Release Date(s)1943 (February 10, 2015)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Among the great musicals in the pantheon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Stormy Weather all but stands alone. Just moments into the film, its intentions are stated; it would be “celebrating the magnificent contribution of the colored race to the entertainment of the world during the past 25 years.” Though the language is thankfully outdated, the entertainment on display is no less magnificent now than it was at the time of the film’s release in 1943. How lucky the current generation of filmgoers is to have this stunning document of a number of all-time greats beautifully restored for a new Blu-ray release courtesy Twilight Time and 20th Century Fox.
In 1943, films with all-black casts were hardly commonplace, but Fox, like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the very same year with its cinematic adaptation of the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, spared little expense in giving its rich cast of performers their full due in a lavish musical extravaganza. The screenplay of Stormy Weather (by Frederick J. Jackson and lyricist Ted Koehler) is a standard-issue backstage drama with the barest wisp of a plot, but when a 78-minute film has over 70 minutes of song (and dance!) from some of the greatest performers ever to appear on stage or screen, who can complain?
Most of director Andrew Stone’s film is told in flashback by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as a not-so-thinly-veiled version of himself named Bill Williamson. Robinson was already established as one of the greatest dancers of all time as well as a familiar presence on screen at Fox, thanks to his roles in the films of Shirley Temple. He regales the neighborhood kids with the story of his showbiz life, and his relationship with the radiant Selina Rogers (the top-billed Lena Horne, who also starred in Cabin in the Sky). The episodic screenplay follows “Uncle Bill,” as the kids call him, to various locales like Harlem, New Orleans and Hollywood – each one of which offers the opportunity for a new musical number. Besides the dazzling performances of Robinson and Horne, Stormy Weather also offers appearances by the renowned likes of Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Katharine Dunham. Ada Brown, Dooley Wilson, and the Nicholas Brothers.
Musical director Emil Newman oversaw an ambitious slate of songs and dance sequences. Horne radiates confidence and glamour delivering a silky rendition of “There’s No Two Ways About Love,” not to mention the movie’s stunning centerpiece: her climactic, powerhouse performance of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s title tune. (The song was first sung by Horne’s Cabin co-star, Ethel Waters, at the Cotton Club in 1933.) Of the many moments shared onscreen by Horne and Robinson, few are as exciting as Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with the cast in a grand ballroom setting, dressed to the nines. Fats Waller and Ada Brown heat up the screen with a torrid, raucous take of Nat “King” Cole and Irving Mills’ “That Ain’t Right,” and Waller also croons his famous “Ain’t Misbehavin’” while pounding the piano. Cab Calloway naturally enters the picture with a “Hi-de-ho!” and dons a zoot suit for the brassy “Geechy Joe.” He also leads the electrifying “The Jumpin’ Jive” at the bandstand, scatting up a storm.
The dance sequences overseen by the single-named choreographer Fanchon (born Fanny Wolff) are among the greatest assets of Stormy Weather. Robinson and Horne have a rousing cakewalk, and he gets a chance to perform a variation of his famous “stair dance” routine. Katharine Dunham’s troupe of dancers has a striking, elegant and sensual showcase in the “Stormy Weather” sequence which blends traditional ballet and modern dance. A riverboat tap number set to The Tramp Band’s “Linda Brown” is boisterously energetic, while the undisputed dance highlight comes from the Nicholas Brothers with their dangerous, thrilling and athletic choreography to “The Jumpin’ Jive.”
As Julie Kirgo points out in her customarily excellent liner notes included in Twilight Time’s release, “the characters in Stormy Weather seem to exist in a world in which race has little effect or function.” The film treats its cast of characters, simply, as that rarefied breed known as “show people.” There’s no racial tension in Stormy Weather – and truth to tell, little tension of any kind. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the more stereotypical elements of the film. Black performers put on blackface and speak in exaggerated dialects. The producer (and the movie’s nominal villain) Chick Bailey, played by Emmett “Babe” Wallace, stages a “jungle” revue that stands in stark opposition to Robinson’s classy fare as depicted in the film. But if Stormy Weather is far from faultless in its portrayal of African-American culture, it remains an exhilarating and awe-inspiring musical celebration of some of the greatest talent ever to grace a screen in an era when those beloved performers were still denied basic civil rights off-screen.
Fox didn’t cut corners on the production values for the movie, even with the unfortunate knowledge that many exhibitors wouldn’t show it due to its African-American cast. The 1080p transfer of the black-and-white film has great clarity and vivid detail, and is a major improvement over the 2006 DVD release. The DTS-MA monaural track isn’t going to impress, but sounds clear and fine; it, too, is an improvement over the audio heard on the DVD version. English SDH subtitles are included on the Blu-ray.
Bonus features are sparing; the erudite and compelling 2006 commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, has been happily retained. Dr. Boyd addresses the film in the context of its period, and concentrates on the movie’s place in African-American culture and its depiction of same while also addressing the cast with a similarly historical perspective. Twilight Time has also included its obligatory isolated score track which is crisp and expectedly enjoyable; the soundtrack can also be enjoyed with copious bonus material on a newly-expanded 2-CD presentation from the Kritzerland label.
Though Stormy Weather is very much a product of its time, its winning performances from immortal performers such as Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers, as well as some of the finest songs of the Great American Songbook, make it truly timeless. It could hardly ask for a better presentation than on Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray.
– Joe Marchese