That said, there’s still so much more to enjoy in this, a watershed film in the history of African-American cinema and the movie musical as a whole. Film historian Donald Bogle (returning after yesterday’s screening of Imitation of Life) helpfully pointed out that the reason studios finally decided to bankroll two splashy black-cast musicals in 1943 (the other being Cabin in the Sky, also starring the lustrous Lena Horne) was because at the height of World War II, scores of black G.I.s were coming home (either temporarily or for good) and longing for respectable presentations of themselves on movie screens. In fact, it had been eight years since the last big studio all-black film, The Green Pastures, and it was way past time for another.
And wow, did Fox deliver with this one. The plot itself is a mere wisp, reminiscent in tone to the studio’s The Gang’s All Here from the same year, with Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson (in his last film) regaling his family with stories about how he got his start after an entertainment magazine shows up in the mail with him on the cover. The film jumps through time starting back in World War I, when he and his buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson, whose role as Sam in Casablanca gets a fun in-joke reference) engage in deception and mischief at a military ball by claiming to know big entertainer Chick Bailey (Emmett “Babe” Wallace). From there Bill’s path intersects over the years through various musical gigs with singer/dancer Selina Rogers (Horne), while other performers get their time in the spotlight.
Ostensibly there’s supposed to be some kind of love story between Robinson and Horne, but it’s completely blown aside by the array of musical talent here. Cab Calloway and a scene-stealing Fats Waller (doing a killer “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) are great headliners, of course, and there’s a dreamy rendition of the title song by Horne on stage that segues into one of those physically impossible routines you only find in movie musicals, complete with an elaborate dance by Katherine Dunham and Her Troupe.
The screening itself with a gorgeous world premiere digital presentation in perfect condition from the original negative (let’s hope for a Blu-ray soon!), and there was an extra surprise afterwards when Bruce Goldstein (who worked on a documentary about the Nicholas Brothers) appeared to show an amazing rarity: a reunion of Fayard and Harold Nicholas for a 1964 episode of The Hollywood Palace, performing the staircase finale for a live audience. Needless to say, it earned a rousing reception all over again.
In a moving moment, many of the Nicholas Brothers’ relatives were in the audience, too, and stood up to greet the packed audience – with a home movie snippet showing a three-year-old Tony Nicholas, Fayard’s son, doing some pretty impressive splits himself! In short, it was a wonderful event no one in the room will ever forget.