Stormy Weather Review

Stormy Weather now stands out as one of the most entertaining of the all-black musicals, presaging Otto Preminger’s more respected Carmen Jones, but coming after Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (whose success this was effectively capitalising on). Though scarcely seen nowadays – a trend which DVD will hopefully continue to reverse – the all-black musicals offer a fascinating, semi-veiled corner into the classic Hollywood period. Certainly, they’re rife with Uncle Tom-isms, particularly the earlier examples (The Green Pastures being a prime example), yet they’re also bursting with fine performances all too rare elsewhere. Indeed, the genre could be seen as a kind of ghetto; the likes of Lena Horne would have been edited out of or relegated to minor roles in studios’ more mainstream efforts, yet here they’re allowed to breathe more freely and take the leads for a change. Moreover, the films have become all the more fascinating as they’ve been so little seen for so long, studio embarrassment having kept them under wraps for so long despite their historical importance and entertainment values.

It’s somewhat fitting then Stormy Weather should effectively serve as a showcase or revue for these performers. The plotting is flimsy in the extreme, a flashback-led tale of the on-off romance between Horne and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson as they move up the showbiz ladder between the wars. Yet the lightweight tone is never a problem, rather we have a similar situation to that of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. There it’s ultimately the Technicolor Cinemascope rock ‘n’ roll performers which count (Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, et al), and the same goes here. Admittedly, the photography is black and white and the frame is near square, yet we’re offered a whole host of musical talents at their peak and in their prime. As well as Horne and Robinson, there’s also room for Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers.

Of course, given the nature of their representation you may feel that simply picking up the soundtrack would be the better option for enjoying their talents. Yet whilst those onscreen may have been deemed second-rate by the studio, and indeed the film along with them, this isn’t a case of second-rate filmmaking. Despite going on to later helm the deplorable Song of Norway (strong contender for worst musical of all time, even if it does boast the unexpected pairing of Harry Secombe and Edward G. Robinson), director Andrew Stone infuses proceedings with a terrific energy. Paradoxically, Stormy Weather feels extremely fresh even if the chances of being made today are at an absolute low.

It’s the musical numbers which are key however, not so much the bits of business in between. Admittedly, we’re not dealing with Vincente Minnelli or Otto Preminger’s widescreen compositions (and Carmen Jones is a much less patronising film by the way, even if its lyrics are liberally peppered with “dis”, “dat”, “dem” and “dese”), but Stone and director of photography Leon Shamroy have nonetheless constructed some marvellous set pieces. In some cases, as when Waller does ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, they know how to keep things simple but snappy; in others, as with Horne’s title number, we get the full on cinematic treatment, grand tableaux surely worthy of Busby Berkeley or anyone at MGM. Moreover, the various cast members were almost always the standouts when granted appearances alongside the bigger names – think of the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate alongside Gene Kelly or opposite Glenn Miller in Sun Valley Serenade - and to see them uninterrupted proves all the more enticing. Indeed, were Fox ever to compile their own version of That’s Entertainment! then surely Stormy Weather would deserve a shoo-in amongst their more “prestigious” Rogers and Hammerstein adaptations.

The Disc

Gaining a release in the UK from Second Sight, Stormy Weather would appear to be identical in presentation terms to Fox’s Region 1 handling, but sadly lacks the academic commentary. As such we get a print in fine condition and a soundtrack to match. The original Academy ratio is adhered to and there’s barely any damage beyond the easily ignorable minute scratch. Of course, we get a certain amount of grain, but then this is to be expected. Importantly, the clarity is there as are the contrast levels, making for an overall superb presentation. Indeed, the soundtrack continues along similar lines, with crackle and background hiss being at a minimum and the only distortion being inherent in the original recording. All told, it’s a disc worth picking up if you can cope with the missing commentary – if not then the Region 1 is the one to go for.

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Last updated: 21/05/2018 22:52:05

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