Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Take: Stormy Weather

The 1943 film Stormy Weather is a glorious showcase for the period's finest African-American musical performers. The story is dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's fictional recollections of his life from the end of World War I to the time of the film. The main thread is his intermittent romance with a singer played by Lena Horne. (Robinson and Horne were never a couple in real life.) The script is thin, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a scaffolding for over 20 musical numbers by the film's cast, including Robinson, Horne, bandleader/singer Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo, singer/pianist Fats Waller, and dancer Katherine Dunham and her troupe. The high point is probably the Nicholas Brothers' spectacular "Jumpin' Jive," which may be the most astonishing dance scene in the history of film. Lena Horne, in beautiful voice, takes center stage with four songs: "There's No Two Ways About Love"; "Diga Diga Do"; "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" (a duet with Bill Robinson); and the title song. The last, intended as the film's showpiece number, is accompanied by a lovely ballet featuring Katherine Dunham and her dancers. Fats Waller is a delight, both with "Ain't Misbehavin'," his signature song, and "That Ain't Right," a duet with singer Ada Brown. Bill Robinson, who was 53 when the film was shot, isn't quite in peak form, but even at less than his best, he can still hold his own with the best tap dancers anywhere. He's also a tremendously likable presence, and he zips one right through the non-musical scenes. He's helped in this by Dooley Wilson, who is the film's comic relief as his always-broke best friend. The production values are almost as modest as the script, but none of it matters given the performers. This is one of the most entertaining movie musicals ever made. The script is credited to Frederick Jackson, Ted Koehler, H. S. Kraft, Jerry Horwin, and Seymour B. Robinson. Andrew Stone directed, with the dances staged by Clarence Robinson and Nick Castle. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Benny Carter, and drummer Jo Jones are among the background musicians. Leon Shamroy provided the black-and-white cinematography.

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