A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it. This is Post #27.
Directed by Andrew Stone.
Release Year: 1943 (27 years before I was born).
What it is about: Talented singer and dancer Bill Williamson comes home from the war and looks to make his own way in the world. In so doing he falls in love with beautiful singer Selina Rogers. However their conflicting ambitions threaten their relationship.
Starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as Bill Williamson and Lena Horne as Selina. Dooley Wilson plays Bill’s fast-talking friend Gabe. Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Fats Waller, Ada Brown and others appear as essentially themselves. The Nicholas Brothers–Harold and Fayard–appear in one memorable dance number at the end.
My impressions of this movie before I watched it: I’d watched and been amazed by the phenomenal dancing of the Nicholas Brothers in the Jumpin’ Jive number numerous times, but beyond that I didn’t know anything about the actual film.
Reality: Stormy Weather is sometimes referred to as a “race film”–which was a genre of movie specifically made for black audiences and featuring a black cast (even though often the production teams were still white). It’s of course regrettable that the genre needed to exist at all but I’d still say it’s better that these films exist than that they didn’t because of the opportunities they created that wouldn’t have existed elsewhere.
And I’d say it’s definitely good that Stormy Weather exists because it’s overall pretty good and features a few sequences that are genuinely remarkable.
The story itself is pretty simple. Much of it features dancer Bill Williamson talking to a group of neighborhood kids about how he got into show business after his face appears on a magazine cover. We learn of his arrival back home from the war (World War I) and how he met and fell for singer Selina Rogers. He found success as dancer and singer, overcoming various challenges, but hoped to eventually settle down and raise a family. Selina, however, proved unwilling to give up her career, and the two parted. Then, in the present, he meets her again and finds she has changed her mind while off-camera at some point.
That all sounds pretty slight, right? And so it is, but it’s all performed with great charm and liveliness. Lena Horne is a lovely screen presence and Bill Robinson plays his role (apparently based on his own story) with such brightness and joy that it’s impossible to not be won over. The two of them keep the whole thing watchable, now matter how familiar and undramatic the actual story is.
What really transcends the movie, however, is the musical numbers.
The movie is obviously a primarily a showcase for some of the most prominent African American performers of the 1940s, including both Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. But there are lots of numbers and lots of talent on display, including most of the people listed above as part of the cast.
Even though some of the names are familiar to me, none of the performers are people I know anything about, so it was a treat to watch it all (far more enjoyable for me then say, The Three Caballeros, which was the other musical showcase movie I watched in this series).
But there were two numbers that especially stood out to me, both from the movie’s last act.
First, there was the performance of Stormy Weather itself. For most of the movie the songs were all done “naturally”–in other words, they are mainly filmed depictions of songs being sung on stage or in music halls in the context of the story. Stormy Weather is the same, but in this case Lena Horne’s Selina is singing it in front of a window showing a rainy street scene outside–not quite believable as a piece of stage theatre at the time.
After she sings for several minutes, the scene abruptly takes us outside onto that street scene, in a tableau populated by down-and-out (but still stylish) people stuck in the rain–suddenly the movie seems to be making a comment about the struggles of the day.
Then the scene shifts again and we are treated the a much more surreal and stylized dancy by Katherine Dunham and her team, which continues the melancholy mood through an intensely passionate ballet (and also a bit uncomfortably sensual, especially with the costumes. After this the transitions reverse and we are brought back out of the foray into musical fantasy and back to Lena Horne completing the number on stage. It’s an effective and visually-impressive sequence.
But the best is still to come.
And that is Cab Calloway’s jazz-swing number Jumpin Jive. Calloway’s vocal performance is memorable but what really makes it something you can’t just move past is the mind-blowing dancing from Harold and Fayard Nicholas. I know I’ve mentioned this before (including up above) but it really has to be seen to be believed. These two brothers move with incredible grace and lightness of step–it’s a thing of beauty. The brothers’ dancing well compliments each other without being completely identical, which just makes it all the more authentic.
I’ve seen the sequence shared on social media with the spurious claim that it was all improvised and all filmed on the first take. This is clearly nonsense–it’s obvious that the dance is tightly choreographed and that it was filmed with multiple cuts, but it is no-less a mighty achievement. Fred Astaire apparently said it was the best dance number he’d ever seen in a movie, and it features some amazing displays of physical agility, strength and endurance. If I attempted even one of the leaps or splits or hops that the Nicholas Brothers pull of here, I’d probably end up carted off to hospital with destroyed kneecaps.
So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Even though the story is simplistic, the movie is so filled with charm and talent as to be fully enjoyable. But even if it were terrible, it’d still be worth watching to get to Jumpin Jive at the end.
See here for the Master List.