In the land of grand missed opportunities, no movie musical comes quite so close to being admitted to the pantheon and misses quite so sadly as Andrew L. Stone's 1943 "Stormy Weather". Given the excess of talent and the brilliance of a half dozen numbers, this "what might have been" scenario joins such heady heartbreaking company as the 2000 Presidential election, the New York Jets loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, the man who interviewed Hitler for a college magazine in 1934 (believe it was Yale) and could have taken the opportunity to murder him...and on, and on...
One of the key shames of the greatest single period of American cultural history (I of course refer to the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties) is that the endemic racism of the time prevented the visual documentation of so many of the greatest black entertainers. Recently, obscure "soundies" (movies made for jukebox viewing), considered at the time to be nothing if not dispensible, have given us a rich visual history of the black entertainters of the era. But Hollywood was awfully stingy with providing similar opportunities--and the only, to my knowlege, all black musical made by a major studio--in this case Twentieth Century Fox--is "Stormy Weather". (I'm not counting "Cabin In The Sky"--even though its a wonderful film and similarly filled with great black entertainers--because it was hit Broadway show, thus alleviating Hollywood's fears in presenting it to "mixed" audiences. Is that too narrow minded of me?) In any event, I've decided to spend the rest of this week paying tribute to the singular acheivement that is "Stormy Weather"--and discussing, to some extent, what prevents the film from being a truly great work--which, had it been, might have opened up the opportunity for more films along its lines.
First the performers: Bill "Bogangles" Robinson--one of the century's legends of tap-dancing in one of his non "Shirley Temple's manservant" appearances; Lena Horne--heartbreakingly beautiful and, in her mid-twenties at the time, already as confident and alluring a screen presence as could be imagined; Cab Calloway, at his most charismatic and dangerously viperish; the brilliantly and wildly athletic dancing team of the Nicholas Brothers; one of the all too rare film appearences by the great Fats Waller (captured just months before his untimely death at the age of 39); Ada Brown; Katherine Dunham; Dooley Wilson. You get the idea.
The problem with the film, as is so often the case, is a script that simply doesn't tell an engaging or even logical story. These great production numbers--beautifully shot by the fine DP Leon Shamroy and staged by the masterful Nick Castle--are strung together by a series of "book scenes" that don't even really serve to get us logically from one number to another. Furthermore, the central conceit of the film--a thwarted romance between the luscious young Horne and the much older Robinson who is nothing if not paternal in her presence and which makes his mooning over the young Lena something more akin to the inappropriate attentions of a lascivious step-father--is just too weird. And I know it's spitting on the African-American flag to say so, but they might have done themselves a favor by picking a different leading man and relegating Robinson--whose wooden acting robs every scene he's in of any sort of authenticity--to a supporting role.
Tomorrow, I'll offer my version of an alternative plotline for "Stormy Weather" that, if not guaranteed to bring classic status to the film, might at least have gotten the damn thing on the AFI's "best musicals list"--which, given the talent involved on the screen, it most certainly deserved. In the meantime, let's illogically begin with the climax. Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy what I consider to be the greatest tap-dancing production number ever filmed: "Jumpin Jive"--sung by Cab Calloway and danced to--within an inch of its life--by Harold and Fayard Nicholas.