(1943) dir. Vincente Minnelli
When Lena Horne passed away on May 9, I queued up this film, a debut of sorts for her and the first feature film directed by Vincente Minnelli, an early Hollywood all-African American film, full of complex representation issues and yet still full of wonder, charm, and real cinematic captures of the likes of Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among a stellar cast of other amazing African-American talents of the time. And it, while doubtlessly flawed on a multitude of levels, also exudes great charm and warmth and wonder on a number of levels as well.
Adapted from a Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky is a Faustian musical, set entirely within an African-American pretext. This, of course, is 1940’s Hollywood version of African America, so what it tends to depict most accurately are the stereotypes of the time and yet also the unbridled talent of the performers. Well, somewhat unbridled. The whole thing is bridled with its vision of this “ethinc” world. But the film is not intentionally racist. In fact, the film shows great affection for its characters, not simply idealizing them (because they are much of caricatures, cartoon characters, “types”), but indeed yearning toward their true humanity.
Actually, it’s not hard to be brought to mind of animated films like Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) or Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), both from director Bob Clampett. While the animation takes the caricatures to extremes (as animation, particularly of that time, took everything to extremes), the image is one far more stark and racist-seeming than Cabin in the Sky comes anywhere near. And I mention this to try to keep these potentially problematic depictions in perspective. Not only are the scenarios and characters of Cabin in the Sky far from the most troublesome, they really shine through in some ways. And to state a keen observation about these films, the makers were not as ill-intentioned as their depictions might seem, for there is a love and valuation on the music and styles, while exaggerated, are meant to be appreciative not derrogatory.
The film tells the story of Little Joe, played with great charm by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and his loving, long-suffering, adoring Petunia, played by Ethel Waters. Little Joe, though he tries to be a good man, is tempted by gambling, drinking, and women, and though he’s drawn to repentence by Petunia, who is religiously religious, he is also drawn toward sin by his cronies and by the uber-sex kitten Georgia Brown (played by Horne). When he takes a bullet in a brawl, he is confronted by both good and evil, who give him six months to amend his ways or he is due in hell.
The devils are an amusing lot, led by Rex Ingram as Lucifer Junior and his band of conniving assistants, who include Louis Armstrong (in a non-singing role). The devils have little horns made from their hair, and while this may be a bit on the dodgy side of racial depiction, it is also a simple, succinct and clever use of art design, giving them all a little dash of the comical. They send Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe and it leads to the drama.
The film is light-weight in its tone and humor, featuring a number of great songs (“Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love” both sung by Waters) and some vivacious dance sequences including a smooth number by villain Domino Johnson (John William Sublett), a dance number by Bill Bailey, and a group dance scene to the music of Duke Ellington’s band. When the music and dance is on, its the performances themselves that are foregrounded, capturing the various artists in their element as much as is possible, and very worth the while.
Sadly, Lena Horne, despite cutting such a notable figure, doesn’t get much performance time herself, but she does indeed make an impression.
The whole of the product is more than the sum of its parts. The film is a complex one to watch considering 21st century sensibilities regarding racial depictions, and it’s important to understand the circumstances for the production. That the studio wanted to make a film promoting these talented African Americans is one of both true recognition of talent as well as a shot at finding a way to make money on that talent. But at the same time, a movie like this at the time wouldn’t even be shown in a multitude of cinemas throughout the southern part of the United States. The film, which I would argue should not be overly disdained for what might be troublesome from a stereotype-angle, also should be understood for all of what it was and wasn’t. In a sense, to truly watch this film is to be informed of much of its production, stars, history, and the reality behind its creation.
Minnelli handles the material well, showing flashes of brilliance in some scenes, keeping the film bopping along despite some of its more mediocre qualities, and allowing the cast to have their moments of wonderful performances. And it’s clear that the character or Little Joe, while not depicted as the brightest of brains, nor the most polished of the penitent, is one of deep character and humanity.
I actually quite enjoyed the film and am now quite eager to see other films of the period that are somewhat akin to it.