In his 2009 Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, biographer James Gavin chronicled the icy relationship that played out on the set of MGM’s film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky (1943) between the established show-biz veteran Ethel Waters and the ascendant singing star Lena Horne. The former – who had in 1933 debuted the enduring torch-song standard Stormy Weather in her Harlem Cotton Club act and quickly made a popular recording of it – became increasingly irritated with director Vincente Minnelli’s attentions to the latter, and caused much turbulence during the shoot. Then came a fateful day, as Gavin writes: “Horne and Waters had only one scene together, a rollicking ensemble sequence set in Jim Henry’s Paradise. Eddie Anderson would drive Horne there in a Cadillac, then dance her inside the crowded club. Waters would sing one of her showstoppers from the stage version of Cabin, Honey in the Honeycomb, while Horne danced.” At a final rehearsal of the scene on a Wednesday, Horne accidentally fell and broke a bone in her ankle. “The director turned around – and there stood Waters several feet away, arms folded like an all-controlling schoolmarm – ‘as if she prayed for it to happen,’ said [actor/singer/dancer Leonard] Bluett. Waters was heard to say, ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.’ Her composure cracked when a prop man scampered over to Horne with a pillow for her ankle. At that moment, Horne wrote later, ‘Miss Waters started to blow like a hurricane.’ The tirade that followed encompassed a lifetime of racist blows, exploitation, and bad luck. Years later, Horne’s daughter Gail offered more details. Waters had spewed out ‘a semi-coherent diatribe that began with attacks on Lena and wound up with a vilification of ‘Hollywood Jews.’’ Minnelli canceled filming for the day. In the studio hospital, doctors placed Horne’s whole leg in a cast and told her she couldn’t walk or dance for up to two months. Nevertheless, she returned to the set on Friday. When she hobbled in on crutches, the cast and crew rushed over, bearing flowers and presents marked ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ Minnelli had rushed to do last-minute reblocking of the scene; due to Horne’s infirmity she would sing Honey in the Honeycomb while sitting on a bar, and Waters would dance. It worked, and all went smoothly. Off camera, though, the two women exchanged not a word.”
Three months later, Horne began filming her next Hollywood project, Twentieth Century Fox’s Stormy Weather (1943), also starring gigantic talents Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, Dooley Wilson, Ada Brown, Horne’s Cotton Club partner Babe Wallace, and the Katherine Dunham dance company. Like Cabin in the Sky, it was a generous talent showcase whose effervescence diminished any hints of hard feelings or tense working conditions. When the iconography was established, it did not go smoothly. Per Gavin’s reportage: “The film’s pivotal moment, of course, was Horne’s performance of Stormy Weather. [Choreographer Clarence] Robinson staged it in what would become the defining image of Lena Horne. She stood on a nightclub stage alongside a simulated apartment window; rain thundered outside. [Horne’s] Selina had left the Robinson character to pursue her career, but her heart ached, and she poured it out in song. Since recording it a year or so earlier, Horne had avoided Stormy Weather. Decades later she told Newsweek’s Charles Michener that she had been ‘terrified’ to sing it on-screen – ‘because it was Ethel’s.’ The prerecording in February 1943 proved an ordeal. Accompanied by Benny Carter’s orchestra, Horne sang Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s gut-wrenching lament as those she were a naïve schoolgirl. There on the soundstage was Andrew Stone, the film’s white director. Horne disliked him on sight, and didn’t welcome his prodding her to ‘feel it’ in blues-singer fashion. But her real frustration was with herself. ‘I’d always been taught not to show my feelings,’ she said, and she couldn’t drop the Horne family reserve. Stone told his side of the Stormy Weather session to reporter Frank Nugent. ‘Lena sang it all right, but there was no warmth, no emotional quality. I did everything I could to break her down. I spoke to her about her mother, her kids.’ A day later, he tried again, to no avail. Cab Calloway took the singer into a corner and lectured her. ‘Girl, what are you gonna do, ruin the thing, and this is your chance? Sing it with some passion, some feeling! Bitch, you know what we’ve gone through….Think about somebody in your family that’s died and sing the song.’ Even that didn’t work. Finally, said Stone, Calloway ‘whispered two words in her ear. I never saw such a change in a person. She was wonderful! Real tears in her eyes, a sob in her voice.’ He wouldn’t divulge the two words to Stone, and neither would Horne: ‘Cab just said something to tease me. He got me mad, that’s all.’ Only years later did the bandleader reveal what he’d said: ‘Ethel Waters.’” Marking the 75th anniversary this past weekend of its gala arrival in two New York picture palaces, one in midtown on 7th Avenue and the other in Harlem on 126th Street, Stormy Weather lustrously rises to the occasion on a fabulous Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.