The 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather is worth seeing not because of its conventional and wafer-thin backstage storyline, but because it offers the opportunity to see great musical numbers with the film’s two leads, Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, as well as other legendary African American artists like Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, and Fats Waller. Gifted African American performers were under-utilized and generally poorly served in Hollywood during the studio era, frequently relegated to stereotyped supporting roles or “specialty” numbers that could be excised from prints shipped to racially segregated areas of the United States. And while Stormy Weather is a product of its times and not without its fraught details – including a performance by a pair of comedians in minstrel-style blackface makeup – it also offers an indispensable peek at some extraordinary talents.
Among the most extraordinary of those talents are brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas, whose gravity-defying dance number provides Stormy Weather with its astonishing finale. The epic number begins when Calloway launches into the song “Jumpin’ Jive” while ostensibly performing in a nightclub revue. The Nicholas Brothers come seemingly out of nowhere, leaping up from a table in the nightclub decked in tails and joining Calloway in his signature scat-singing. They hop on tables and chairs and onto small platforms scattered in among Calloway’s orchestra, all the while tap dancing in a manner that looks both spontaneous and preternaturally well-coordinated. They drop to the ground in perfect splits and slide back to their feet with seemingly no effort, and whenever they want to, they can stop on a dime.
And then there’s the bit that everyone remembers most: the brothers mount a large platform with stairs on each side, and, after more impressive tapping at the center of the platform, they descend one set of stairs by repeatedly leaping over each other, landing in splits on alternating stairs until they reach the bottom. It’s a mind-boggling moment; the pair make all of this look so easy that you almost want to doubt what you’ve just seen. But there’s no camera trickery here: the two dancers appear in full-body shots, the entire number contains apparently few cuts, and the bit where the brothers descend the stairs unfolds in a single shot.
Stormy Weather lasts just over a minute after the Nicholas Brothers’ big number, as if the filmmakers knew that there could be no following it. In the film’s final moments, Calloway sings, “Ain’t that something to shout about,” and it’s easy to agree with his meta-commentary. Indeed, it’s easy to love the Nicholas Brothers’ dancing, and much tougher to accept the fact that they had relatively few film appearances after this one and were never allowed to break away from “specialty act” status in Hollywood. Their contribution to Stormy Weather is a perennial delight, but also a reminder of the incredible work that audiences can miss out on when unique artists are marginalized by bigotry.