Blu-ray Review: Stormy Weather - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Though inescapably uncomfortable to view purely as entertainment in 2015, Stormy Weather was landmark hit in 1943. Featuring one of the earliest all-black casts in Hollywood history, the white-produced 20th Century Fox musical extravaganza was a big step forward for people of color in mainstream entertainment. The film had trouble securing bookings in a significant number of areas within the segregation-rife, Jim Crow-era U.S., yet it managed to persevere nonetheless. It’s a testament to the genius of performers, including Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, and many other than their talent manages to shine despite the demeaning presentation offered by producer William LeBaron. Twilight Time has recently issued a gorgeous Blu-ray presentation of this historically important work, limited to 3,000 copies.

As unfortunate as it is that black artists and entertainers were forced to play by whites’ rules, the musical and dance performances contained herein are astounding. Seeing the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) nearly defy gravity with their dancing during Cab Calloway’s “Jumpin’ Jive” is as thrilling today as then. Fats Waller performs his classic “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Horne leaves an indelible impression with her signature vocal on the title song. There are well over a dozen musical sequences packed into a 78-minute running time and these serve as effortlessly compelling reasons to see Stormy Weather.

Stormy Weather cover (214x280).jpgThe “plot” barely warrants a mention. It finds an aged Bill Williamson (Robinson) looking back on his post-World War I career in show business. The younger Bill (Robinson, though 65 at the time of shooting and nearing the end of his life, looks astoundingly youthful and pulls off the extended flashback with aplomb) shares a chaste romantic flirtation with star singer Selina Rogers (Horne). She secures Bill a role in a big stage show produced by and starring Chick (Babe Wallace), with Bill finding he can easily upstage the man in charge (for better or worse). Bill also interacts with his buddy, Gabe (Dooley Wilson, best known as Sam in Casablanca). The narrative bits function primarily as a series of bridges to get us from one musical sequence to another.

The shadow of racism hangs heavily over Stormy Weather, making it difficult to sit through without wincing. There are black actors in blackface performing a minstrel show jalopy routine. There’s a big production number featuring dozens of performers outfitted in stereotyped “African native” costumes. There’s “mammy” imagery. And throughout the film there is an awful lot of exaggerated bug-eyed grinning that represented what so much of white America expected to see from black entertainers in that era. As much as the film can be considered a mark of progress in breaking down racial/ethnic barriers in Hollywood, by no means does the film transcend the racism of the era in which it was produced.

This edition offers a beautiful, high definition image that was obviously transferred from extremely well-maintained source materials. Leon Shamroy’s black-and-white cinematography looks stunning more than 70 years on. The audio, so vitally important for a soundtrack dominated by great music, is DTS-HD MA 1.0 and it sounds clean and clear. Overall this Blu-ray edition deserves top marks for its technical presentation.

Besides Twilight Time’s customary isolated score track, the extras are limited to an audio commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies, USC. Dr. Boyd brings some very valuable historical context to Stormy Weather, examining its treatment of African-Americans in relation to Hollywood and mainstream entertainment’s attitude toward people of color at the time.

With a cast of legendary artists working in peak form, the groundbreaking Stormy Weather has only increased in importance as the decades have past. For anyone interested in owning this limited edition, visit Twilight Time’s exclusive distributor Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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