The Night Beat — Jazz Goes to the Movies Week Two
Week Two of “Jazz Goes to the Movies” includes songs from two films from 1943 featuring all-black casts: M-G-M’s “Cabin in the Sky” and Twentieth Century Fox’s “Stormy Weather”.
As the New York Times reported on February 7, 1943, “Two major studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Twentieth Century-Fox, in producing pictures with all-Negro casts, are following the desires of Washington in making such films at this time. Decisions to produce the pictures, it is stated, followed official expression that the Administration felt that its program for increased employment of Negro citizens in certain heretofore restricted fields of industry would be helped by a general distribution of important pictures in which Negroes played a major part.”
Of course, the “desires of Washington” referred to The White House and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Additionally, the NAACP had met with Hollywood film executives to request the same and reinforced that message further in a speech by the NAACP’s executive secretary at its convention in 1942. An agreement was reached with the Motion Pictures Producers Association which led to the production of the films. Agreement or not, there were only six films produced and released by major film studios starring all-black casts between 1927 and 1954: “Hallelujah” (M-G-M, 1929), “Hearts in Dixie” (Fox, 1929), “The Green Pastures” (Warner Brothers, 1936), our subjects from 1943 and the last, “Carmen Jones” (Fox, 1954).
“Cabin in the Sky” first appeared on Broadway in 1940 with a score by composer Vernon Duke and lyricist John Latouche. Of the songs written for the stage, little survived the transition to celluloid other than “Taking a Chance on Love” and the title song. Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg wrote a number of the new songs written for the film. Duke was understandably upset when he found out according to his daughter. Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie Anderson (well known as Rochester on the Jack Benny radio show) and Louis Armstrong were among the stars and Vincent Minnelli (father of Liza) directed.
Although the plot of “Stormy Weather” was nominally based on the life of its star, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, it served more as a contrivance to feature some of the best black performers of the day including Fats Waller (filmed shortly before his passing), Lena Horne, Dooley Wilson, and others. The dance sequence of the Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard) as Cab Calloway and his Orchestra play “Jumpin’ Jive” is the singular highlight of the film. You can find it on YouTube. If you’ve never seen it, do it now!
NOTE: In preparing my text, I found the following to be of great value—Doug Crane
BEYOND RACIAL STEREOTYPES: SUBVERSIVE SUBTEXTS IN CABIN IN THE SKY, a thesis written and submitted by Kate Marie Weber in 2008 at the University of Maryland
“Race in Film: Stormy Weather” an essay written in 2010 with accompanying video by Kartina Richardson at the website MirrorFilm.org
A synopsis of “Stormy Weather” at the website ObscureHollywood.net written for the TCM Film Festival in 2014, author(s) unnamed
“Hollywood Takes a Hint from Washington” written by Fred Stanley for The New York Times; February 7, 1943
Join host Doug Crane on The Night Beat for Week Two of Jazz Goes to the Movies on Wednesday, March 8 at 8 pm on KUVO JAZZ, the Oasis in the City.
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