Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger urges you to ditch your modern sensibility and get with the misbehavin'.
An extravaganza in every sense of the word."—The Hollywood Reporter
Lena Horne, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and other noted black entertainers put their collective weight behind one hell of a musical in the classic Hollywood style.
Facts of the Case
Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson, The Littlest Rebel) and his sidekick Gabe Tucker (Dooley Wilson, Casablanca) use their R&R leave to visit a posh nightclub on Soldier's Night. Bill falls for a family acquaintance, the starbound singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne, Cabin in the Sky). Thus begins a standard "boy meets/loses/regains/loses/settles down with girl" plot interspersed with musical numbers from the era's top musicians of color.
Stormy Weather is a showpiece for some of America's classic entertainers. Lena Horne is exquisite to look at, full of grace, and with a glossy singing voice to boot. Fats Waller is an amusing rapscallion with gifted fingers. Cab Calloway is an energetic composer with an unshakeable sense of jive. Bill Robinson has educated feet. Watching them all together in the same musical is like getting a concentrated dose of American culture.
Stormy Weather's sparse story is merely a coathanger for the musical numbers. Going into detail about the plot, or even the acting, would be superfluous. Indeed, Stormy Weather doesn't have much of a plot, at least not one you don't see coming a mile away. The musical numbers are sometimes integrated into the story with sophistication. The lyrics reinforce themes in the narrative, and the dance numbers even mimic faux weddings and other turning points in the central relationship between Bill and Selina. Even so, to call the plot complicated would be a stretch.
No, Stormy Weather is all about the dancing and the music. Every extra, prop, and set is employed towards bolstering the big musical number that is but a scene away. But that's just fine; I doubt many current viewers will be drawn to Stormy Weather to see whether or not Bill and Selina get together. They're likely more interested in watching him dance and hearing her sing. Stormy Weather delivers on the song and dance fronts, aided by Andrew Stone's competent direction and Fox's sufficient budget.
Stormy Weather takes a shotgun approach. Lena holds up the classy diva end with aplomb. Her beauty is as piercing as her voice is wistful. "There's no two ways about love," she moans, and you can't tell whether she wants to be in or out. Fats Waller goes the bawdy route with his signature song "Ain't Misbehavin'," a number that wears its vaudeville roots on its sleeve. (I enjoyed an ironic moment when Fats straightened his suspenders and donned a jacket when the big-time producer Chick Bailey walked into his club, as though Fats was spiffing up the humble pedigree of his music before showing it off.) Later, we're treated to an energetic finale of jive, dance, and song by Cab Calloway. It may not be the most meaningful finale in the history of the musical, but it is an impressive spectacle of zoot suits and brass that has aged well. The Nicholas Brothers do an extensive, perfectly-timed double tapdance that seems physically impossible (a performance they claim as their favorite, according to their official website).
Of course, Bill Robinson adds his own touch of the impossible. In one of several memorable numbers, Bill steals the show behind the back of an oblivious Chick Bailey. While Chick thinks the audience is entranced by his singing, Bojangles leaps from drum to enormous drum in perfect time to the music. The drummers sit back and watch while he tapdances their rhythms for them. Bill seems to be genuinely enjoying himself.
Stormy Weather is a predominately black musical, which is to say that everyone from the ticket-taker to the maître d' is of color. Aside from the occasional musician (even they might have been light-skinned African-Americans) I didn't see any white folk at all. This racial uniformity gives Stormy Weather a peculiar vibe that is as unnatural as the "aww, shucks" white musicals it contrasts against. I agree with Dr. Boyd's point in the commentary that Stormy Weather is something of a contradiction in this regard, both an uncharacteristic nod to black entertainment and an unfortunate reinforcement of segregation and stereotype. Stormy Weather condenses the black culture it is showcasing; the immersion is artificial, forcing the emphasis away from race to allow the audiences of the day to enjoy the performances without focusing on the color of the entertainers. Though calculating and disingenuous by today's standards, the result is nonetheless enjoyable because we get to see so many notable performers share the stage.
Fox has done a fine job transferring these performances to DVD. The picture is spectacular, crisp without caving in to edge enhancement. Contrast is strong and detail is reasonable for such an old print. The film source has been cleaned, because few dust specks or scratches intrude. Both audio tracks are as clean as you could hope for, with a little distortion, moderate-to-low hiss, and enough dynamic range to bring home the performances.
Fox kicks off the disc with a forced advertisement/warning about DVD piracy. Allow me a few words about how ridiculous and insulting this is. Presumably, if you ripped the disc, you'd take such ads out of it. So the people who are seeing this are the people who bought it. It would be like buying tickets to a play, walking into the theater and sitting down, only to have the usher come by and harass you about whether or not you paid for your seats.
At least they gave us an extra, which is a mixed commentary by USC Film Professor Dr. Todd Boyd. He is respectful of the vocal performances, pausing while Horne et al. are singing. Dr. Boyd has a handful of interesting comments, even if he repeats the same basic points over and over. Fortunately, he keeps up a consistent commentary that deftly points out the interaction between Stormy Weather and the broader spectrum of American music and culture.
Its light tone masks some awkward race relation issues. Fortunately, modern audiences will likely breeze right past that to focus on the stellar musical performances, amazing sets, and the deft feet of the dancers. If the combined musical talent featured in Stormy Weather can't get your toes tapping, you must be one of those Goth chicks that hangs out by the hardcore club downtown.
Stormy Weather is certainly guilty of certain indiscretions, but all is forgiven when the music starts.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by USC Film Professor Dr. Todd Boyd
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