#544) Stormy Weather (1943)

#544) Stormy Weather (1943)

OR “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson”

Directed by Andrew Stone

Written by Frederick Jackson and Ted Koehler

Class of 2001

No trailer so…I dunno, here’s the opening?

The Plot: Told primarily in flashback, Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) recounts his show business career, from dive bars to nightclubs to Vaudeville. There’s an ongoing romantic subplot with singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), and some comic relief from Bill’s friend Gabe (Dooley Wilson), but primarily this movie is an excuse to highlight some of the great African-American talent of the era. Besides Robinson and Horne, there’s Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Mae E. Johnson, Katherine Dunham, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cab Calloway!

Why It Matters: While the NFR admits “Stormy Weather” is “not the most imaginative of scripts or direction”, they feel that the film’s roster of talent “distinguishes it among musicals of the day”.

But Does It Really?: The NFR write-up pretty much hits this one on the head. “Stormy Weather” is on the NFR for what it represents (an outstanding array of African-American talent) rather than what it is (an otherwise standard movie musical). You still have to muscle through some of the era’s more uncomfortable racial stereotypes and tropes (more on those later), but “Stormy Weather” is an important time capsule of some of the 20th century’s greatest entertainers. A slight pass for NFR induction.

Everybody Gets One: After starting out as a busker at age 8, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson eventually became a tap dancer in vaudeville, with some saying he single-handedly revived tap as an art form. Although often chastised for the “Uncle Tom” figure he played on stage and in the movies, Robinson was proud of the many racial barriers he broke during his lifetime, as well as his ongoing civil rights efforts. Side note: No one knows exactly how Bill Robinson got the nickname “Bojangles”, though the most common story is he acquired it as a child in Richmond, Virginia.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s an all-Black cast and I still have to issue a BLACKFACE WARNING? Is nothing sacred?

Title Track: Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1933, “Stormy Weather” was first performed by Ethel Waters at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. As this film’s title, “Stormy Weather” was a replacement for the original name, “Thanks, Pal”.

Other notes 

  • “Stormy Weather” is often linked with MGM’s “Cabin in the Sky”, the first all-Black movie from a Hollywood studio, released three months before “Stormy”. This important one-two punch in movie history stemmed from a concentrated effort by the NAACP to encourage Hollywood studios to present African-Americans in more diverse roles. These conversations led to, among other films, “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky”. Coincidentally, both movies star Lena Horne.
  • Director Andrew Stone is not well remembered today, but he had a successful run of films that, like “Stormy Weather”, centered around music or musical figures (he had recently helmed “The Great Victor Herbert“). I couldn’t find any specifics regarding Stone’s input on “Stormy Weather”, corroborating accounts from various colleagues that his directing style was “unimaginative” and “literal”.
  • We have a massive readout on the Michael Douglas scale: Despite their characters being portrayed as contemporaries, Bill Robinson is 39 years older than love interest Lena Horne! Not that it matters: this is the least affectionate love story in movie history. I don’t even think they hug at any point. An unfortunate double-standard of the time.
  • At last we get Dooley Wilson in a non-“Casablanca” movie. Wilson’s turn here as Gabe is essentially the old Jack Benny routine: a cheapskate constantly conning his way out of paying for anything. I was waiting for Dooley to have a White, raspy-voiced valet.
  • In addition to the aforementioned blackface, this movie gives us an extended cakewalk sequence, with costumes a bit on the Little Black Sambo side. It’s fleeting, but still quite cringeworthy.
  • The more of Bill Robinson I watch in this movie, the less likely I am to keep submitting “The Little Colonel” for NFR consideration. Sure, the scene of Robinson and Shirley Temple dancing up the stairs is iconic, but why induct a movie for one Robinson number when you’ve already got a movie on the list that’s full of them?
  • This is one of Thomas “Fats” Waller’s rare film appearances, and sadly his last before dying of pneumonia at age 39 five months after the release of “Stormy Weather”.
  • When you think about it, the film’s emphasis on musical numbers over characters makes sense for the time. “Stormy Weather” is an entire feature of the one-note stereotypes and specialty acts that Black actors were allowed to be in the movies. Aside from the work of Oscar Michaeux and Spencer Williams, this is what Black representation looked like in 1943.
  • “Diga Diga Doo” is a tough number to watch, but points for whoever rhymed “nature” with “mate, you’re”.
  • Cab Calloway is another one of those performers who somehow has three movies on the Registry despite not being known for their film work. I’m not complaining, I just think it’s interesting.
  • Whoa, Cab and Gabe are giving me a lot of jive talk at once. Someone call Barbara Billingsley.
  • By virtue of its “staged” appearance, “Stormy Weather” is hardly a remarkable movie musical moment, but it’s a great performance by Lena Horne, as well as by Katharine Dunham and her dance troupe.
  • And then at the very last minute we get an appearance from dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas. As always, the brothers do not disappoint with their precision, and their “Jumpin’ Jive” number still gets shared on social media as a testament to their work.
  • And because it’s 1943: Remember to buy your war bonds in this theater.

Legacy 

  • “Stormy Weather” was released in the summer of 1943, in the midst of several race riots throughout the country (including the “Zoot Suit Riots“). Despite protests from African-American groups, and half of the country’s first-run theaters refusing to screen it, “Stormy Weather” was a box office hit.
  • “Stormy Weather” the movie helped extend the popularity of “Stormy Weather” the song, with everyone from Frank to Judy to Etta to Ringo covering the classic. Lena’s performance in this movie made the song one of her standards as well.
  • After almost 50 years in show business, “Stormy Weather” was Bill Robinson’s last movie before his death in 1949.
  • Between “Stormy” and “Cabin”, 1943 was Lena Horne’s breakout year, with Ms. Horne maintaining her well deserved icon status for the rest of her long life.
  • “Stormy Weather” rarely gets mentioned outside of its historical significance, though the Nicholas Brothers’ routine has its fans, including Fred Astaire, who once told the brothers that it was “the greatest movie musical number” he had ever seen.

Further Viewing: “Cabin in the Sky”, this movie’s companion piece, was finally added to the National Film Registry in 2020. The Horse’s Head post for that is coming soon…maybe.

Listen to This: Ethel Waters’ original 1933 rendition of “Stormy Weather” made the National Recording Registry in 2004. Other “Stormy” artists on the Registry include Lena Horne (“Command Performance“), Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher“), and Fats Waller (“Ain’t Misbehavin’“).

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