Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stormy Weather (1943)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Well you know me, I dig musicals of all sorts but am always finding ones I haven't seen, which is exciting. Stormy Weather impressed me with its awesome cast, and I thought a musical with a predominately black cast from 1943 was an interesting anomaly. The light script tells the story of Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson), a returning soldier who's a natural dancer but can't catch a break in show business, and Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), a successful club singer who is manipulated by her manager. As Bill recounts their romance to a group of kids hanging out on his porch, a wealth of talented singers, dancers, and musicians parade across his memories to show their stuff. It's loosely based on Robinson's real experiences.

I can't begin to tell you how many awesome people do awesome things in this movie, because that is basically what's happening at any given point. Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Ada Brown, Katherine Dunham, Ada Brown, my new favorite people the Nicholas Brothers, and a host of supporting players are all dead-set on flat-out entertaining us. Sure, the plot is minimal and cliche as hell, but when there's a kickass musical number every few minutes I couldn't really complain that much. There are fantastic costumes and sets, and everyone just looks like they're having fun. Sometimes there are even jokes! Robinson brings the gleeful soft-shoe tapping and fucking mind-blowing agelessness (he was 65 in this movie! WHATTTTT????), while Lena Horne brings the grace and general loveliness with her song. They have a nice easygoing chemistry with each other and I enjoined their scenes together, along with the comedic touches of Dooley Wilson as a friend who's a bit of a con artist.

What helps Stormy Weather move past its mediocre script is the great range of musical numbers, and the performers' enthusiasm and dedication to their craft is so palpable. Fats gets in a swingin' version of his classic "Ain't Misbehavin", Lena breaks hearts with the titular ballad, Calloway charms in his zoot suit best with "Geechy Joe", and the Nicholas Brothers break out a truly jaw-dropping dance number that I had to watch several times in a row out of sheer disbelief. I just watched it again to get the link to it. Gave me fucking CHILLS, I tell you.

The main misstep, at least from my contemporary point of view, was the cultural appropriation-themed performance, first with "Diga Diga Doo", followed by "African Dance". Both of these feature the kind of fascination with "primitive", "tribal" culture of Africa and the Pacific Islands/Tropical-type places that seemed fairly widespread at the time, at least if several musicals I've seen are any indication. Obviously this is a slightly different scenario since those posing in these roles aren't in blackface, but it's still a noticeably dated display of ethnocentrism that I have trouble dealing with, and hard to not view seriously since so many of these stereotypes are still in the (Western) public consciousness today.

Interestingly, there's a comedic bit between Miller and Lyles wherein the actors don blackface. I'm not familiar with them so maybe this was a normal part of their act? It seemed a bit of a dig at Hollywood's insistence on perpetuating the use of blackface and general racial stereotypes into the 40's and 50's/ever using them at all, I think? I will not pretend to have any legitimate background in the history of black Hollywood so I am certainly not in a position to competently discuss the self-awareness of race in this movie. For the most part it isn't discussed, especially since the all-black cast lends the illusion of an all-black world, and it seems primarily to be meant as a showcase for these performers, not as a serious discussion of black actors' limited opportunities in show business (especially since I can only assume that the filmmakers were all white).

I'm just happy these wonderful people were able to be in one film together so I could bask in their beauty for 78 minutes. I'll be looking into other films of this ilk, I think, and hopefully I'll find one with a more engaging script.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Oh dear, I don't know! I just wanted to watch videos of the Nicholas Brothers for ever and ever after this (and I did, for at least an hour). I guess another revue-type musical would be nice, like 1945's Ziegfeld Follies.

3 comments:

  1. It actually was pretty common for black performers on the vaudeville circuit to perform in blackface. I totally wish it was a reclamative thing, and that's a totally boss reading, but the issue of the time was - no joke - audiences would FLIP THEIR SHIT if they saw a for reals black person, but a black performer in blackface (I guess?) reminded them of white people in blackface, and they were okay with that.
    But you aptly note that movies like this - and a lot of Bill Robinson's work - showcase these unstoppable talented performers, who were marginalized in a hundred ways but could not be contained.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. That tap dance number makes Fred and Ginger look like Fred and Wilma!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Muffin: Oh wow I hadn't realized that, that's sad. I see I was way off in my assumption, thus proving how little educated I am in such matters! Thanks for the info! And that's a cool way of putting it- "marginalized in a hundred ways but could not be contained."

    Rich: I KNOW RIGHT. Fred said he thought it was the greatest dance number he'd ever seen.

    ReplyDelete