Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: "Cabin in the Sky" Still Delights


TRASH IN MY EYE No. 3 (of 2005) by Leroy Douresseaux

Cabin in the Sky (1943) – B&W
Running time: 98 minutes
DIRECTOR: Vincente Minnelli
WRITER: Joseph Schrank (based upon the play by Lynn Root; lyrics and music by Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke)
PRODUCER: Arthur Freed
EDITOR: Harold F. Kress
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Spencer, John W. Sublett, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Ernest Whitman, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra

Petunia Jackson (Ethel Waters) has been struggling to get her shiftless husband, Joseph “Little Joe” Jackson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), to give up gambling and women and lead the righteous life of a church-going man. As the film begins, she is sure she has succeeded because Little Joe is getting dressed to accompany her to church service. However, two of Little Joe’s shady pals show up and strongly convince him to go shoot craps at Jim Henry’s Paradise, a junk joint/gambling parlor/music club. Once there, Little Joe has a violent encounter with a fellow gambler, Domino Johnson (John W. Sublett), that leaves him mortally wounded and on his deathbed. Meanwhile, the forces of Heaven and Hell battle for his soul with Petunia’s strong prayers trying to tip the scale in Heaven’s favor and Little Joe’s old flame, Georgia Brown (Lena Horne), doing the devil’s work.

Based on a musical and directed by Vincente Minnelli, Cabin in the Sky, is one of the better-remembered Hollywood Black musicals. This was Minnelli’s first film (or at least the first for which he received credit), but he’d previously produced stage revues with Cabin’s star, Ethel Waters. Ms. Waters is considered by some to be the most influential jazz/pop vocalist of all time, and the reason why is clearly evident in her powerful singing here. She’s a good actress, but she brings the songs to life with color and character that strengthen the film narrative.

In fact, the song score and the performances of the songs make this an excellent film musical because the songs actually advance the story and are never filler material. The singer-actors have strong, powerful, and beautiful voices that lift Cabin in the Sky from mere musical to spiritual entertainment. John W. Sublett’s wonderful performance of Shine (in a sequence directed not by Minnelli, but by Busby Berkeley) is so awe-inspiring that it’s shocking and sheds new life on his comic villain character Domino Johnson, making the character richer and fuller. Of course, the incomparable Lena Horne is a magnetic presence, so it’s a testament to Ms. Waters’ skill that she out duels Ms. Horne in their one musical duet. Still, Horne gives vibrant color (in tone) to this film’s somber black and white photography. Also, Rex Ingram is an absolute scene-stealer as Lucifer Jr., a character that plays well in a black and white film.

Perhaps, the most disappointing thing about Cabin in the Sky is the black and white photography. A lack of color and visual effects (even what was available at the time) keep this picture from being truly great. Time and again, it’s disappointing not to be able to see the costumes (which look quite sharp in B&W) in their glorious color. Despite that serious flaw (which couldn’t be helped considering that MGM likely made this a second class production in a time when America was an evil Jim Crow nation where whites murdered black folk with impunity) and the fact that this film drags a bit and seems longer than it really is, Cabin in the Sky is simply a beautiful movie musical worthy of repeated viewings.

8 of 10

NOTES: Busby Berkeley directed the “Shine” song sequence in this film for which he received no screen credit. Marc Connelly also did not receive a credit for his writing contribution to this film. Harold Arlen (lyrics) and E.Y. Harburg (music) composed three new songs as a team, and received a “Best Music, Original Song” Oscar nomination for “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” Vernon Duke and John Latouche composed three songs as a team, one of them with Ted Fedder. The team of Fred Dabney and Cecil Mack composed one song. Duke Ellington also composed a song.


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