Tuesday, February 17, 2015

STORMY WEATHER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Twilight Time

Consummately all-star and mind-boggling to consider so much A-list talent under one roof, much less likely to discover it in a single picture, Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943) remains a benchmark in the classic Hollywood musical, not the least for its all-black cast; a scintillating ensemble, headlined by the peerless Lena Horne and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Not so much an incredible leap of faith for 2oth Century-Fox production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, but a challenge; the gauntlet thrown down at MGM this same year with the release of another all-black revue; Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (also starring Horne). The format had not been attempted in Hollywood since the late silent era and early talkies, primarily due to limited booking possibilities in the segregated south.  Indeed, even in 1943, it was a tough sell. Consequently, opportunities for black performers, outside the usual grotesque parodies as sidekicks or comic relief and background filler (maids, chauffeurs and other ‘hired help’) were limited. Even when a performer of Lena Horne’s caliber was integrated into the white landscape of a Technicolor musical, her appearances were devised in such a way as to be seamlessly excised without a disruption to the plot when these movies were shown in the southern states.
Under such a heavily biased cloud, Stormy Weather is an even more remarkable venture.  Regrettably, at 78 minutes, it comes off as little more than a TripTik through this cavalcade of African-American stars. The Frederick J. Jackson/Ted Koehler screenplay, adapted from a story by H.S. Kraft, itself already once removed from a treatment by Jerry Horwin and Seymour B. Robinson, is marred by an episodic structure – serviceable, though just barely. Tolerance of a different sort is required to quell the obviousness in such racial stereotypes depicted in the Cake Walk, complete with a tap chorine whose Black-eyed Susan bonnets sport leering blackfaces on their backside, or ‘Diga-Diga Doo’ - an infectious little ditty sung by Horne to a writhing flock of female dancers, cavorting in zebra-striped costumes and tribal headdress; the jungle tone further exaggerated as Bill Robinson, stripped from the waist up, chest painted in tribesmen stripes and insignia, taps out an electric drum solo. This latter endeavor actually broke a record: 1,984 taps in just under four minutes and eight seconds! For the most part, however, Stormy Weather treats its black troupe with the dignity they well deserve.
As Gabe Tucker, Dooley Wilson is a superb comic foil to Bill Robinson’s thinly veiled alter ego, Bill Williamson, an infinitely more level-headed romantic figure. Lena Horne, as the delicious Selina Rogers, is an effervescent love interest, while Emmett 'Babe' Wallace gives us a competently played jealous baddie in Chick Bailey.  The rest of the company appears as themselves, nondescripts not even afforded character names.  Thus, Ada Brown is Ada Brown, the proprietress of a Beale Street speakeasy where the likes of Fats Waller nightly entertains and Selina and Bill are reunited, much to Chick’s chagrin. Enigmatically, the most dynamic musical performance within this cavalcade of stars is Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers – curious, because apart from their electrifying Jumpin’ Jive, none is integral to this threadbare plot. But for 3 ½ minutes, Fayard Antonio and Harold Lloyd Nicholas become the toast of the town, displaying their trademarked acrobatic splits, leaping from podium to podium in perfect synchronization and with lightning speed, before ascending and descending a pronounced gleaming white art deco staircase. It is a mesmerizing display of balletic taps and raw athletics, capping off Stormy Weather’s revue on a penultimate high note; officially closed out with Horne and Robinson reprising, ‘My, My, Ain’t That Something’, to suggest the proverbial and prerequisite happy ending at hand.
Stormy Weather begins with Bill Williamson blissfully enjoying retirement on the veranda of his country cottage. Here again, we are presented with that Hollywoodized quaint and ultra-sanitized bucolic domesticity few were living in 1943, but all could sincerely hope and aspire to achieve someday. At present, Bill is entertaining the neighborhood children with a brief overview of his showbiz exploits. We regress to the end of the First World War, Bill and Gabe glimpsed amidst a homecoming processional of returning veterans; the pair carrying a big bass drum for Jim Europe’s (Ernest Whitman) Orchestra down the middle of 5th Avenue. Arriving at a fashionable nightclub later in the evening, Bill forewarns Gabe his profligate spending will soon put him in the poorhouse. Nevertheless, Gabe is only interested in impressing his gal pal of the evening (Florence O'Brien) who runs through his limited means in no time. Bill is almost immediately drawn to Selina, the center of attention for all the enviable male suitors in the ballroom. Bill introduces himself as a good friend of Selina’s brother, Clem, who was killed in the war. He also gives her a memento to remember her brother by and then proceeds to make romantic inroads for himself.
