Lena Horne

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy Weather (1943)

(On Cable TV, August 2019) Due to an unfortunate lengthy delay between first watching Stormy Weather and publishing this review, I’m cheating a bit here—I’ve seen the film about twice-and-a-half in the past two years, and I’m not going to pretend that this is a “first viewing” review. Simply put, I love Stormy Weather. It may not be as well known as other movies of the time, but it has something very distinct running for it: It’s one of the rare all-black films made by Hollywood studios in the 1940s, and it doesn’t hold back giving the star treatment to its lead performer Lena Horne. Given my enduring crush on the timelessly gorgeous Horne, it makes perfect sense that I’d like Stormy Weather as much as I did: She get the primary role (allowing her to show her acting talents far more than the walk-on singing performances she got in other musicals), it treated with reverence by the other characters, is shot in a luminous fashion by the best cinematographers that the studio could put on the project and she gets a few terrific numbers along the way (most notably the title song). But wait, because there’s so much more to Stormy Weather than a showcase for Horne: You have Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in a leading role, you have Cab Calloway showing everyone how it’s done, and as a perfect climax to the film you have an anthology-worthy dance performance from the Nicholas Brothers that’s worth seeing again and again. (Not less an authority than Fred Astaire famously called it the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen.)  Less famously, you have plenty of dance and song numbers by talented black performers who have full license to be at their best. (One of the numbers features black performers doing blackface, which is the kind of thing that marks it as a product of its time, but also make for interesting reading.) The all-black cast shows a very different vision of life in 1943, and it’s immensely regrettable that only Cabin in the Sky (also 1943) would be made in the same style. As mentioned before, I’ve watched Stormy Weather two-and-a-half times already (up to five times for the Nicholas Brothers sequence) and it gets better every time. An utterly essential musical and one I don’t get tired of recommending.

That’s Entertainment! III (1994)

That’s Entertainment! III (1994)

(On Cable TV, March 2019) Third instalment in the now-classic anthology series, That’s Entertainment! III is farther away from its 1950ish source material than its predecessors and consequently much less reverential. It innovates by featuring behind-the-scenes footage, cut numbers (some of them better than those that replaced them), a focus on lesser-known stars (such as my favourites Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse—who looks amazing in her sixties as she presents a segment of the film) and some attention to non-white performers (with Lena Horne even acknowledging that Hollywood wasn’t ready for them). Under this new focus, there are plenty of things to wow about: Eleanor Powell’s dancing remains as astonishing at the techniques used to film it, a wonderful ditty sung by Horne in a bathtub, and a split-screen comparison of a Fred Astaire routine performed several weeks apart shows the amazing control that he had over his performances. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of the stupidly racist Judy Garland bit “I’m an Indian Too,” which should have stayed buried in the vaults. As with the other films of the series, That’s Entertainment! III can be revisited at several stages in a classic movie cinephile’s evolution: As an introduction to some terrific movies and performers, as an exploration of a few familiar favourites, or as delightful complements to one’s existing knowledge of the era. No matter how you choose to see it, it’s a great anthology movie, and it’s well-worth watching alongside the others.