It really is a wonder, knowing what we know about the history of racism and discrimination in Hollywood and America in general, that the musical Stormy Weather even got made in 1943. Along with one other similar film Cabin in the Sky, it’s one of the few American musicals of the 20th century with an all-Black cast, top billing and all. And what a cast, just some of the most talented artists of their time: Bojangles Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers star. Katherine Dunham, the “queen mother of Black dance” performs and choreographs. Coleman Hawkins, though uncredited, is there too, playing sax.
The film also gave you its money’s worth, with nearly two dozen musical numbers in less than 80 minutes. And the top performance is the one that closes the film, seen here remastered from a high quality source (make sure your YouTube is set to 1080p) and colorized with DeOldify, the machine-learning colorization tool. (Your mileage may vary with the colorization, but hey, it’s a start. Check back in a year or so and we might have another version that looks like it was truly shot in color.)
If you’ve never seen the “Jumpin’ Jive” number, or never heard of the Nicholas Brothers, you will soon find out why Fred Astaire called it the greatest dancing he’d ever seen on film. Their journey down the risers, one leapfrogging over the other and landing in the splits, has never been matched. There’s moments where they just seem to float on air. The band leader, Cab Calloway, who knew how to slink and slide around a stage, wisely gives them the floor. And at the end, while applause bursts out, the entire club is invited to flood the dancefloor. It’s pure joy on film.
Older brother Fayard Nicholas was 29 in the film, his younger brother Harold was 22. Eleven years before that they had moved to New York from Philadelphia and wowed the audiences at the Cotton Club with their mix of tap, ballet, and acrobatics. It was when producer Samuel Goldwyn saw them at the Club that their career took off. But their sequences were always separate in white musicals, so that racist cinemas in the South could easily edit them out. Not so in Stormy Weather, where they end the film.
It is often written that this sequence was shot in “one take” and improvised, but that is plainly not the case. There’s eleven cuts in the dance sequence where the camera repositions itself. That’s not to take away from the Nicholas Brothers’ mastery, and hey, maybe they zipped through the sequence, as dancing was like breathing to them. Let’s just celebrate this for what it actually is: the Nicholas Brothers at the height of their powers, bringing the house down.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.