Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson. Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films. So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.
The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career. How loose? The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War. In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI. So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.
The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers. I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots. The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.
Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues. They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company. Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk). Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!
It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers. There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface). But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.