Cast & Crew
On a pleasant day in Hollywood, California, Bill "Corky" Williamson, a semi-retired tap dancer, is teaching his craft to a group of neighborhood children when the mailman delivers a special edition of "Theatre World." The magazine is celebrating "the magnificent contribution of the colored race to the entertainment of the world during the past twenty-five years" and features Bill on the cover. As Bill reads the various dedications from his old friends, he reminisces about the early days of his career. One such dedication from Noble Sissle inspires Bill to remember the hero's welcome he and fellow members of Jim Europe's 15th New York Regiment band received when they returned from France after World War I: Bill and his best friend Gabe live it up in high style in New York City, and Gabe pretends to be a rich talent manager in order to impress his scatterbrained girl friend. At a hall set up as a nightclub for the returning servicemen, Bill sees a beautiful woman and discovers to his amazement that she is Selina Rogers, the sister of a close friend who died in the war. After Selina and Bill dance together, Selina is introduced as the evening's star and joins Jim Europe's band in a song. Selina and Bill are attracted to each other, but her manager, Chick Bailey, gets jealous and intervenes. Selina tries to convince Bill to stay in New York and pursue a dancing career, but Bill says he has a job waiting for him in Memphis and plans to stay there until he can make something of himself. In Memphis, Bill finds work on a riverboat, but when he dances with a group of talented minstrels on board, they encourage him to go down to Beale Street to secure a job as a dancer. One night at Ada Brown's Beale Street café, where Bill has been hired as a waiter, Bailey and Selina stop by looking for new talent to star in Bailey's new show. After Bailey offers roles to Ada, a singer, Fats, a piano player and the café's band, Selina begs him to take Bill, too. Bailey reluctantly agrees and hires Bill as an extra tom-tom player in a dance number. One evening, Bill, frustrated with his assigned role, performs a complex stair-step dance on the drums while Bailey sings. The crowd goes wild, and it takes several seconds before Bailey realizes that they are applauding Bill. When he discovers Bill's ruse, he kicks him out of the theater, but Bill punches Bailey and then has the last word when Selina agrees to go with him for a sandwich in defiance of Bailey. Back in the present, Bill is pleased to read a dedication from former enemy Bailey, who pompously has written that he was the first to recognize Bill's talent. Bill then wonders about his old friend Gabe: As Bill is about to put on his own show, he runs into Gabe, who is working as a bootblack in Harlem. Bill's show is in danger of failing because the chorus girls, who have not been paid, are threatening to quit before the first performance. To help Bill, Gabe shows up at the theater pretending to be a rich impressario and tricks the group into performing. When one of the performers, however, recognizes Gabe as the man who has shined his shoes many times, the group once again turns on him and Bill. Fortunately, Gabe's hired driver has just won money at the races. He agrees to pay the performers' salaries, and the show goes on. Later, Bill, who has earlier married Selina, asks her to move to a little house with him and raise children, but Selina tells him that she must continue to work. She goes to Paris, where she becomes a renowned star. In the present, as Bill is relaxing on his front porch with the neighborhood children, Cab Calloway stops by to pick him up for a big party, which will honor the men who are going overseas to fight in World War II. At the show, Bill reunites with a jive-talking Gabe, who is now working for Cab, and sees Selina perform. Later, she tells him that she wants to return to him and start a family. After several performances by Cab, Gabe and others, Bill and Selina appear together and all ends on a happy note.
The Tramp Band
Mae E. Johnson
Flournoy E. Miller
Fred "tomago" Williams
James B. Clark
Nat King Cole
Stephen Collins Foster
James P. Johnson
H. S. Kraft
J. Russel Robinson
Seymour B. Robinson
Fred J. Rode
Thomas (fats) Waller
Joseph C. Wright
Stormy Weather was a world apart, even, from another picture released earlier that year, Cabin in the Sky: While that picture - the first big-ticket Hollywood film with an all-black cast -- certainly represented a leap of progress in terms of how people of color were represented in Hollywood cinema, its themes were somewhat biblical, pitching Lena Horne's bad gal against Ethel Waters' woman of virtue. Stormy Weather, set in a different milieu, the world of entertainers, didn't completely ignore the struggles faced by African Americans in midcentury America. But it cast those issues in a different light, presenting them as potentially surmountable with talent and hard work. The characters in Stormy Weather may struggle, but they want - and ultimately get - the same things that all Americans would have wanted at the time: Respect and remuneration for doing good work, enough money on which to live well, the love of a good man or woman. Is the plot of Stormy Weather 100 per cent realistic? Of course not. But the movie presents something more important than realism: It's a fantasy version of an America that might have been if Americans of all colors had, literally and figuratively, been sitting at the same table.
