Stormy Weather (1943) is a 20th Century Fox musical, one of two Hollywood musicals with a Black cast released that year, the other was MGM’s Cabin In The Sky. The film was made strictly to showcase some of the leading African-American performers in an era when Black actors and singers rarely appeared in lead roles in mainstream Hollywood productions.
It takes its title from a song of the same title written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Ethel Waters first sang it first at The Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933 and recorded it that year. The song is performed almost an hour into the film.
Stormy Weather is nominally based on the life and times of its star, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson plays a talented dancer who returns home in 1918 after serving in World War I and tries to pursue a career as a performer. Along the way, he meets a beautiful singer (Lena Horne) who was invented for the film; Robinson did not have such a romance in real life. Dooley Wilson co-stars as Robbinson’s perpetually broke friend.
Other performers in the film include Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, both appearing as themselves, and Katherine Dunham with her dance company. Despite a running time of only 77 minutes, the film packs in 20 musical numbers. It was was Robinson’s final film (he died in 1949); Waller died only a few months after its release.
Also featured are the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo. The Nicholas Brothers were Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000), who excelled in a variety of techniques, including a highly acrobatic “flash dancing”. With a high level of artistry and daring innovations, they were considered by many to be the greatest tap dancers of their day.
Their performance in the musical number “Jumpin’ Jive” (with Cab Calloway and his orchestra) is one of the most virtuosic film dance routines of all time. One of their signature moves was to leapfrog down a long, broad flight of stairs, while completing each step with a split, and in the finale of Stormy Weather, the Nicholas Brothers leap exuberantly across the orchestra’s music stands and dance on the top of a grand piano in a call and response act with the pianist, to Jumpin’ Jive.
Fred Astaire said this dance number was the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen. The great Gregory Hines declared that if there was ever biopic of the Nicholas Brothers, their dance numbers would have to be computer-generated. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov called them the most amazing dancers he had ever seen in his life.
Growing up surrounded by vaudeville acts, The Nicholas Brothers became stars during the Harlem Renaissance. They performed on stage, film, and television into the 1990s.
The Nicholas Brothers taught master classes. Among their students were Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson.
Be warned: even if Stormy Weather and other musicals of the 1940s opened new roles for Black performers in Hollywood, it still perpetuates stereotypes. Some of the musical numbers contain elements of minstrelsy. It is streaming on YouTube.