To quote the musical number that brings down the curtain on Stormy Weather:
My, my, ain’t that somethin’.
Ever since becoming an avid fan of Cabin in the Sky when I first saw it in college, I have long nursed the urge to finally catch up with the other “all-black” musical featuring Lena Horne that was released in 1943. I had constantly been on the watch for that elusive right-time-right-place to put another notch on the belt of viewing classic movies I’d never seen, but year after year would pass by without that perfect moment presenting itself; the film was either not readily available to me when I was thinking about it, or when it was, there was always something else to watch first. Any movie lover worth their salt knows exactly how this is. For the thousands upon thousands of movies we see, there are so many other movies past and present (including the “important” ones) that continuously slip through the cracks.
Because I like tying in appraisals of classic movies to matters of contemporary interest, however, that “perfect moment” to watch Stormy Weather for the first time suddenly seemed to announce itself to me, by way of some truly attention-getting current affairs.
The topic of race relations had just exploded in America once more with the tragic shooting of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina; subsequent conversations about disposing of the Confederate flag from government property, which are all too reasonable in my opinion, morphed lightning-fast into considerations of expunging the symbol of the Southern “battle flag” from merchandising related to the television show The Dukes of Hazzard—which I believe to be not only approaching the unsavory and ridiculous, but also easily linked to the never-ending (at least here on this site) interest in the re-issue of Disney’s Song of the South.
We’d just suffered through a lot of awkward public discourse about “black” NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal and her rumored Mystic Tan makeover—which easily brought to mind the copper-toned skin of Lena Horne, rendered acceptably dark to studio heads with the help of makeup artist Max Factor and the “Light Egyptian” shade he invented for her; and, to top things off, actual stormy weather had just swept through the Philadelphia area even as I was jotting down my rough notes about the film.
In the movie, Lena Horne sings: When fate appears on the scene/there’s no betwixt and between/There’s no doubt, you’re in or out…
Once the rain and wind whipping through my neighborhood brought a massive tree branch down on my fence, there was no betwixt and between for me, either; I knew absolute kismet was taking shape.
Then, as I re-watched the movie in preparation for writing about it, I became overwhelmed by a total agitation over all of that; it occurred to me that I might be having a problem saying something “new” or worthwhile about Stormy Weather because the approach that usually feels the most natural to me with most movies suddenly felt repellent and stale. I think I just became more acutely aware of the fact that the approach I was about to take is probably how most all of us approach thinking about “black” movies in general, every time, no matter the vintage, quality, or subject matter of the movie.
Whether we want to admit it or not, the first, primary, and lasting consideration about a movie made to whatever degree by black artists always, always, always seems to be race.
To be fair (to me and to the movie), the subject isn’t entirely absent from Stormy Weather, though you couldn’t be blamed if you miss where it seems to come into play. The lighthearted musical employs a fictionalized version of star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s biography as the spine of its story; in the film’s opening scene, Robinson has gathered the neighborhood children around him on his front porch, trying to teach them some dancing steps, when one little girl retrieves a Theatre World tribute to him from the mailbox. The kids see “Uncle” Bill’s picture on the cover and plead for him to read the publication aloud: What does it say, Uncle Bill? What does it say?
This is what it says on the cover:
Robinson looks at those words, and we see that he scrunches himself up with discomfort for a fleeting moment. He conspicuously decides against reading the cover headline about “the magnificent contributions of the colored race” aloud—as the children had asked him to—and instead flips the magazine open to start reading less racially-charged words from the article inside. In these first few seconds of Stormy Weather, I take note that Robinson’s character seems to feel exactly the way I do when it comes to discussing the movie about him.
As mightily as I try to refocus my attention on details of the movie that could be freed from the race conversation, those concerns keep stubbornly returning. I note how often Robinson’s smile seems forced into satisfying the requirements of minstrel-style performance; the golliwog faces adorning the headpieces worn by chorus girls during the “cakewalk” number are striking for how, being placed on the back of their heads, we are made to think about the comparison of real faces to cruelty-based caricatures.
Later, when Robinson’s feet begin involuntarily twitching upon hearing the music of minstrel performers, we’re reminded of how some aspects of black life were/are thought to be “natural”; when he joins The Tramp Band to demonstrate his hoofing skill and is complimented for having “educated feet,” those of us who had seen Spike Lee’s Bamboozled before we saw Stormy Weather recognize that phrase instantly and inevitably drift into thinking about just what we should or shouldn’t think about the number; one scene in the film actually showcases black actors performing a comedy routine wearing blackface makeup—the Abbott-and-Costello-style banter is witty for sure, but also represents the notorious “coon” character stereotype Lee would parody so well in Bamboozled as his “dusky duo” took to a watermelon patch.
