Having essentially gone through the growing up part of my wasted youth engaging in the fine art of bad film, I have encountered many different exploitation genres. Some movies were made solely to sell the element of sex. Others devised to gather a crowd of a different kind of deviants altogether, who flocked in like sheep to see just how gruesome and gory things could get at the drive-in. But of all the notable subgenres that have hailed from the annals of exploitation filmmaking, there is perhaps no greater pleasure – or perhaps guiltier pleasure – to be had than in the act of viewing a blaxploitation movie.
While the blaxploitation film is best remembered today for the hundreds of mostly independent productions cranked out during that glorious decade known as the ’70s, the process of manufacturing an entire motion picture solely for black audiences and starring mostly African-American actors dates back to a far earlier time in history. And while the occasional “all-colored” production was mounted and executed – usually by a Poverty Row studio, who knew the so-called minorities were out there and wanted their own kind of entertainment – it wasn’t until we were about midway through that great big bust of a global party we now refer to as World War II that the suits at 20th Century Fox decided to produce its own all-black musical (probably just to get ethnic folk to enlist if nothing else).
Made four years after another monumental musical, MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, 1943’s Stormy Weather finds us at a more innocent point in time. (Well, on film, at least.) Sporting some twenty musical/dance numbers as performed by a slew of talented men and women sporting such respected artistry that even Kanye West would have to shut up and stay seated (and really, we wish he would), Stormy Weather finds Bill Robinson – one of the few men who broke vaudeville’s rules concerning black performers – as a famous dancer who recounts his path to success to all of the neighborhood kids one afternoon. It’s a painfully simple premise – one that would be best suited for a short subject, to be perfectly honest – but it works.
After Bill and ever-financially-scheming pal, Gabe (Casablanca‘s own Dooley Wilson), return from their service in World War I (the first one, kids), our hero soon finds himself working one odd job to another – and in the occasional bit of hot water thanks to Gabe’s wheeling and dealing. Nevertheless Bill’s excellent dance skills and wonderful personality catch the eye of beautiful singer Selina Rogers (the one and only Lena Horne), who tries her best to get big time musical showman Chick Bailey (Babe Wallace) to exploit his talents. Alas, Chick has his own sights set on Selina, and decides to exploit Bill in the entirely wrong way – much like the makers of Stormy Weather do in one “Oh, my…” moments such as a minstrel show, and two black performers performing an Amos ‘n’ Andy-style skit. In blackface. Ouch.
But it is within the eye of this storm that the real treasures lie, such as performances by Cab Calloway, Fats Waller (who performs his timeless “Ain’t Misbehavin'”), and an unbeatable tap dance routine by The Nicholas Brothers that Fred Astaire said was “the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen” (because he could respect artistry like that). Of course, no musical entitled Stormy Weather would be complete without a rendition of the eponymous hit by Ted Koehler (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Frederick J. Jackson), which is brought to life in a dazzling production and performed by the marvelous Ms. Lena Horne herself – years before some white guy would make a million by singing in the rain. Even with the now-politically incorrect moments, director Andrew L. Stone delivers the goods admirably.
Likewise, Twilight Time delivers a magnificent presentation of a remnant from the history of both musicals and early blaxploitation pictures here. This Stormy Weather Blu-ray – made from the very best elements on loan from Fox – looks genuinely stunning overall, giving us a super crisp 1080p/MPEG-4 transfer of the musical classic with an enthralling accompanying DTS-HD MA Mono soundtrack. English (SDH) subtitles are also included, as are two additional audio tracks: the first a much-appreciated isolated score (in DTS-HD 2.0), the second being an audio commentary from USC Professor of Critical Studies, Dr. Todd Boyd (which is a wonderful listen in itself from a culturally historical viewpoint). Twilight Time wraps up yet another must-have title with liner notes from the one and only Julie Kirgo.
Stormy Weather is limited to only 3,000 copies. Highly recommended.