Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stormy Weather Wisks Away the Blues

I finally got around to watching the Cinema Classics Collection DVD of 20th Century Fox's 1943's Stormy Weather, featuring one of the more fabulous casts to ever grace a musical. The story, involving a hoofer's (played by Bill Robinson) career and the beautiful singer he loves, is trite and really just there to set up the musical numbers, which turns into a major asset, as the slim plot allows a wealth of song and dance routines to be crammed into the 77-minute running time, and most of these numbers are nothing less than sensational, giving us a chance to see a who's who of remarkable African-American performers of the last century performing at the apex of their careers. Bill Robinson has his finest moment impressively triping the light fantastic atop a field of drums in the lively "African Dance" number, and he teams up with his costars for several other memorable musical interludes. As Robinson's intended, Lena Horne's tranquil sexiness, and mellow, soothing voice is shown to effective advantage in several numbers (including a smooth, classy take on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby"), leading up to her signature rendition of the title song. With the exception of the seductive minx she portrayed the same year in Vincente Minnelli's very fine directorial debut, Cabin in the Sky, Horne was given little opportunity in her MGM films of this period to showcase her talents outside of performing a song or two in all-star Technicolor extravaganzas such as Thousands Cheer, Ziegfeld Follies, and Words and Music; it's interesting to see the star show a different side to her glamorous image during Weather's dialogue passages, wherein Horne comes across as warm, likable, and down-to-earth.

Adding further stature to the proceedings is the very considerable talent the studio pooled to support the leads. The great Fats Waller shows up to offer some witty asides while backing up blues great Ada Brown on "That Ain't Right"; the film hits an even higher peak shortly thereafter when Waller magnificently puts over a little ditty of his own, "Ain't Misbehavin’.” No less than Dooley Wilson is on hand as Robinson's loyal best friend, while Cab Calloway appears during the latter portion of the film to persuade the gone-Hollywood Robinson to come back to the stage, but it's Calloway who nearly steals the show with his famous kinetic energy and "Hi-Di-Ho"-style wailing during his remarkable scat renditions of "Geechy Joe" and "Jumpin' Jive." However, I say "nearly" because, just when you think nothing can top Calloway's show-stopping swinging and Horne's sultry, dramatic rendition of "Weather" (which features an interesting routine by Katherine Dunham and her dancing troupe), Calloway moves out to the dinner club audience during "Jive" and greets the Nicholas Brothers at a table. As they did while dancing to "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" during the closing moments of 1942's Orchestra Wives, the two dynamic performers wrap up the movie in flabbergasting fashion with their don't-try-this-at-home acrobatic elegance. While jumping up, down, and all around a staircase, then flying high over each other to land in a split position that might cause even Gene Kelly (the brother's partner in The Pirate's superb "Be a Clown" number) to log some recuperation time in a hospital, this amazing duo keeps topping themselves as one stupendous feat follows another, while the audience witnesses the brother's unbelievable accomplishments in stunned, overwhelmed appreciation. After saving the best for last, the stars briefly take their final bows during the film's happy ending.

For sheer entertainment value and talent on display, few musicals match the glories found in Stormy Weather. It's a must for aficionados of any of the host of legendary performers displayed to great advantage, or for those who simply want to spend an extremely pleasant hour and a half (or so) viewing truly great artists performing more than a dozen terrific songs and numbers. The DVD features a fine B&W print of the film, audio commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, an inserted booklet providing information on the movie's incredible cast, and a reproduction of four lobby cards from the film's original release. Don’t get caught in the rain and miss out on the fun- spend some time with Stormy Weather today.


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