Even by the already lax standards of a musical, the narrative of Stormy Weather is a wispy thing. A mere formality to string together a series of revue numbers from an all-black group of entertainers. Don’t come around here if you want typical dramatic stakes like character arcs, emotional development, or plot twists, but this normally serious hindrance wilts in the sheer power of the ensemble of strong performers here.
I am certain that Stormy Weather would only improve in estimation if the narrative wraparound, telling the love story of Bill Williamson and Selina Rogers, was jettisoned in favor of just going straight ahead as a filmed musical revue. Luckily, someone in production noticed this, and the amount of time between musical numbers is severely limited to just a few moments of talking before we’re watching Lena Horne sing, Bill Robinson dance, or any number of specialty acts strut their stuff.
Thunderstruck is the best descriptor I can find for the moments in which the performers are allowed to shine. Bill Robinson does a tap dance across a series of tribal drums, keeping the rhythm going all by himself in a few spots, and it’s audacious and exuberant in how controlled and energetic he is in his tremendous gifts. It’s painful to go back and watch him play second fiddle to Shirley Temple after seeing what happens when he’s in complete control of a dance number.
The first time I watched Stormy Weather, right after taking in Cabin in the Sky, I was annoyed by this film’s lack of a strong narrative structure, that this story was generic to the point of anemic. On a second viewing, and after having taken in several revue films, I appreciate it much more. Who needs a story when you’ve got the lovely fantasy world of this film to escape in? I don’t, especially if it means stringing together dynamite sequences involving Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra, and Fats Waller.
Even better is how Stormy Weather seems to track the evolution of black entertainment. From the bluesy earlier days to the more lavish spectacles as the film wraps up, Stormy Weather is a glorious piece of spectacle. A collage of song-and-dance-and-comedy would be a better sound bite for it, but that doesn’t mean Stormy Weather is without the prevailing attitudes of the time. There are a few moments that walk right up to the edge of minstrel show, and these moments, while few, do occasionally provide a cringe in-between all of the joy emanating from the screen.
But it’s hard to hold any faults against in the film in the face of moments as strong as Ada Brown belting out a number in a juke joint. The Nicholas Brothers perform one of the greatest dance sequences in the history of the medium with “Jumping Jive.” It’s athletic and seemingly inhuman how they consistently jump, leap, tumble, and skip over and under each other and then smoothly transition back in anarchic, jubilant dancing. Fats Waller pounds out “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the piano, and you wonder how they snuck this one past the censors with its naughty lyrics.
While Cab Calloway gets several appearances, and his zoot suit and scat singing is yet another moment of pure adrenaline performing. If there’s one thing Stormy Weather is no lacking for, it’s high-energy performances as it packs in 20 moments like this in a mere 78 minutes. Katharine Dunham and her dance troupe make an appearance, and they perform a beautiful, melancholic dance set to the title tune. This leads me to praising, as if it hasn’t been enough, Lena Horne’s rendition of the title song. Wearing a glamorous dress, filled with heartache and a gentle quiver in her voice, she leans against a wall and belts it out with the impression that her entire life depends upon this one moment. Throughout Horne is a earthy, charming, graceful, and sexy presence.
Added to the National Film Registry in 2001, Stormy Weather is an important film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the historical importance, being one of only two major studio releases during the era comprised of an entirely black cast. Another is how it allows them to star as movers and shakers entirely throughout their world, with the businesses and theatrical troupes, orchestras, dance companies and army troops all being owned and populated by black people. Yet another reason is how every single one of these performers brought their best to the film, and all you’ll want to know is where so many of them were hidden during the era. This is why Stormy Weather endures, and why it remains a vital and essential film from the studio era.