun it three times the weekend I got it. It’s still spinning me.
STORMY WEATHER. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. UPC # 811956020390; CAT # 903RJ052SW. SRP: $29.95.
Limited Edition of 3000. Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com