Thursday, February 21, 2008

The All Cullud Musical Daily Double: Stormy Weather

By Odienator

After MGM put out Cabin in the Sky, 20th Century-Fox followed with a Lena Horne film of its own called Stormy Weather. Unlike MGM, Fox couldn't edit her out of the movie to please the South because she was the star. Fox paired her with their star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson under the guise of a veiled biopic of Robinson's career. Robinson is show telling his story to a gaggle of kids. It's just an excuse to hang musical numbers; the plot really doesn't matter. Stormy runs 78 minutes, 20 minutes shorter than Cabin, but it contains far more numbers and far less plot. Stormy Weather also boasts the greatest tap number in the history of musicals, and also some of the more uncomfortable scenes of this daily double.

There's a blackface number in Stormy, presented by two light skinned Black men who paint themselves with burnt cork. Their routine is a bunch of Amos 'n Andy doubletalk as the jalopy they're driving suffers an ever increasing number of explosions. I pointed out in my blackface piece that Black performers of the time also partook in it, and I find that a little harder to excuse. Unlike the number in Holiday Inn, the number in Stormy Weather is a little easier to take. It's all dialogue. It's not funny at all, and it is cringe-inducing, but it's in there nonetheless. Just a warning.

Stormy follows Bill Williamson (Robinson) from his WWI release to his success on the stage and screen. Bill and his war buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson from Casablanca) meet up with their late pal Clem's sister, Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a club. Gabe tells a bunch of tall tales to impress the golddigger he's trying to nail; he says he knows the famous Chick Bailey (Emmett Wallace) seconds before Bailey shows up as Selina's manager. Bailey has never seen Gabe before, which gets him in a bit of trouble. It won't be the last time his mouth has gotten him in trouble with the ladies. Later in the film, a group of tall, tan and teasin' chorus girls beat the Calhoun shit out of him.

Selina gets up and performs one of the musical's 20 numbers. It's great hearing Horne sing, and even more fun seeing her in dance numbers with Robinson. Horne is a beauty, and she knows how to sell a song. Her talent only makes one angry that her star in Hollywood never rose thanks to the way she was handled by her studio. It's telling that the only time she truly got to shine in Hollywood was when she was on loan to another studio. Oddly enough, Fox is the same studio where Ethel Waters, Horne's rival, played the role that got her an Oscar nomination.

Numerous Black stars of the time show up to sing, dance and joke around. Fats Waller, with his trademark hat, mustache and cigarette, shows up to sing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and another number with the wonderful Ada Brown. Waller's piano playing and his give and take with Brown are fun to watch, and he even works in his signature line "one never knows, do one?" not once but twice.

If you know your biopics, Bill's got to get discovered at some point. At Brown's club, he's waiting tables while he waits for his big break. Chick Bailey and Selina show up at the club to give him, Waller and Brown the opportunity to be in his show. Brown shuts her club down immediately and everyone's off to the stage. And if you know your biopics, you'll know that Bill doesn't get the role he wants in the show. But one day he does something unscripted...and he becomes a star.

Selina and Bill fall in love, and when Bill doesn't want her to work anymore, it splits them up for a bit, hitting that familiar note in the biopic symphony. Bill goes to Hollywood and it's a tad disappointing when director Andrew Stone doesn't give us a pseudo-Shirley Temple for him to dance with as he rises up the ladder of film success. Stone does give us a small number with Bojangles and a little girl who obviously ain't Shirley Temple to remind us, however.

As Selina and Bill go their separate ways, Bill becomes owner of a club where his chorus girls don't want to dance because they haven't been paid. Bill's broke, so he hatches a scam with Gabe, which leads to the aforementioned chorus line ass whipping. Meanwhile Selina's still singing, and Horne is still dazzling us with her style, her attire, and her voice. Horne sings a number Waters sang in Cabin in the Sky, and it may be blasphemy to say it, but Waters' version is better.

Horne also sings a song Waters made popular, and she makes it her own. The scene you paid to see in Stormy Weather comes late in the picture. Horne stands in front of a rainy window and sings "Don't know why, ain't no sun up in the sky/Stormy Weather..." Of course, she's singing about Bojangles, but no matter. Horne's signature song--the song from which this film takes its name--is beautifully rendered, then accompanied by dance moves from Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe. It's an elegant moment in a film with more than one inelegant number.

Speaking of dance numbers, there's a scene in Stormy Weather that you may not know about, but it's the best one in the flick. Perhaps it's the best dance number in the history of musicals. Fayard and Harold Nicholas, aka The Nicholas Brothers, join Cab Calloway and his band for what Fred Astaire called the greatest tap number he's ever seen. It's not hyperbole. The Nicholas Brothers fly through the air, jumping over each other like acrobats, and with seemingly no regard for their bodies. They hit the floor so hard, and in such splayed configurations, that you cringe before jumping up with delight.

Oh Hell, I can't do it justice. JUST WATCH IT DAMMIT!!!

On Stormy Weather's commentary, the film historian keeps using the word "problematic" to describe some of the imagery presented during the movie. He uses it during an odd darky-flower number and again during that blackface number. But for all its problems, Weather does redeem itself with unedited footage of some of the top Black stars at the height of their fame and at the top of their game. Even though Cabin is better directed and has more of a story, I enjoyed this one more.

Your Homework Assignment:

In honor of stormy weather, go walking in the rain with Oran Juice Jones. And watch every Nicholas Brothers thing you can find.


Steven Boone said...

These are amazing pieces of history/commentary you're churning out, Odie. I'm playing catch-up on the past few days' reading and have found a feast.

If they haven't already, American Legacy should be kicking down your door right quick.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

That number is fucking awesome.

odienator said...

I never get tired of watching that number. It's a classic. Now if I can just find that clip of these guys when they were much, much older. They outdanced Savion Glover in that clip too. I know Harold Nicholas and Glover appeared in Gregory Hines' Tap, but this clip had both the Nicholas Brothers in it. They were still sliding and doing splits, but they were OLD.

odienator said...

Oh, and how can I forget Harold Nicholas whipping some ass in Uptown Saturday Night?!

"I'm Little Seymour."

Anonymous said...

Thirty some years ago when cable tv first came around, one of the cable channels had a set of maybe a dozen or so movies that would rotate endlessly. They were mostly forgettable and even unwatchable things from ancient days, but one of them was Stormy Weather which I would watch whenever I noticed it was on. Mainly I watched to see that tap number, plus the scenes with Cab Calloway. Other parts of the movie seemed to kind of drag, especially after repeated viewings, but it was always worth sitting through those parts to get to the good bits.

Thanks for giving recognition to a movie that is a favorite of mine and one that probably not many people know about.

Anonymous said...

I can`t believe that it is over 60 years since I saw this film and all these years I`ve been telling my children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren!!! And still Astair was correct: it IS the greatest piece of its kind ever to appear on film

odienator said...

keithalambe, it fills my heart with joy to hear you speak of educating the youth about movies like this one. My Mom told me about it years before I saw it for the first time. I can thank the old indie channels in NYC for running it when I was a kid.

Since you're an expert, can you recommend any other movies of this type that I may or may not have seen? I like to think I'm a good historian, but I'm sure there are some films you may know that I haven't seen.