Stormy Weather's plot is mere connective tissue for a series of glorious song-and-dance numbers. As the movie opens, Bill Robinson, playing a version of himself named Bill Williamson, amuses a bunch of neighborhood kids with his dancing and also, in the course of answering their curious-kid questions, tells the story of his life: He served his country in World War I, only to return to a life of menial work; he worked hard, with a few strokes of luck along the way, to become a top entertainer; and he met and fell in love with another entertainer, a sultry singer named Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), who adored him but who didn't want the same things he hoped to get out of life. As the picture charts the ups and downs of Selina and Bill's relationship, it also makes room for superb performances from the likes of Cab Calloway (a marvel of swinging elegance in his baggy, draped suits), the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold (who execute a jaw-dropping number, on a staircase no less, at the end of the movie) and Fats Waller (in his most extensive movie performance, filmed shortly before his death in 1943). As if that weren't enough, the picture provides a phenomenal showcase for Horne, who slinks her way through several musical numbers including the title song, which would of course become her signature.
Stormy Weather was groundbreaking, but only in a quiet way. In their book Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner point out that the Office of War Information (OWI), formed in 1942, was eager to work with Hollywood to bolster national pride on the home front, and improving race relations was part of that plan. Though Buhle and Wagner note that the race issue wasn't necessarily a high OWI priority, it did provide the impetus for left-leaning filmmakers and writers in Hollywood to get pictures like Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather off the ground. Stormy Weather placed the emphasis on comedy and dance routines that might have been seen in black honky-tonks or nightclubs, providing a means for black audiences to see themselves - in roles other than mammies or servants - on the big screen. And yet Stormy Weather was a breakthrough that almost didn't come to be: According to Buhle and Wagner, Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind the picture, considered pulling it from distribution, and fewer than half of Fox's affiliated theaters even showed it.
Even so, Stormy Weather was a hit in theaters, and even if most of the ticket buyers were black Americans, the ever-stuffy (and very white) New York Times reviewed the picture positively. In fact, the paper's critic seemed crazy about it: "To single out each entertainer and skit for even a sentence would run this report to considerable length," he wrote. "In short, 'swell' is the adjective for all twelve of the principal turns."
Perhaps that's not so surprising: White America has generally been perfectly willing to enjoy performances by black entertainers -as long as that didn't mean sharing the same restaurants, hotels, night clubs, rest rooms and drinking fountains with them. As Donald Bogle relates in Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, the Nicholas brothers in particular spoke of having problems in the Fox commissary during the filming of Stormy Weather. The dance duo, Hollywood veterans by that time, were used to the more egalitarian atmosphere of MGM's commissary, which served lunch to about twelve hundred performers daily, from executives to big stars to extras. At Fox, however, Fayard recalls that he and his brother "were consigned to 'a special little restaurant. And that's where they wanted us to go.'" The restaurant was not even on the same floor as the commissary, and the Nicholas brothers refused to go there.
As exuberant and fanciful as Stormy Weather is, the picture wasn't made in a vacuum, and beneath its glossy surface lie hints of a much harder reality for black Americans. Buhle and Wagner write, "Notwithstanding the [movie's] Hollywood finish, the reality of unrewarded talent and a subproletarian life for ordinary African-Americans is never far from the surface." Even so, Stormy Weather, with its shimmery, luxe-on-a-budget costumes and go-for-broke dance numbers, speaks a truth that goes far beyond wish fulfillment. It sets a place for African Americans at the nation's table, and the tableware is solid sterling, gleaming, intrinsically valuable, and impossible to ignore. The movie is a shout, defiant and exuberant, that can be summed up in two words: We belong.
Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Andrew Stone
Screenplay: Frederick Jackson, Ted Koehler (screenplay); H.S. Kraft (adaptation); Jerry Horwin, Seymour B. Robinson (original story)'
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy; Lee Garmes (uncredited)
Art Direction: James Basevi, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge (uncredited)
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Lena Horne (Selina Rogers), Bill Robinson (Bill Williamson), Cab Calloway and His Band, Katherine Dunham and Her Troupe, Fats Waller, Nicholas Brothers, Ada Brown, Dooley Wilson (Gabe Tucker).
by Stephanie Zackarek
The New York Times
Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies, The New Press, 2002
Donald Bogle, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, One World Books/Random House, 2005
Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)
Born on October 20, 1914 in Mobile, Alabama, Fayard was the son of musicians who played in vaudeville pit orchestras. When he was 6 1/2 years of age, his younger brother Harold was born (March 27, 1921, Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and little did they realize that they were destined to be one of the most memorable dance duos in film history.
Fayard learned to dance by watching several vaudeville shows while traveling with his parents. He incorporated many of the acrobatic moves he saw into his own routines, and soon, Harold was learning with him. By 1932, they had auditioned, and landed, a spot in Harlem's celebrated haunt, The Cotton Club. Their routines were a sensation, and Samuel Goldwyn brought them to Hollywood where they performed in Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor and The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1937). That same year, they appeared on Broadway The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms.