Selina is congenial and grateful to Bill for looking her up. However, in inquiring as to Bill’s future, she quickly realizes he has no definite plans. But Gabe boasts he and Bill know practically everyone in showbiz. Selina then asks if either know Chick Bailey. As the name means virtually nothing, Gabe lies through his teeth; not only does he know Chick, but he practically gave him his start in showbiz.  Recognizing the untruth as such, Selina is nevertheless gracious as she introduces her piano accompanist to their table – none other than Chick Bailey. Unaware of what has transpired, Bailey greets the pair as the total strangers they are, but soon becomes adversarial towards Bill, particularly after Selina agrees to partake in the Cakewalk with him. She quickly learns Bill is a free spirit, having no real direction in life except to go to Tennessee and return to New York only when, in his own words, he has become ‘somebody’.
We dissolve to a cotton boat cruising the Mississippi. Bill and a fellow co-worker are resting after a long day’s work at the mills. Overhearing harmonica music from the other side of the deck, Bill discovers ‘The Tramp Band’ kicking up their heels. He begins to partake with a soft shoe tap routine. The band members are very impressed with his skill and urge Bill to disembark wit them in Memphis. No urging required, it seems, as Bill has already decided if he ever sees a bale of cotton again it will be too soon. We fast track o Ada Brown’s Beale Street café. The star attraction is Miss Ada herself, a hefty, whisky-voiced chanteuse, accompanied by the inimitable ‘Fats’ Waller. Bill is a lowly waiter. Thus, when Selina and Chick arrive for a drink, she barely recognizes him at first. But soon Selina’s memory kicks in and she is delighted to see Bill again, urging Chick to give him a job in their new show. Reluctantly, Chick obliges. But Bill’s first placement in the revue is atop a tree branch far removed from the action. Quickly disillusioned, Bill elects to hijack Chick’s number, accompanied by a drum solo. Bill uses his feet instead of beaters to tap out the rhythm. The crowd loves it. But Chick has decided this is just the infraction he’s been looking for to fire Bill. It doesn’t really matter, because by now Selina prefers Bill to Chick.
Again, the plot incongruously leaps ahead, ineffectively linked by Robinson’s present-day narration on the steps of his cottage. We flashback to Bill, determined to put on a show but unable to find a backer to loan him the $500 dollars he needs to pay off his chorines and keep them happy. Bill runs into Gabe, now a bootblack, shining shoes on the street corner. Gabe tells Bill he doesn’t need money. He merely has to pretend as though money is no object. To this end, Gabe arrives by taxi at the theater, and in a tuxedo no less. He feigns being a wealthy patron of the arts who has agreed to sign everyone’s pay voucher with a bonus, provided they commit themselves to the opening night, Gabe almost pulls off this ruse until two of the show’s extras remember him from his corner bootblack station. The incensed chorines decide to set Gabe up, luring him into their dressing room before beating him up with their powder puffs and a box of chocolates he had intended to give them for their debut.  
Bill and Selina put on their show despite this misfire and are a great success. Their romance, very antiseptic on the screen, though presumably clandestine and progressing, eventually leads to Bill popping the question. Selina is empathetic, but unreceptive. She doesn’t want the white picket fence and children – not yet. She is in love with her career and the excitement of performing around the country. A temporary parting of the ways occurs. Bill retires to his beloved cottage; the dream home he picked out for Selina. We return to the present, Bill receiving an impromptu visit from Cab Calloway. The band leader encourages him to bring his tap shoes out of retirement for one last show – a big-time extravaganza dedicated to the soldiers preparing for deployment to Europe at the height of WWII. Bill willingly agrees: anything for those gallant boys defending our honor at home and abroad. He and Selina are reunited backstage. With seemingly no rehearsal, the pair performs a signature tune before a packed nightclub audience. Calloway takes over with The Jumpin’ Jive; introducing The Nicholas Brothers, who effectively bring down the house. Backstage, Selina informs Bill the time has come for her to settle down. If Bill still wants to – and he does – she is more than willing to entertain his proposal of marriage now. The cast briefly reassembles on stage for a reprise of ‘My, My, Ain’t That Something’ before the screen fades into the end titles.
