Stormy Weather (1943): Andrew Stone’s All-Black Musical, Starring Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Nicholas Brothers

A crucial year for the sub-genre of the all-black musicals, 1943 saw the release of Fox’s Stormy Weather as well as MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, both starring Lena Horne.

Grade: B+ (***1/2* out of *****)

Stormy Weather
Stormy Weather (1943 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Stormy Weather takes its title from the 1933 song of the same name, which is performed near the end of the film.

Directed by Andrew L. Stone, the movie was adapted by Frederick J. Jackson, Ted Koehler and H.S. Kraft from the story by Jerry Horwin and Seymour B. Robinson.

The tale is based on the life and times of dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson plays “Bill Williamson,” a talented dancer who returns home in 1918 after serving in World War I, trying to pursue a performing career.

He meets a beautiful singer named Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), a character invented for the film; Robinson did not have such romance in real life.

Dooley Wilson co-stars as Bill’s broke friend and Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace is a rival vying for Lena’s hand.

Other performers were Cab Calloway and Fats Waller (appearing as themselves), the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo, comedian F. E. Miller, singer Ada Brown, and Katherine Dunham with her dance troupe.

This was Robinson’s final film (he died in 1949); Waller died only a few months after the movie’s release.

 Narrative Structure:

“Mr. Bill” Williamson, a naturally talented dancer, recounts his past to neighborhood children in a series of flashbacks.

We see his return home in 1918 after serving in World War I, meeting a beautiful singer-dancer named Selina Rogers (Horne), who is the sister of one of his war buddies, and his travels to New Orleans to become a performer.

Along the way he is reunited with Selina, who persuades her manager, Chick Bailey, to hire him, but the jealous Chick fires Bill for outshining him on stage.

Bill then stages his own show but runs out of money to pay his dancer, they refuse to take the stage. Eventually, they do, due to a stroke of luck. Cab Calloway drives up to pick up “Mr. Bill” to appear in his benefit show, where he is reunited with Selina.

The character of Selina was invented for the film; Robinson did not have such romance in real life.

Dooley Wilson (Casablanca‘s pianist and Bogey’s pal, “Play It Again Sam”) co-stars as Bill’s perpetually broke friend Gabe, and Emmett “Babe” Wallace appears as Chick Bailey.

Other performers in the movie are Cab Calloway and Fats Waller (both appearing as themselves), the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo, comedian F. E. Miller, singer Ada Brown, and Katherine Dunham with her dance troupe.

Stormy Weather opened new roles for African Americans in Hollywood, breaking through old stereotypes and far surpassing limited roles previously available in race films produced for all-black audiences, it still perpetuates some stereotypes, such as elements of minstrel in the musical numbers. The performance of a cakewalk features flower headdresses reminiscent of the Little Black Sambo figures.

Despite a short running time, 77 minutes, the film, which has a skeleton of a plot, contains some 20 songs and/or musical numbers.  The dialogue often serves as a prelude, introduction to and glue between the songs.

Jumpin’ Jive: Greatest Dance in Hollywood’s History?

The film’s musical highlights include Waller performing his composition “Ain’t Misbehavin,'” Cab Calloway leading his band in his composition “Jumpin’ Jive,” accompanied by the Nicholas Brothers stunning dance sequence.  Fred Astaire told the Nicholas Brothers that the “Jumpin’ Jive” was “the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen.”

There’s also lengthy dance sequence built around the title song, featuring Lena Horne and the dancing of Katherine Dunham. Horne also performs in several dance numbers with Robinson.

Best Year of Lena Horne’s Career

It was one of Horne’s few film roles outside MGM, and one of two films from that era in which Horne played a lead role; the other being Cabin in the Sky.

The movie was adapted by Frederick J. Jackson, Ted Koehler and H.S. Kraft from the story by Jerry Horwin and Seymour B. Robinson.

The original release prints of Stormy Weather were processed in sepiatone.

It was released on DVD in 2005.

The soundtrack was released on CD by 20th Century Fox, and Sunbeam Records released the soundtrack on vinyl in 1976.

Songs:

“Walkin’ the Dog” – Orchestra
“There’s No Two Ways About Love” – Lena Horne
“Cakewalk”/”Camptown Races”/”At a Georgia Meeting” – Orchestra
“Moppin’ and Boppin'” – Fats Waller
“That Ain’t Right” – Ada Brown and Fats Waller
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” – Fats Waller
“Diga Diga Doo” – Lena Horne
“I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” – Mae E. Johnson
“Nobody’s Sweetheart” (instrumental) – Orchestra
“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” – Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, others
“Geechy Joe” – Cab Calloway & his Orchestra
“Stormy Weather” – Lena Horne
“Stormy Weather Ballet” – danced by Katherine Dunham and her Dance Troupe
“There’s No Two Ways About Love” (Reprise) – Cab Calloway, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne
“My, My Ain’t That Somethin'” – Bill Robinson
“Jumpin’ Jive” – Cab Calloway & his Orchestra, danced by the Nicholas Brothers
“My, My Ain’t That Somethin'” (reprise)–Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway

Critical Status

In 2001, Stormy Weather was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Credits:

Directed by Andrew L. Stone
Produced by William LeBaron
Written by Jerry Horwin, Seymour B. Robinson (story); H.S. Kraft (adaptation)
Music by Harold Arlen, Fats Waller, Shelton Brooks, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Hughes
Dorothy Fields, Bill Robinson, Alfred Newman
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by James B. Clark
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: July 21, 1943

Running time: 78 minutes
Box office $1.6 million (US rentals)