Sarah Slade considers if Stormy Weather has weathered the storm.
There is a school of thought that maintains that musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age were at the forefront of social commentary. Look at Carousel, with its depiction of domestic violence, single parenthood and walking on through the wind and the rain. Or Oklahoma in the light of Judd’s mental illness. Let’s skip over the message behind Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and look at Showboat, which has actual people of colour singing songs about rivers and takes a sideways look the trials of being mixed-race in the Deep South.
Okay, let’s not. Instead, let’s look at a sincere attempt to make a musical that featured African American actors, singers, dancers and musicians performing all the roles; not just the loyal slave, the slack-jawed yokel or the eye-rolling, pimp-shuffling, ne’er do well, but the romantic lead, the bad guy, the hapless best mate and the eye candy. It has singing, dancing, more dancing and an actual plot that doesn’t involve black people picking up after white people or playing songs for them.
Given that the United States appears to be going back in time, it seems appropriate to look again at Stormy Weather, a 20th Century Fox musical that came out in 1943, starring a dazzling array of African American stars who had hitherto been confined to playing jolly butlers (Bill Robinson was better known to white cinema audiences for his dance-offs with a very young Shirley Temple) and sidekicks (Dooley Wilson, better known as “Sam” in Casablanca). Lena Horne was better known as a cabaret singer who was the first African American to sign a long-term contract with MGM. Even then she couldn’t get cast in a lead role in a major production and any film she did feature in had to be re-edited to suit cinemas that didn’t play films with black actors in them.
Stormy Weather is based loosely on the career of Bill Robinson, one of the highest-paid African American entertainers of the 1930s. We first meet “Bill Williamson” (Robinson) and his eternally broke, feckless pal Gabe (Dooley Wilson) as they are demobbed from the army in 1918. They’re on a mission to get drunk, get laid and to deliver their late friend Clem’s medal to his surviving relative, Selina (Lena Horne). Selina is working as a singer and dancer in Harlem. She and Bill hit it off immediately and dance the cakewalk in a massive minstrels-style number that is as excruciating as it sounds.
I particularly like the “it’s a gig…” faces of the young pianists
Bill’s career is plot glue for a number of disparate performances by the leading stars of the time. He works his passage down South on a paddle steamer, collapsing exhausted onto a spare cotton bale to rest, only to get drawn into a late-night dance-off with The Tramp Band, a travelling minstrel group.
We next see Bill working as a waiter in a shabby blues joint, where Fats Waller duets with the owner, Ada Brown. They’re all signed up for a “negro revue” tour – an all-black theatrical extravaganza managed by Selina’s mentor (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace), who happens to be passing one night. Bill gets a job as a drummer, dressed in skins and thumping miserably in the background until he decides to upstage his boss during a number featuring some very big drums indeed.
Bill gets his own shows on the road, gets the modern dance maven Katherine Dunham to provide him with a chorus line, and gets to go to Hollywood. Selina refuses to give up her career to join him. A few years down the line, he gets invited to entertain the troops once again and bumps into Selina, in town to sing the title song.
The show ends with jumping number from Cab Calloway and this happens:
Fred Astaire called that the greatest dance number ever filmed. But what happened to the band?
Selina tells Bill she’s changed her mind and wants to settle down.
And that’s the story, such as it is. The acting is fairly rudimentary, the script short on actual character development or depth and used more as a method of linking over 20 musical/dance numbers in just over 75 minutes. The actual performances, though unpolished by Hollywood standards, have a verve and spark to them that most producers could only dream of.
Yet watching the film in the 21st century is still uncomfortable once you realise that, just as mainstream movies of the day existed in a technicolor universe peopled almost entirely by Europeans, Stormy Weather had a many-hued cast, all of whom would have been categorised as African Americans by the racial standards of the day.
However, with an all-black cast you don’t need to address the thorny problem of racism, of having white actors upstaged or outnumbered by black actors, or having white musicians being compared uncomfortably with black musicians. Without having to address racism, Stormy Weather could pretend that it didn’t exist, that African Americans were mostly noble souls, content to live the shabby and the second rate (Bill’s Hollywood mansion is a rather modest detached bungalow in a racially segregated part of town), and wild for music and dancing. While the film did much to showcase the breadth of African American talent, it still had to follow the rules that kept black Americans in their place: roll the eyes, play that thing, and dance, dance dance.
Stormy Weather is part of the BFI’s Black Star season