REVIEW: Stormy Weather
Produced by: William LeBaron
Screenplay by: H.S. Kraft
Story by: Jerry Horwin, Seymore B. Robinson
Edited by: James B. Clark
Cinematography by: Leon Shamroy
Music by: Harold Arlen
Starring: Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Fats Waller, Fayard Nicholas, Harold Nicholas, Ada Brown, Dooley Wilson
I’d largely forgotten this film’s existence until I saw that Screen Archives had done a limited release of the film on Blu-Ray (Thanks, Blu-Ray.com!). The name immediately stuck out, and so I alerted my mom, an avid fan of old musicals, to the film, knowing about its historical significance as one of the earliest major studio films to feature an all-black cast, but having admittedly very little knowledge of what it was actually about – apart from the fact that it was a musical, and I had seen Lena Horne’s performance of the title song somewhere, probably in one of those musical documentaries that always aired on TCM or AMC. After purchasing it (and accidentally shipping it to myself instead of my mom), I did watch it, though, and realized something fairly interesting about the film, divorced from the racial significance: It’s actually kind of boring if you’re not that invested in the characters or their story, and I wasn’t.
Like many of the musicals of its day, Stormy Weather is centered on fame and showbiz, complete with a gradual buildup to the big show that serves as the film’s finale and the big climax for the characters’ stories. Here we follow Bill Williamson, played by Bill Robinson in a story purportedly inspired by his own life, as he is invited to perform in a celebration of black entertainers, which will reunite him with some old acquaintances, including a former love interest Selina Rogers, played by Lena Horne, whom he met while pursuing fame after returning home from fighting in World War I.
The story is primarily told in flashback, though the plotting itself is fairly sparse, merely an excuse to make way to get to the big musical and dance routines that really are the main reason to watch the film. Sadly, this does make it hard to really get a handle on caring for the characters and their stories, which also involves a love triangle between Bill, Serena, and Chick Bailey, who is already well known for his own show and features the other two as side attractions in his show while jealously hogging the spotlight. It’s actually a lot less intriguing than it sounds, I am sorry to say. That being said, however, the film is at least packed with musical numbers, many of which even modern day viewers will be able to pick a few favorites from.
For me, things really don’t get going in Stormy Weather until Cab Calloway shows up with all his cool cat swagger. Calloway not only imbues the film with some much needed edge and energy, his arrival also serves as a signpost for the more climactic and impressive acts featured in the film – particularly a spectacular (and painful-looking) dance number by the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, as well as Lena Horne’s emotional rendition of the film’s title song which perfectly encapsulates why Horne became so emblematic as an actress and a singer who never really got her dues thanks to, of course, the socially accepted, institutionalized racism of the time. Her performance in this one scene alone will make you feel like you’ve somehow missed out on a much more engaging romance that never actually existed, though now you’ll wish it had. It’s that transcendent.
As progressive a film as Stormy Weather may seem, coming from the era in which it was made, the film will still be pretty jarring to modern audiences who should be a lot more aware of the stigma of concepts like blackface, minstrelsy, and model minorities. This is most definitely a product of its time, and it’s very strange to see, say, a group of black women happily prancing about with thick-lipped Sambo masks on the back of their flower-bonneted heads, or two black men putting on shoe polish to darken their faces further and then poking fun at their characters’ ignorance in a comedy routine. Stormy Weather suffers from its portrayal of an idealization of African-American lives at the time that, while seemingly positive, is hardly exemplary of the realities of the time. In fact, Stormy Weather released the same year that the three-day-long Detroit race riots broke out after years of controversy over the integration of work and housing projects. For many, this film could be seen as a way of reassuring white audiences of their blamelessness by portraying the sufficiency of comfort and opportunity afforded to African-Americans (note that the characters are also always smiling, as if any other emotion might frighten more “sensitive” viewers), all while allowing for these white audiences to be entertained by the talents perceived as instinctual to a group of people who were often seen as exotic novelties.
Stormy Weather is certainly a problematic film, both artistically as well as culturally, and yet it’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that, at the very least, no matter the environment in which it was made, it is still a valuable film that deserves to be seen. It still contains some pretty great segments, even if you have to slog through its rough story, and the more stereotypical aspects of the film can certainly be overlooked in favor of appreciating the fact that these were all still very talented pioneers in their own right, doing what they can to be ambassadors through their craft. Compromises were definitely made behind the scenes, but ultimately these guys still gave it their all and churned this out as best as they could, given the climate. It’s not exactly the greatest musical ever, and it’s not the most important film in history, either, even when it comes to the casting of an all-black cast. It is still a reasonably entertaining flick, however, given the talents of the skillful artists participating.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5