Mark Cousins’s latest documentary is explicitly labelled an experiment. Struck by the fact that both Lena Horne and Susan Hayward were born on the same day (June 30, 1917) in the same city (Brooklyn, New York), he wonders if by juxtaposing two of their films, watching them side by side simultaneously, we can learn something about them, and by extension about women in Hollywood and America in the middle of the 20th century. And so he plays them, with Hayward’s A Song in My Heart on the left side of the screen and Horne’s Stormy Weather on the right. Occasionally, Cousins will offer up details or trivia in text on a blank quadrant of the screen, biographical info about the two stars, or about the films. Both films were made by the Fox studio, the Hayward a biopic about a woman who sang for the troops during World War II, despite having severely injuring her leg in a plane crash; while the Horne is a loose collection of musical numbers built around a light comedy plot, like an Astaire-Rogers film with an all-black cast. I defy anyone watching Storm in My Heart to pay attention to Hayward when Horne and company are on-screen.
Stormy Weather is, like the same year’s Cabin in the Sky at MGM, a marvelous compendium of all the talent Hollywood refused to utilize because they had the wrong skin color. Leading the way is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the legendary tap dancer who, at 65 years old (but certainly not looking it) stars alongside Horne as a hoofer working his way up the stardom ladder. The movie is almost entirely made up of musical numbers, with Horne singing a bunch, but also Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and in one of the consensus greatest dance performances in film history, the Nicholas Brothers. A Song in My Heart, on the other hand, is about a pretty singer who sings prettily who somehow must find the will to sing just as prettily after her injury. She proves an inspiration to the troops, because if a rich white lady with a full-time live-in nurse (Thelma Ritter, naturally) can sing with one properly working leg, then what do an entire generation of men traumatized mentally and physically by the ravages of war have to complain about.
We don’t learn much about Hayward or Horne from their films, but we do learn a little bit about Hollywood. When Stormy Weather ends, there’s still a half hour of A Song in My Heart to go. I didn’t see it in a theatre, but I bet if I had, there would have been an audible groan from the crowd. Cousins, delightfully, helps pass the time until Hayward’s movie ends by throwing on a Cuban short film Horne sang the soundtrack to in 1965 called Now. It’s a series of still images from the civil rights movement: protests and police crackdowns and marches and lynchings, with Horne singing a rousing anthem of revolution to the tune of “Hava Nagilia”. It too has about a thousand times more energy than any random Hollywood biopic.