director Andrew L. Stone
Stormy Weather is a tremendous artifact of a film. It stars Lena Horne and Bill Robinson in a musical/comedy showcase for an almost entirely black cast, including such luminaries as Fats Waller and Cab Calloway (and his band) is jam-packed with musical and dance numbers, 20 or so in the film’s brief 78 minutes.
It’s not without its racial stereotypes and problematic elements, but it is remarkable to see so many black faces in a film from 1943, to see these all-star talents showcase their stuff on film, captured for all time and perpetuity, all within a context of a story that gives more respect and agency to the roles than most any other Hollywood film of the time period. It’s been suggested that the characters are largely sexless and unthreatening, “safe” images of blacks that were crafted for white audiences by white producers. And while that is doubtlessly true, representation of black artists and culture, existing on on the silver screen, headlining the film and the poster, is something in and of itself.
In 1943, Calloway was heading toward the end of his heyday, Waller the all too early end of his life, Robinson was in his sixties. The title song was a decade old. Back then pop culture had a longer shelf-life than it does today, but these were doubtlessly tried and true elements, big established names and songs packaged in a film that couldn’t be marketed in the South. It was also a bit of the going pro-military WWII propaganda, promoting support of the troops and service. In some ways, it’s also a bit of a career retrospective of Robinson’s, though probably more in theory than truth.
Of all the performances, the most outstanding is the dancing of the Nicholas brothers. Their number is absolutely amazing, vibrant, and awesome. I’ve long loved Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, and it’s tremendously cool to see them in action (Waller actually died at 39 just months after filming).
Stormy Weather is often paired with Cabin in the Sky (also 1943) which featured Horne in a much smaller role but also with an almost entirely African-American cast and stars such as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. I’m not sure which of the films I preferred, but they are both remarkable historical documents containing some wonderful performances and entertainment, very much creations of the time, and yet cultural outliers as well.