Fayard and Harold headed back to The Cotton Club to polish up their moves, and when they came back to Hollywood in the '40s, they entered their golded period. In Down Argentina Way (1940) starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable, they did that extraordinary number, leaping off a grand piano and doing eye-popping splits over each other on an oversized staircase; Sun Valley Serenade (1941), they have an engaging Chattenooga Choo-Choo routine with a 19-year-old Dorothy Dandridge; and best of all, The Pirate (1948) where they do a terrific Be a Clown routine with Gene Kelly that's every bit as comical as it was inventive.
In the early '50s, the brothers were touring all over the United States and Europe, but in 1957, Harold spent seven years in Paris and only reunited with Fayard in a 1964 television appearance on the hit variety show The Hollywood Palace. But as their performance teaming became less frequent as they got older, Fayard found ways to keep busy. He drew critical praise for his dramatic turn in The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) and won a Tony for his choreography for Black and Blue (1989). In 1991, Both Fayard and Harold received the Kennedy Center Honors and most deserved honory Oscars® at the Academy Awards. Nicholas is survived by his wife, Katherine; sister, Dorothy; sons, Tony and Paul; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
by Michael T. Toole
Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)
Stormy Weather on DVD
The film stars one of the most beloved performers of the 30s, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as Bill Williamson, whose life story provides the framework for a litany of specialty numbers performed by some of the best and brightest talents of the time, some of whom would become legends. Looking back over his life for a group of inquisitive children, Bill reminisces about returning home from the army at the end of World War I and meeting up-and-coming singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), who is working with singer/entrepreneur Chick Bailey (Emmett "Babe" Wallace). Unable to find a job in New York, Bill heads south to make a name for himself, but to make ends meet takes a job working as a waiter in a honky-tonk owned by Ada Brown, where the great Fats Waller provides the entertainment.
Ada's dive goes into a buzz when they find out that Chick Bailey and his friends are in town and on their way to the place for a visit. After hearing Waller perform, Chick decides to hire him and Ada for his latest Broadway review. And Selina convinces him to hire Bill as well, knowing that Bill is a fine dancer. The jealous Chick agrees, but only to give himself the opportunity of humiliating Bill by sticking him in a tree to beat a drum during Chick's own number, and not allowing him to dance. Of course, one night Bill finally breaks free and interrupts the number with a crowd pleasing dance on the native drums, leading to his immediate dismissal for having stolen the spotlight from Chick.
Being fired doesn't stop Bill, though. He's made a name for himself and soon is producing his own show, with the help of life-long friend and con-artist Gabe Tucker (Dooley Wilson, best known for his role as Sam in Casablanca). As both Bill's and Selina's fame and fortune rise, their relationship suffers, hitting a real snag when, in an interesting bit of role reversal, Bill wants to get married and settle down to a normal life, and Selina wants to go on performing. They go their separate ways, but are reunited when the story returns to the present, and Bill is called out of retirement to perform in a special show for soldiers who are about to be shipped out to fight in World War II.
While the synopsis undoubtedly sounds trite, the plot of Stormy Weather is really simply the thread that binds together over twenty songs by performers who were all at the top of their form when the film was made. Horne sings "There's No Two Ways About Love," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and of course, the title tune in a production number that would become her most memorable moment on film, and forever stamp "Stormy Weather" as her signature song. The irrepressible Cab Calloway is on hand to perform "Jumpin' Jive" for the show at the end of the film, Fats Waller sings his most loved hit, "Ain't Misbehavin'" (as well as a knockout duet with Ada Brown), and the Nicholas Brothers perform yet another eye-popping dance number.
While Stormy Weather doesn't have a strong story, and at times it lapses into some unfortunate stereotypes (the "cake walk" number is particularly disconcerting), it is highly successful at achieving its actual intention: to showcase the magnificent contributions made to the entertainment world by some legendary performers. The opportunity to see rare film appearances by some of the performers, as well as the film's historical significance as one of the earliest films to feature an all African American cast, led to its being added to the National Film Registry in 2001.
The release of Stormy Weather to DVD kicks off Fox's new "Cinema Classics Collection" (though how that differs from the Studio Classics Collection remains a mystery). The source material is in amazingly good condition, though there is some mild, general deterioration and a few brief stretches where the image is noticeably grainy. More importantly, the audio is in excellent condition. There is just a little minor deterioration here and there, but for the most part the audio features robust tone quality, strong bass, and crystal clear vocals and dialogue.
