Forget the story line. It's unimportant. Try to ignore the black stereotyping. It's there and it's not going to go away. But pay attention to the musical performances. The liner notes say there are more than 20. I didn't count, but the movie has one great performance after another, starting with the two leads, Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. The movie features a roster of famous black entertainers of the time.
World War I is just over and black troops are parading down Broadway. Among them are Bill Williamson (Robinson) and his best friend, Gabe (Dooley Wilson). Bill is a dancer and is determined to break into the big time. In a club he meets a new singer, Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). They strike sparks, but both are ambitious. Over the next 20-some years they will meet, break apart, create star careers for themselves and finally come together during a stage tribute for black soldiers on their way overseas during WWII. All this is told in flashback as Bill reflects on his career.
We're along for the ride, and a great ride it is. Among the performances to treasure is everything Robinson does. He was a great tap dancer with an infectious, happy disposition and a great smile. Lena Horne was 26 when she made this movie, one of her earliest. You can't get much better than Horne singing Stormy Weather, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Diga Diga Do or There's No Two Ways About Love. What a gorgeous woman. She has charisma, a great voice and she knows exactly how to put across a song.
There's Cab Calloway in padded shoulders and pegged pants doing his zoot routine to Geechy Joe, Ada Brown singing That Ain't Right with some back and forth with Fats Waller on piano, and then Waller doing a funny, coy, eye-batting version of his Ain't Misbehavin'. A singer I couldn't identify does a wonderful job with I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City, and a dancer I couldn't find a credit for does an athletic, fast routine to Your Nobody's Sweetheart Now. And there's more. The numbers just keep coming, from individual songs to all-out musical productions, including one powerful dance to Stormy Weather by Katherine Dunham and her troupe. Even the jazz band behind Waller has star musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Taps Miller and Zutty Singleton.
Put on your seat belt when Fayard and Harold Nicholas leap out of the audience toward the close of the show and do a startlingly athletic dance to Jumpin' Jive. They start out tapping and jumping into and out of the orchestra...then they speed things up. They leap and tap up a series of very tall steps to a high platform, then do leaps over each other, landing two steps at a time down in full splits, eight leaps in all, each time pulling themselves up only by the strength of their legs. It's an incredible routine, and it's full of style.