Monday, July 16, 2012

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather
seen on TV @ TCM

I think I've talked about this before, but as much as I sincerely love classic movies, and always will, every now and again I'm reminded that they were all made during a period in American history when racial segregation was a normal, accepted practice. Therefore it seems to me that the incremental baby steps Hollywood took to present black people as more than just maids and porters, cheesy though they may be, are worth looking at from a historical perspective.

I have the wonderful Alex to thank for drawing my attention to Stormy Weather, a film which TCM apparently played for the first time ever last week. It's basically one huge showcase for some of the most talented singers and dancers, black or white, in the 20th century. (Story? Where we're going we don't need... story...)

Lena Horne might not be as well remembered a singer as, say, Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald, but she ranks right up there with them, and between this film and Cabin in the Sky, 1943 was an amazing year for her. She got her start at age sixteen, singing in Harlem's famous Cotton Club and hanging out with the likes of Duke Ellington and future Weather co-star Cab Calloway. From there it was on to Broadway and eventually Hollywood, but wouldn't you know it, MGM cut all of her movie scenes before showing them to Southern audiences. Maybe that's why she made Weather at Fox instead.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born in 1878, a mere 13 years after the end of the Civil War. His specialty was tap dancing, in particular tapping up and down flights of stairs. He took to tap at the early age of six. In his teens, he worked the vaudeville circuit, and like Horne, played the Cotton Club with Calloway and others before moving to Broadway and eventually Hollywood. In the 1930s, when he wasn't playing butlers, he was often paired with Shirley Temple - four times, in fact. He starred in the all-black production Harlem is Heaven from 1932, allegedly inspired by his life.


Cab Calloway started out studying law before getting his first singing gig in the late 1920s. He would go on to form his own orchestra which toured hotels, theaters and nightclubs nationwide, including, of course, the Cotton Club. Even if you've never seen The Blues Brothers, chances are you've heard the song "Minnie the Moocher"; it was the first jazz record to sell a million copies.

These and so many other black entertainers make up Weather, a movie where they don't have to do too much more than what they do best, and it's fun to watch (at least, whenever those annoying kids in the framing sequence aren't around). The music is mostly jazz/big band material, with elements of Southern blues, and the dancing ranges from tap to ballet - and I agree wholeheartedly with Alex in that the brief sequence from the acrobatic, breathtaking Nicholas Brothers is like nothing you've ever seen before, or will see, I imagine.

It kinda breaks your heart a little to know that all these incredible performers didn't go further in Hollywood, but I'd be willing to bet that they had few regrets. They made their mark with an earlier generation, played on all sorts of stages all around the country and earned the respect of their peers. In a time of segregation, you can't ask for much more than that.


  1. Oh I'm really glad you liked this film! Such a fantastic cast, and so many amazing musical numbers. I've watched that Nicholas Brothers dance I don't know how many times since! But yeah I wish these performers were more appreciated today, especially since they had to struggle in many ways during their own careers.

  2. I passed on the 'Singin' in the Rain' re-release to see this, so it's good to know my high expectations were met.


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