Musical Monday: “Cabin in the Sky” (1943)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

cabin-in-the-sky-movie-poster-1943-1020197555This week’s musical:

Cabin in the Sky” –Musical #379


Vincent Minnelli, uncredited Busby Berkley

Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rocherster” Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Green, Butterfly McQueen, Ruby Dandridge, Duke Ellington, Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, John Williams Sublett, Juanita Moore (uncredited)

In a “Faust”-like plot, Little Joe Jackson (Anderson) is a compulsive gambler and his wife Petunia (Waters) is trying to get him to repent his sins at church.
Little Joe is shot over his gambling debt. He dies and the Devil comes to take him but an angel from heaven steps in to give him six months to live and straighten his life out.
While Little Joe is on the right path, the Devil’s workers are doing everything they can to bring him back to a life of sin.

-One of six all black films made by a major Hollywood studio between 1929 and 1954, according to “Beyond Racial Stereotypes: Subversive Subtexts in Cabin in the Sky” by Kate Marie Weber.
Those films include “Hallelujah” (1929) by MGM, “Hearts in Dixie” (1929) by 20th Century Fox, “Green Pastures” (1936) by Warner Brothers, “Stormy Weather” (1943) by 20th Century Fox and “Carmen Jones” (1954) by 20th Century Fox.
-Vincent Minnelli’s first credited, solo directing experience. Minnelli also helped with “Panama Hattie” (1942), but is uncredited.
-A song performed by Lena Horne called “Ain’t It the Truth” was cut from the film. She was taking a bubble bath during the song and it was considered too sexy and immoral for a black woman to sing in a bath tub, Lena Horne said in an interview.

Lena Horne singing "Ain't It the Truth" in the scene that was cut from "Cabin in the Sky."

Lena Horne singing “Ain’t It the Truth” in the scene that was cut from “Cabin in the Sky.”

-The tornado in the tornado scene was footage recycled from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
-The story premiered on Broadway in 1940 with the same title starring Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson, Dooley Wilson as “Little Joe” Jackson, Katherine Dunham as Georgia Brown, Rex Ingram as Lucifer Junior, and Todd Duncan as The Lord’s General.
Ingram and Waters are the only actors who reprised their role on screen.
-Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Hamburg.

Lucifer, Jr. sends Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe. The General tells Joe to stay strong.

Lucifer, Jr. sends Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe. The General tells Joe to stay strong.

-Louis Armstrong, though it is a very small role.
-Eddie Rochester Anderson’s dancing during “Cabin in the Sky”

Notable Songs:
-“Taking a Chance on Love” performed by Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson
-Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” performed by Ethel Waters
-“Life is Full of Consequences” performed by Eddie Rochester Anderson and Lena Horne
-“Shine” performed by John Williams Sublett

My Review:
“Cabin in the Sky” is an interesting film, maybe even unusual, for 1943.
As mentioned above, it is one of seven films made during a 30 year span produced by one of Hollywood’s major studios with an all African-American cast.
This film came as a response when the African-American community demanded better treatment in films. The federal government was involved in the drive for all black casting, according to The Films of Vincente Minnelli by James Naremore.
President Roosevelt’s administration advocated black actors in major film roles in Hollywood. This apparently was connected to the New Deal, hoping the roles would create more jobs for minorities in the film industry, according to Beyond Racial Stereotypes: Subversive Subtexts in “Cabin in the Sky” by Kate Marie Weber.
The NAACP also met with Hollywood executives, demanding better roles for black performers.
The result was “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather.”

Petunia prays for Little Joe after he is shot over his gambling debts.

Petunia prays for Little Joe after he is shot over his gambling debts.

Though the musical was made in the Arthur Freed Unit-known for lavish and high quality films- it was the lowest budgeted musical he produced. Freed however fought for more funding for “Cabin in the Sky” but did not receive it, according to Weber.
Though the film was meant to better black roles in Hollywood, it did not eliminate racial stereotypes that were seen in many films made during this time.
Some characters were presented as naive, lazy and didn’t want to work, church goers, and lovers of jazz music. This also apparently disappointed director Vincent Minnelli in his first directorial effort.
Minnelli handpicked the cast and worked to make the film visually pleasing.
The film opened to positive reviews from the New York Times, though some Southern states unsurprisingly refused to show the movie.
While there are obvious racial stereotypes, “Cabin in the Sky” does showcase the talents of actor who generally were playing maids, sidekicks or specialty singers in films.
Eddie “Rocherster” Anderson shows off his acting chops as the lead performer. He carries the whole film well and is also hilarious. Rex Ingram, as Lucifer Jr., and Kenneth Spencer, as God’s General, also do great jobs.
Lena Horne, as Georgia Brown, and Ethel Waters fill the film with several wonderful songs. However, I do wish Horne had more screen time.
Another disappointment was how little Louis Armstrong was in the film. He was maybe on screen for 10 minutes. That was a real disappointment.
All of that being said, I really enjoyed “Cabin in the Sky.” Anderson and the Devil’s disciples are hilarious, the songs are great and I was entertained throughout.
Most classic films do have stereotypical elements. But rather than ignore them, I think it’s important to learn from it and keep in mind that these movies were made during a very different time. Pop culture and films are just another way to learn about our history- even the unpleasant parts.

Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and director Vincent Minnelli on the set of "Cabin in the Sky" (1943). Source: A Certain Cinema

Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and director Vincent Minnelli on the set of “Cabin in the Sky” (1943).
Source: A Certain Cinema

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