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1943’s Stormy Weather opens with something verging on direct address: a special edition of Theatre World ‘celebrating the magnificent contribution’ that black Americans had made ‘to the entertainment of the world during the past twenty-five years’. It is almost a mission statement, preceding seventy-seven minutes of sheer artistic expertise, in which the film showcases some of the most talented performers of the twentieth century, and somehow finds time for twenty musical numbers.
Stormy Weather was also something of a milestone for representation in media: black actors and singers were rarely offered lead roles in major Hollywood productions at the time, so the all-black cast is itself a huge achievement. Additionally, it is a thrilling document on musical history and finally allowed black artists to be recognised in mainstream cinema. It comes as no surprise, then, that the US Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2001, acknowledging its status as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. I would argue that all three apply.
The film started taking shape in The Cotton Club in 1933 when Ethel Waters sang ‘Stormy Weather’ for the first time. The venue permitted white audiences only, but its most prominent performers were black, including almost every one of the film’s stars. Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers all featured in a great musical moment that was reproduced and forever preserved in filmic form a decade later. This time, there would be no segregation: their spectacular performances were brought to the people and endure as some of the most exciting ever seen onscreen.
To this day, the daring acrobatics of the ‘Jumpin’ Jive’ dance sequence feel unbelievably fresh; Fred Astaire told the Nicholas Brothers that it was the greatest onscreen musical number he had ever witnessed. Furthermore, the longer takes during each song allow us to marvel at the performers in full flow, showing off their style in unedited, unadulterated excellence. Honouring the art is at the core of every scene, and Stormy Weather never loses track of that. Even with some of the industry’s biggest names filling the room for Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, we stop to focus on a drum solo. This is itself indicative of the influence of black artists in American culture: drum kits were largely popularised through Jazz legends Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton and were even forbidden in most white Country and Western venues. Rather than hidden behind a curtain like the later drummers of the Grand Ole Opry, the musician is brought to the fore, where we can see his talent up close.
Despite this focus, modern viewers will notice a dark cloud looming over Stormy Weather, which is the same age today as the Thirteenth Amendment was upon the film’s release. Shortly before getting work at Ada Brown’s Beale Street Café, Bill is seen laying on a bale of cotton, stating that if he never sees another, ‘That’ll be too soon’. The seventy-eight years since its release seem very short upon experiencing the wealth of talent within, but the time between slavery and Stormy Weather was the exact same. Yet the film is firmly looking forwards, breaking new ground and making comedy out of its subject matter. Some of these laughs have inevitably aged poorly, but a surprising amount works just as well a lifetime later. There are some great moments sprinkled between the stunning songs and delightful dances, giving us a real sense of character throughout the remainder of the runtime.
There are also the more serious, heartfelt areas, such as when Bill wants Selina to quit singing and join him in his ideal life. It flies in the face of the film’s ideas, and he is rightly rejected for trying to take away the very art that Stormy Weather commemorates. This consistency ensures that, in both its premise and casting, alongside the elements of true stories, it is an excellent celebration of black artists that the industry would do well to replicate today.
The last half an hour is a spectacular example of this, delivering a show full of fantastic performances, heralded in by Cab Calloway’s distinctive style. After Lena Horne’s stellar rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’, which came in at number thirty on the American Film Institute’s ‘100 Years… 100 songs’, the musical is rounded off with a classic ‘Everybody dance!’. And unlike the endings of all those cheesy ‘80s films, you might actually want to.