Lena Horne’s voice. The frenetic band-leading of Cab Calloway. The superbly athletic dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. These elements, and many more, make up the engine that powers the 1943 musical Stormy Monday. Seventy-five years ago this week, this film with an African-American cast and a surplus of talent arrived in theaters and made history.
The year 1943 had already seen one successful African-American-led musical in Cabin in the Sky. Produced by MGM and based on a Broadway musical from 1940, Cabin featured Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram (from the original show). Among the other stars were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and yes, Lena Horne. The film would earn one Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Song for “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” In a move unusual for the time, producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli consulted prominent black leaders and the NAACP before filming out of concern for their representation of the cast and their desire to avoid stereotyping.
Horne received good notices for her portrayal of Georgia Brown in Cabin, but she would get a much larger role in 20th Century Fox’s Stormy Weather. The movie is based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Horne plays Selina Rogers, a character invented for the film. Although it was Horne’s second big musical in a year, it was still notably unusual at the time for a studio picture to feature an African-American cast.
Other huge stars appeared with Robinson and Horne. In addition to Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers, the film featured singer Ada Brown, dancer Katherine Dunham, and the legendary Fats Waller. To take full advantage of the cast, the film includes 20 musical numbers, despite a brisk running time of 77 minutes. Waller plays his own “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Calloway conducts and sings “Jumpin’ Jive” (which he co-wrote), and the Nicholas Brothers do a dynamic dance along with the tune. In fact, the Nicholas Brothers’ dance remains one of the most famous scenes from the film; Fred Astaire himself declared it “the greatest musical number that he had ever seen.”
Cab Calloway, his orchestra, and the Nicholas Brothers do “Jumpin’ Jive.”
Another memorable scene — perhaps the most well known and well loved — is Horne’s rendition of the title song. Her smooth delivery received accompaniment by an expressive dance routine from Dunham. As recently as 2004, Horne’s rendition placed at No. 30 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years . . . 100 Songs” list of the greatest songs in film.
Lena Horne performs “Stormy Weather.”
Over time, the reputations of Horne and the film continued to grow. Horne would remain a huge star for the rest of her life, appearing on stage and screen, recording music, and working as a civil rights activist until her death at 92 in 2010. And although Stormy Weather didn’t get a proper DVD release until 2005, it was selected to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001. Selected films are deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In a piece for Turner Classic Movies, film critic Stephanie Zackarek illustrated the impact of the film: “It sets a place for African Americans at the nation’s table, and the tableware is solid sterling, gleaming, intrinsically valuable, and impossible to ignore. The movie is a shout, defiant and exuberant, that can be summed up in two words: We belong.”