In the massive land of cinematic missed opportunities, no movie musical 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 Von Sternberg's unfinished "I Claudius,"
Von Stroheim's lost second half of "The Wedding March," Kubrick's unmade "Napoleon"...and at least a half a dozen of my own unmade scripts.
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 and considered at the time to be nothing if not dispensible) have surfaced and 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 knowledge) 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 fear of presenting it to "mixed" audiences.) "Stormy Weather" is thus a singular achievement while remaining far from a great (or even good) work. Yes, it is an invaluable cultural artifact--but, oh, wouldn't it have been wonderful if it had also been a great work of art? Or even a really good movie musical?
I've seen it many times over the years and always marveled at the talent that was assembled for the film. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson--one of the century's legends of tap-dancing--appears in one of his few (perhaps only?) appearances where he doesn't play Shirley Temple's butler; the heartbreakingly beautiful Lena Horne--in her mid-twenties at the time and already as confident and alluring a screen presence as could be imagined; Cab Calloway at his most charismatic and dangerously viperish; the brilliant and wildly athletic dancing team of the Nicholas Brothers; one of the all too rare film appearances by the great Fats Waller (captured just months before his untimely death at the age of 39); Ada Brown; Katherine Dunham; Dooley Wilson. And, as they say, a host of others.
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. The production numbers--beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy and staged by 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--is at best unbelievable and at worst kind of...icky. Robinson is nothing if not paternal in Lena's presence which serves to make his mooning over the young Lena something more akin to the inappropriate attentions of a lascivious step-father.
Yes, the problem is with the script. But scripts can be fixed and over the years I've played with ways that a good rewrite might have saved the film and bumped it up a few notches on the quality scale, maybe enough to make the AFI Best Musicals list. Indeed, I've often fantasized that I was a Fox contract writer/director who, seeing the great opportunity being lost to unfortunate execution, prevailed on Darryl Zanuck to let me take the film over and--via some fancy re-shooting--knock this puppy out of the park. Let's start with what's there and them move onto what might have been.
The current plot, such as it is, has to do with Bill Robinson (uninventively named Bill Williamson in the movie) returning home from World War 1 and launching a career as a dancer. Along the way he falls in love with beautiful, young "Selina" (Lena Horne--doesn't the choice of names feel very first-drafty?) who's a singer and who won't "settle down" (i.e. quit her career to stay at home...I guess). They run into each other over the next twenty (?) years and finally get together. Fade out.
The first problem comes from the very obvious age difference between the stars. Robinson was born in 1878, making him sixty-five at the time the film was shot. Horne was born in 1917, making her twenty-six. Forty years age difference between the leads would certainly not have been tolerated in a movie about white people--it would be akin to having Lionel Barrymore play Ava Gardner's lover. For this I blame the "they all look alike anyway" racial sensitivity of the era. Unfortunately, it robs the movie of even the most remote emotional reality--even as a kid watching it for the first time I couldn't understand why the old tap dancing guy kept bothering the sleek young woman and why the hell she put up with it.
It also brings up, though, a stylistic difference in the music and dance that sends the film out of balance. Robinson, great tap-dancer though he was, came from a very different era of tap--much more subtle, less showy, more emphasis on the rhythmic meter, less on the flashy moves. Unfortnuately, he is simply overwhelmed by the Nicholas Brothers--and for the matter by the massive charisma of Cab Calloway--both of whom belong firmly to the Harlem/30's swingtime explosion.
But Selina finally finds out. It's not Bill who tells her--in fact he decides against it because he fears that will make her think that he wants something from her, given that he's down on his luck and she's gone Diva. Instead, I give that dramatic revelation to Fats Waller who had such warmth, sympathy and humanity in him that I bet he could have pulled the moment off with panache. Selina stars in a big Broadway show (thus allowing us to retain the splashy production numbers) and without telling Bill that she knows he's her dad, insists on putting him on the bill. On opening night, right after her 'Stormy Weather' number, she breaks the news on stage right to the audience. "I want to introduce to you one of the great tap-dancers of another era, and a man I'm proud to call my father..." It's a "my name is Mrs. Norman Maine" moment. Big reunion number at the end. Maybe Ethel Waters is in the audience? In any event father and daughter are reunited. Look below. Don't they look happy? And a little less weird then when they're pretending to be lovers?
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