Monday, November 19, 2007

. . . And Speaking of Cab Calloway

Listening to Cab Calloway's daughter a few nights ago--- look here for details--- brought to mind the night, some time back, when we went to Pat and Scott's place and took in the classic all-black 1943 film Stormy Weather.

The film was a sort of who's who of black talent for the period. Fats Waller sings "Ain't Misbehavin'." Lena Horne sings the title song, and also gets to act--- she said it was one of the two occasions in her Hollywood career when she got to really act, the other being Cabin in the Sky, where she played the evil seductress Georgia Brown. (Lena Horne can seduce me any time. And yes, I know she's ninety.)

In addition to more cool stuff from Cab Calloway, the film features this astounding dance number from Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers, which Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly both agreed was the best dance number ever caught on film.

And of course there's the ever-copacetic Bill Robinson. He's in his mid-sixties in this movie, but still vigorous enough to make a plausible love interest for the twenty-something Lena Horne.

There's also Dooley Wilson, Eddie Anderson (who gets screen credit for a part that was cut from the film), and a glance at the Calloway orchestra will reveal glimpses of Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. Zutty Nicholson, Calloway's wife, is also in there somewhere.

The plot, as slight as most musicals, has to do with Bill Robinson (a veteran, as he was in real life, of James Europe's legendary First World War marching band, the Marching Hellfighters) meeting Lena Horne in a postwar cabaret. After they both become successful in show business, Bill wants to settle down and Lena doesn't. That's it, more or less.

The film's principal flaw, of course, is the limited range permitted black entertainers in the 1940s. This film is, in fact, pretty daring by period standards--- I wonder if the necessity of getting black people behind the war effort loosened Hollywood strictures somewhat.

The film features stereotypes--- Bill Robinson's spectacular Jungle Drum Dance is still, well, a Jungle Drum Dance--- but it helps that the picture is about glamorous show people and not, say, poor folk living in cabins in Alabama. The stereotypes are, as stereotypes go, fairly benign--- something of a contract to the current range of roles for black actors, which runs the gamut from gangsters to Magical Negroes to comics to stern lieutenants. The center may have shifted, but the range is still about the same.

Gangstas vs. amiable entertainers. If you had a choice of stereotypes (and realizing that most people don't get this choice), would you rather be feared or condescended to?


3 Comments:

Anonymous Bonnie Freeman said...

I was up in the middle of the night again with my throbbing ear, and when I couldn't work on my NaNo novel any more, I began to follow the links in this post.

The wonderful dancing really lifted my spirits! I'd never heard of the Nicholson Brothers before (although there are circus abrobats called the Nichols Bros. in my family tree).

Thanks for sharing!

9:53 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I wonder if I've set some kind of record for YouTube links in a single post?

3:02 PM  
Blogger qtera said...

I did not know all this film footage was available on YouTube. Wow! Thank you for posting the links. I am all copacetic now.
Love, Patricia

1:51 PM  

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