We’re told to admire the fact that the romantic relationship depicted between Robinson and Lena Horne was rare for its day, but at the same time we’re struck by how neutered that passion seems to be for the lack of a single kiss between them. For all the praise rightly heaped upon Horne as one of the First Ladies of black cinema, contemporary viewers cannot help but wince at how the authority of her character is none-too-subtly mocked by the very first words of the first song she sings in the film: I may not be so very smart as far as books are concerned; where I leave off, most people start…
I’m able to distract myself from controversial matters here and there, noting with pleasure how Dooley Wilson’s character makes an offhanded comment about having enjoyed the finest champagne in Paris, a line that seems deliberately calculated for fans to think of Sam and Casablanca; for a lengthy stretch during the climax of Stormy Weather, I’m unable to think rationally at all while the Nicholas Brothers perform what might be the most astonishing dance number ever filmed.
I’m unable to think rationally, that is, until it creeps into my awareness that all this time, I’d maybe been complacent enough to think that the kinds of jaw-droppingly athletic moves I’d first seen in Singin’ in the Rain were somehow originated by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. That classic kind of white guilt really siezes me upon reflecting that nope, the Nicholas Brothers were all over that first, and then some; the title song that would go on to become Lena’s signature tune also melds reality and fantasy in ways that completely predict the Cyd Charisse segment of the “Gotta Dance” number in the Donen movie almost a decade later.
After the film ends, I start looking at secondary sources to enrich my appreciation of the movie, and am flabbergasted to discover that Robinson was over 60 at the time of filming, while Lena Horne was in her mid-‘20s (Robinson looked to me to be about in his mid-’40s). It’s obvious that “Bojangles’” real life story is far richer and more surprising than the surface gloss of the film; he was falsely arrested for armed robbery? He was the highest-paid black performer of his time, but died penniless, having given a great deal of his money to charity? He co-founded the “Black Yankees”? Holy cow.
There is more than enough, certainly, for an entirely other film here—maybe a remake of Stormy Weather (Oh yes, I know, God forbid) that gives us a more full-blooded look at his life? If there’s one “craft” element of the film that could use some more juice, I’d say it’s the direction; there’s nothing terribly wrong with how director Andrew L. Stone handles his duties, but it could have perhaps used the touch of someone who was willing to be more daring with the camera. Ava DuVernay, if you’re not doing anything after filming that Marvel Comics movie (Black Panther? Or Captain Marvel? She fits either identity-based hire), how about bringing back the all-black musical in style? Halle Berry’s already played Dorothy Dandridge, but maybe she wouldn’t mind a go at the Selina Rogers character.
My consideration of Stormy Weather proved to be complicated and messy for me; I present all of the above as ample evidence to back up my claim. Despite frequent urges to abandon writing about it entirely, I’m here at the end glad for having soldiered my way through, no matter how imperfectly. And that, come to think of it, entirely relates to what I’d now like to say about the “matters of contemporary interest” that spurred me to watching it in the first place.
You can absolutely coast through Stormy Weather and easily sit back and enjoy all of its wonderful surface pleasures—the once-in-a-lifetime cast includes delightful work by not just Robinson, Horne, and Dooley Wilson, but also such iconic figures as Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club Orchestra, and, as mentioned earlier, the incomparable Nicholas Brothers in a number you need to see to believe…and you still won’t believe it. Those reasons to watch the movie are all terrific, and they all fall into that much-vaunted refrain of “just turn off your brain and enjoy the entertainment.” Dyed-in-the-wool movie lovers, however, know that is one of the more pointless and bothersome clichés they encounter in the course of movie-related conversations.
There are more difficult reasons to recommend a viewing of the film, including the fact that you, movie lover, almost certainly do not make the time to appreciate the work of black artists on the screen as much as you could. Don’t even pretend it’s not a problem that most of us spend the lion’s share of our time seeking out entertainment only populated by people that look just like us.
In this country, there is yet again the renewed call to start a substantial conversation about race; there are easy ways to have that conversation, and difficult ways to have it as well—and both are worth pursuing. That is how you get through stormy weather. That is how I got through Stormy Weather.