Petchary’s Favorite Films

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway in "Stormy Weather"

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway in "Stormy Weather"

Stormy Weather (1943)

Starring Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Fats Waller

Standing at a window in a slender black dress, Lena Horne laments, “I just can’t get my poor self together…So weary all the time.”  Outside a rain storm rages and the voile sleeves of her dress flutter in the wind.  It is interesting that the title song of this vibrant African American musical is so mournful, while the film itself is energetic and cheerful throughout.

The plot of “Stormy Weather” (Twentieth Century Fox) is simple and secondary to the fine singing, classic songs and glorious dancing that delight throughout this 1943 movie.  It is directed by Andrew L. Stone, whose long career began with a 1927 silent movie starring Tyrone Power and ended with a biographical film about Johann Strauss in 1972.  In “Stormy Weather,” the First World War has ended and the soldiers are welcomed home.  Bill Williamson (played by the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) looks back to this period of his life while sitting on the steps of his home with a group of young children, reminiscing as he looks at an old theater program.   Selina Rogers (Horne) is a traveling songstress at the height of her career, enjoying her life of champagne and nightclubs and unwilling to settle down; Bill is working as a waiter and hoping to break into the “big time.”  Will they settle down together one day?  Well, almost all the great American musicals have happy endings.

“Stormy Weather” is a fitting tribute to Lena Horne, who died on May 9, 2010.  Primarily a nightclub performer, Horne began her career in the chorus line of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club in 1933; and after officially retiring, staged a highly successful one-woman show in 1981, which ran for over 300 performances on Broadway. The movie also marks the final film appearance of Robinson (who was forty years older than Horne when they made the film, and passed away six years later); and of legendary “stride” pianist Fats Waller, who died of pneumonia less than six months after the film’s release, during a cross-country train trip.

The film is remarkable as a showcase for some of the finest African American singers and dancers of the wartime era – making rare appearances in lead roles in an all-black cast.  In fact, another musical film with a primarily African American cast (MGM’s “Cabin in the Sky,” also starring Lena Horne) was released that same year.  Although one or two scenes may be an uncomfortable reminder of the racism that existed (a comedy routine in minstrel blackface is somewhat jarring), it is a joyous celebration of a rich and influential period in American culture.

First, there are the songs.  The film begins and ends with Ms. Horne singing “No Two Ways About Love” (the closing version being softer and sweeter, outside the cottage with roses round the door).  At a Memphis speakeasy where Selina and Bill meet for the second time, Fats Waller, accompanied by his Beale Street Boys sings with his usual humor the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin.’”  Eyebrows raised, Waller interjects with more humor into a powerful rendition of “Salt Lake City Blues” by Ada Brown, (a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America).  Then there is another favorite, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – first performed in the 1920s and made increasingly popular by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and many others.   Mr. Robinson and Ms. Horne (she in one of the many shimmering lame gowns she wears in the film, he in tuxedo), are accompanied by an elegant chorus line, and seem far from impecunious.

The dance routines throughout the film are choreographed by Katherine Dunham – a name not unknown in the Caribbean, where she conducted field research into anthropology and dance.  The Caribbean influence is clear in many scenes – for example, in the windswept, sinuous dance routine that follows the title song, towards the end of the film.   While much of the focus is on Robinson (“Boy, you’ve got educated feet!” exclaims one musician during a sequence on board a paddle steamer heading for Memphis), there is so much more.  Dunham’s chorus line (especially the girls, who at one point go on strike) plays an important role.  The film’s conclusion features an exhilarating and technically dazzling performance by the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) in “Jumping Jive,” – sung and played by the zoot-suited Cab Calloway and his band.  The brothers’ technique, a combination of tap dance, ballet and acrobatics, was enormously influential; in their later years, they taught master classes at Harvard University, with Michael Jackson, Debbie Allen and Janet Jackson among their students.  In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday.

The tributes are many.  American critic David Wild described Lena Horne after her death as much more than a singer and actress.  He observed, “To me, Lena Horne was one of the world’s all-time class acts, a freedom fighter, an original, a radiant beauty, an enduring icon, a brave civil rights advocate and a great lady of standards.  Early in her career, before she was blacklisted for her political views, Lena Horne was wrongly pressured to be something that she wasn’t because of the strange racial politics of Hollywood.  ‘I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become,’ Lena Horne once said. ‘I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.’  She was Lena Horne, and nobody else will ever be like her again.”

The beautiful Lena Horne

The beautiful Lena Horne, who died on May 9, 2010 at age 92

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