Friday, February 15, 2019

Stormy Weather (1943)

For most of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the major studios largely ignored African Americans. When they appeared in Hollywood films at all, it was usually in stereotypical roles, such as servants or mammies. There were films featuring all-black casts produced primarily for African American audiences, but these films were produced by independent production companies such as Million Dollar Productions and Oscar Micheaux's Micheaux Film Corporation on budgets that were relatively small compared to the major studios' films. That is why Stormy Weather (1943) is so special. It was produced by a major studio (20th Century Fox) with a good budget, and featured an all-black cast in non-stereotypical roles.  What is more, it featured entertainers who are still big names today.

Stormy Weather stars Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as entertainer Bill Williamson and was very loosely based on Mr. Robinson's own life. Like many musicals of the time, the plot of Stormy Weather is paper-thin, serving primarily as a means of connecting some incredible performances by some of the greatest black entertainers of the day. Indeed, the cast of Stormy Weather is filled with names that are now legends. Lena Horne plays Bill Williamson's love interest, singer Selina Rogers. Dooley Wilson plays Bill's best friend Gabe. As to the various musical numbers that fill up much of the running time of Stormy Weather, they feature some of the greatest entertainers of all time.

Indeed, I  have to suspect that it is the musical numbers that most viewers will enjoy the most. Stormy Weather features one of the greatest musical numbers to appear in any film. "Jumpin' Jive" is performed by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra and features the footwork of the greatest dancers ever to appear on the silver screen, the legendary Nicholas Brothers. Another standout sequence is "Ain't Misbehavin'" performed by Fats Waller himself. For the song "That Ain't Right", Fats Waller is joined by vocalist Ada Brown. And, of course, there is the title song performed by Lena Horne. There is no shortage of great musical numbers in Stormy Weather despite its 78 minute running time.

With its focus on various musical performances, Stormy Weather is clearly escapist entertainment. It largely ignores the racism and segregation that African Americans faced in the mid-20th Century. That having been said, in its own way Stormy Weather was a revolutionary movie. It presented an all-black cast in roles that were not stereotypes. In the Forties, at a time when most African American characters in films were stereotypical servants and blackface still appeared on the big screen, this was revolutionary in its own way.

Sadly, while Stormy Weather largely ignores the reality of being black in mid-20th Century America, the cast of the film had to face it on a daily basis. The Nicholas Brothers had done considerable work for MGM, where performers and other MGM employees of all races ate in the same commissary. They found a very different atmosphere at 20th Century Fox. Fayard Nicholas has said that 20th Century Fox did not want him and his brother Harold to eat in the commissary, but instead in "a special little restaurant" that wasn't even on the same floor as the Fox commissary. As might be expected, the Nicholas Brothers refused to eat in Fox's "a special little restaurant".

Perhaps because of its all-black cast, Stormy Weather faced problems regarding its release. Following the Zoot Suit Riots that unfolded in Los Angles from June 3 to June 8 1943 and similar riots that occurred in other parts of the country that same summer, 20th Century Fox seriously considered pulling Stormy Weather from release. While Stormy Weather would be released on July 21 1943, less than half of Fox's theatres booked the movie. Despite this, Stormy Weather proved to be a hit at the box office.

Stormy Weather may not be socially relevant in the way that many dramas produced in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies were, but, as noted earlier, in its own way it was revolutionary. It was only the second major studio film with an all-black cast (the first being Cabin in the Sky, released earlier in 1943). What is more, it featured that all-black cast in non-stereotypical roles and showcased some of the greatest entertainers of all time. While Stormy Weather might not tackle issues of concern to black audiences in the 1940s, its very existence was an act of empowerment for African Americans.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I don't worry about what a movie isn't, but accept it for what it is and as you say, Stormy Weather gives us the absolute greats in their field to enjoy forever.