Stormy Weather is a fairly truncated mishmash of plot entanglements, none convincingly realized. The impetus for this song and dance spectacular really is the numbers themselves, strung together with the most threadbare – and barely utilitarian – of plots to hold the audiences’ attentions.  Yet, here is a showcase for the very best in black entertainment circa 1943, the alumni, most having risen through the ranks from Vaudeville, to the ‘legitimate’ stage, and finally, the movies, are undeniably at the pinnacle of their respective powers. When Lena Horne serenades, as example, with the film’s title tune, she smolders with the integrity of a vintage torch singer in her prime. Personal opinion, of course, but I have always viewed both Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky (as yet to make its hi-def debut) with a modicum of remorse for Lena Horne.
Despite her undeniably glamorous façade, immense singing talent and deft ability to handle comedy and drama in tandem with ease, here is a performer systematically denied from plying her gifts to the art of the movie musical beyond brief cameos or specialty numbers, the bias solely based on the color of her skin; her two aforementioned ‘starring’ features banned in the South. Horne was oft’ criticized in the black press too for not looking ‘black enough’; her fine-boned features plied with a special makeup to register – particularly in B&W – as little more than a light tan. Horne, like Dorothy Dandridge, who would follow in her footsteps briefly in the mid-1950’s, ought to have been one of movie-land’s greatest musical stars. Instead, she remains something of a misplaced – though never forgotten – footnote within its annals; a similar fate befallen every other performer in Stormy Weather.  Mercifully, most everyone in this cast went on to have enduring careers elsewhere after the Hollywood machinery was done with them.
And it remains a testament to these formidable stars not even the incongruity of Stormy Weather’s lackadaisical plot is enough to sink the picture. Arguably, Zanuck would have done better to merely produce a revue-styled program sans narration; a sort of all-black Ziegfeld Follies in which skits and songs are merely lumped together. That’s pretty much the structure adhered to in this film, periodically interrupted by a shoestring commentary from Robinson.  Setting aside the film’s racial stereotypes for a moment, it is still possible to bask in the myriad of musical treasures. James Basevi and Joseph C. Wright’s art direction is nonpareil; a textbook example of old-time/big-time Hollywood glamor. Leon Shamroy’s B&W cinematography teems with eye-popping imagery. Helen Rose’s costumes are gorgeous; particularly flattering to Lena Horne’s lithe and petite features.
Obviously, the film’s focus is on its musical performances – a staggering 20+ inserted into this scant 78 minutes of super kitsch and coo. From a purely nostalgic perspective, Stormy Weather hails from another epoch almost entirely devolved from our own, when such featherweight concoctions were par for the course. It’s a musical full of intensely beautiful moments, yet, strangely lacking a warm heart-filled center of proverbial ‘feel good’ the greatest musicals all possess. As such, it’s the exercise that continues to impress; the sheer size and momentum of the piece and the fractured song and dance vignettes we commit to memory even as we exit the theater. Despite its limited run, the picture made money. It also caught something of the popular zeitgeist while being filmed; Fox taking full advantage by having bleachers built inside the sound stages to accommodate ‘guest traffic’; also, exploiting the cast for command performances on Armed Forces Radio. Never again would Hollywood invest in such a glittery all-star display with an all-black cast. A first-rate counterpoint to the all-white fantasy realms Hollywood gave us during its’ musical heyday, Stormy Weather lives on because it so blissfully validates that astonishing wellspring of African-American talent from the early part of the twentieth century. My, my, ain’t that something...indeed!
Via their alliance with Fox Home Video, Twilight Time gives us Stormy Weather in a 1080p transfer that marginally bests the old Fox sanctioned ‘Marquee Musical’ edition DVD from 2003. Stormy Weather has never looked solid on home video, primarily owing to Fox’s short-sighted improper storage of its archival materials throughout the years. The DVD was competently rendered. TT’s reissue in hi-def bumps up the overall clarity, but contrast still seems to be lacking, as does a smattering of fine-grain. If I had to guess, I’d say Fox has culled this transfer from older digital files and without going the extra mile to clean up what’s here.  If you haven’t seen the old DVD, the Blu-ray will impress.  The 1.0 mono DTS is about what you’d expect, exhibiting minor attenuation in spots, Lena Horne’s ‘There’s No Two Ways About Love’ sounding slightly shrill. TT affords us the opportunity to resample the soundtrack on an isolated score track; an improvement over the way these songs and dances sound in the actual film, though minus their vocal tracks. We also get an audio commentary from Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC; a holdover from Fox’s old DVD, and grateful to see it resurface on this Blu-ray.  Bottom line: recommended, but with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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