Surprisingly, given the film's significance, Fox has not provided any extras outside of an audio commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC. Unfortunately, this is one of the poorest commentaries I've heard. Through the course of the film Boyd provides superficial information about the stars, which most fans will already know, while maddeningly providing no information at all about the other featured performers who are not so well known today, including Ada Brown and the singer who performs "Salt Lake City Blues" (Boyd instead spends his time talking about how silly the song is). At the same time he makes some insupportable statements--his thoughts on Casablanca are particularly preposterous—while saying "you know" so many times that were it not for the depth of his voice, one would think he was in high school. A film of this importance deserves better ... and more.
For more information about Stormy Weather, For more information about Stormy Weather, visit Fox Home Entertainment Entertainment. To order Stormy Weather, go to TCM Shopping.
by Fred Hunter
Stormy Weather on DVD
The working title of this film was Thanks, Pal. According to contemporary sources, the film was loosely based on Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's life and was advertised as a "cavalcade of Negro entertainment." Robinson, who was born in 1878, began dancing professionally when he was eight and became a vaudeville and musical stage star before appearing in his first film, Dixiana, in 1930 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.1367). He was the originator of the stair tap routine and enjoyed a reputation as one of the world's leading tap dancers. Stormy Weather marked Robinson's return to the screen after a five-year absence, and was his last film. He died in 1949.
Stormy Weather was the second all-black cast film made by a major studio in the 1940's; M-G-M's Cabin in the Sky was released just prior to Stormy Weather and also starred Lena Horne . The famous comedy team of Miller & Lyles was recreated for the film, with Flournoy E. Miller playing himself and Johnny Lee replacing the deceased Aubrey Lyles. According to a November 12, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Louis Armstrong was sought for a role in the picture. Irving Mills, a composer and publisher of Harlem musical artists, who is credited onscreen as producer and William LeBaron's assistant, was hired because of his experience with "negro shows," according to a September 24, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item. News items in California Eagle include Lucille Battles, Anise Boyer and Cleo Herndon in the cast and note that Nadine Cole, Nat King Cole's wife, dances in the picture. News items also list the following musicians as members of Jim Europe's band: Charles Wellan, Ulysses Banks, Earl Hale, Maxwell Davis, Theodore Shirley, Lawrence Lassiter, Bert Brooks, Leo McCoy Davis, Herman Pickett, Eddie Myart, Rabon Tarrant, Barron Morehead, Happy Johnson, John Haughton, James Johnson, Carl George, Eddie Hutchinson, James Porter and Teddy Buckner. The participation of these performers in the final film has not been confirmed, however.
According to memos in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, some lyrics in the following songs were deemed unacceptable by the PCA: "That Ain't Right," "Yeah Man! [Linda Brown]," "Diga Diga Doo," "Geechy Joe," "Nobody," "That Man of Mine Is Dynamite," and "Good for Nothin' Joe." The last three songs were not heard in the final film. In "Diga Diga Doo," certain suggestive lyrics were changed, and in "Geechy Joe," the phrase "his jimson blues" was changed to "the lonesome blues." A few seconds of an instrumental, "Moppin' and Boppin'" by Fats Waller, Benny Carter and Ed Kirkeby, are heard at the beginning of the Memphis café sequence.
According to a February 1943 editorial in California Eagle, William Grant Still, who was a famous African-American composer, was hired as the film's music supervisor, but resigned "because [his] conscience would not let [him] accept money to help carry on a tradition directly opposed to the welfare of thirteen million people." In the editorial, Still accused the studio of labeling "Negro" music and dancing as cruder and rougher than the quality numbers that he was producing and that his musical arrangements were thus unrealistic. He also stated that one member of the crew declared that "'Negro bands didn't play that well.'" Still called on the black public to write letters to Twentieth Century-Fox and other major studios pointing out the faults in their representations of black culture and society. Despite Still's protest, Stormy Weather was praised by the mainstream press for its music and dancing. Variety lauded its "all-colored cast" and the fact that it had not been "permitted to engage in any grotesque or theatrically 'typed' concepts of Negro behaviourism."
The Variety review also mentioned the "intra-trade concern" over the age difference between the film's romantic leads, Horne and Robinson, who was some forty years her senior, but noted that "the illusion comes off quite well." However, California Eagle reported on April 8, 1943 that a "highly indignant" Robinson was set to sue "several publications" for printing the story that Stormy Weather would be remade with another, presumably younger, male romantic lead.
According to studio production notes on the film, the film's principal performers broadcast their musical numbers to servicemen overseas using short-wave radio. Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky were released during three of the nation's worst race riots. According to modern sources, the riots, which took place in Harlem, Detroit and Los Angeles (the latter known as the "zoot suit" riots) almost caused Twentieth Century-Fox to pull the film from theaters. Even though half of all first-run theaters refused to book it, the picture was a box office hit, according to an August 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item.
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1998
Released in United States March 1977
Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.
Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Mighty Musical Movie Marathon) March 9-27, 1977.)
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.)
Selected in 2001 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.