Registering the Registry 2020: Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Jumping forward for our only 40s picture this batch, MGM studio heads felt the itch to give their black talent a spotlight role in the semi-religious musical adaptation of Cabin in the Sky from 1943! Is there an acre or two of heavenly blue to plow, or is it a film headed for joys below? Read on and find out!
We have, of course, discussed all-black productions before in this series. Oscar Micheaux gave us 1925's Body and Soul as part of the 2019 Registry class, a film with themes not too dissimilar to today’s. Micheaux’s work, however, was produced well outside the studio system, race films with all-black casts for all-black audiences, shot and distributed at the filmmakers’ expense. These were quite common in the days of fully-legal segregation, though their niche audience and lack of access to proper preservation systems means we’ve lost many in the modern day. No, what we’re looking at is of a far rarer breed, no matter how their total body survives today: the Hollywood backed all-black picture. There’s only six of the things, produced in fits and starts from the late twenties to the early fifties — 1929 saw King Vidor’s Hallelujah! for MGM and Paul Sloane’s Hearts in Dixie for Fox, William Keighley and Marc Connelly brought the world The Green Pastures for Warner Bros. in 1936, 1943 saw Cabin in the Sky as well as Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (again MGM and Fox), and Otto Preminger rounded the pack in 1954 at Fox with an adaptation of the opera Carmen, Carmen Jones. Of these, The Green Pastures is the only non-musical, yet it is perhaps the closest predecessor we can name for Cabin in the Sky, being a religious parable reenacting scenes from the Bible with black performers, with a cast including radio and TV’s Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Rex Ingram in multiple roles, and an angelic part for Oscar Polk. We can make time to note other such connective tissues amongst the lot (Hearts in Dixie is positioned as a celebration of black music, Stormy Weather includes a prominent part for Lena Horne, Carmen Jones shares a live theater origin), but the substantial links between Cabin and Pastures will do best for now.
Cabin in the Sky is ostensibly a religious picture, after all. The story of Anderson as one Little Joe Jackson, a gambling addict too deep in debt for his own good, yet determined to quit the habit altogether through the Lord with the help of his wife, Petunia (torch song singer Ethel Waters). No matter the powerful spirituals and encouraging spiritual talk that dominate the film’s opening minutes, the strong arm of men who want their money back on one last ride pulls Little Joe harder, and soon enough he’s shot down by the gangster Domino Johnson (John W. Bubbles, a pioneer in rhythm tap dancing). With Petunia praying over his feverish body, Little Joe has a close scrape in the hereafter with Lucifer Jr. in the guise of his gambling buddy Lucius (both Ingram), only for God’s General to appear in the guise of Joe’s pastor Reverend Green (both Kenneth Spencer) and reveal Petunia’s praying has touched the Lord so, he’s granted Little Joe a brief reprieve. For six months, he shall live again without any remembrance of this night, and must endeavor to prove himself worthy of a second chance by turning over a new leaf. It seems easy enough with so loving a woman as Petunia by his side, but Lucifer Jr. has one hell of an ideas department down in hell, and soon enough Little Joe is beset by temptations in the form of wealth beyond his wildest dreams and the advances of Satan’s favorite sinner (and Little Joe’s old paramour), the lovely and heartless Georgia Brown (Horne). Such is the stage: can Little Joe walk the straight and narrow, or will his vices send him tumbling down below?
It’s a picture adapted from a stage play as mentioned, one by the same title from 1940 by John Latouche and Lynn Root, though the majority of its spiritual-inspired musical numbers didn’t survive the trip from Broadway to Hollywood. With Waters and Ingram as the only actors to feature in both play and film, and with Ingram’s antagonist lacking any songs of his own, it’s only the songs related to Petunia which pull and appearance — her declaration of love and devotion to Little Joe “Takin’ a Chance on Love,” alongside its sorrowful reprise when she thinks him lost forever, a mocking rendition on “Honey in the Honeycomb” after Horne has had her straightforward sultry turn in the third act, and the titular act two opener, “Cabin in the Sky,” shared with Anderson as the two imagine a future paradise together. Waters was a highly impassioned singer at her peak, so a musical whose main musical moments feature a chance for her to belt ’em out is already likely to earn high marks. The new numbers by a collection of MGM staff writers mean she also gets the incredibly tender “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” to close the first act, and unlike his stage counterpart, Anderson gets a few numbers of his own as Little Joe, namely a deliberately marching temptation-resisting duet with Horne, “Life’s Full of Consequence.” I’m forever a sucker for voices lacking in traditional perfection or polish, so Anderson seriously straining himself to fill the final lines on this one with as much raw-throated emotion as he can strangle from his already rough and begravelled voice is just beauty to my ears.
Being the first filmic directorial job for the soon-to-be-famous Vincente Minnelli (after a string of successes on Broadway as director and production designer), Cabin in the Sky often boasts plenty pretty visuals accompany these songs. While many are shot to standard, simply views on the actors walking back and forth across the sets or standing still for a proper belting, Minnelli will occasionally throw in an extra flourish, letting “Cabin in the Sky” run long enough on a single shot to people the screen with a whole crowd after starting with just Waters and Anderson, or showing off with a tracking shot of news running through a crowd on the early spiritual “Little Black Sheep.” When it comes time to show off the guest performers late in the game is when the spark that would animate the best parts of The Band Wagon and Gigi come into play. A number by an uncredited Duke Ellington and his orchestra finds the camera drifting all about an active nightclub, occasionally pausing to focus on the trumpeter or a wildly loose couple, and Bubbles’ dancing sequence as he sings the standard “Shine” as a demonstration of his vanity boasts some remarkably long takes with cuts which don’t break the flow a whit. One can only imagine the visuals he had prepared for Louis Armstrong’s number, “Ain’t It the Truth,” though going by the surviving audio and just how hard Satchmo’s band goes during the instrumental break, it must’ve been quite something. Too bad it was intended as compliment to Lena Horne’s other solo number, a reprise on the same song, which Minnelli shot with Horne singing naked in the bathtub, and which consequently proved saucy enough for the day to get both deleted from the final release. Thankfully, Horne’s sequence resurfaced as archive material in compilation films in later years.
Talking about Satch, though, makes a good segue into discussing the picture’s acting, which I consider really darned good all ‘cross the board. Anderson bugs his eyes and plays the well-meaning ignoramus who suspects trouble’s round ever corner as well as he ever did, Waters gets to pull a double turn as the forever-devoted wife before turning about as a jilted, selfish and self-loving ex in the late scenes (plus a brief turn in-between when she plays dumb to reveal Joe’s gambling partners as cheaters and chase them off for good), Ingram and Spencer lock horns as invisible infernal and angelic forces whenever they appear to stand at screen’s edge and wiggle their fingers to influence Little Joe one way or the other, and Horne makes the most of her limited time as a temptress who knows exactly what she’s got. Armstrong himself only has one scene when Lucifer Jr. consults with his idea men, but he impresses as the funniest and liveliest of the bunch well beyond the four actors actually credited for their parts in the sequence — you don’t wanna bet against The Trumpeter when he’s the one who came up with the Apple in the Garden, y’know. These are all fine comedic performances, and there’s the nice additional benefit of Minnelli and Joseph Schrank’s adapted screenplay taking the real conflict seriously. Scenes about Little Joe’s soul teetering over the line are near-universally funny, while those about whether or not he’s a good enough man to deserve Petunia have a bittersweet quality about their performance and presentation, a tiny little dash of flavoring on the scenario to make you care for what actually matters. Anderson mixes actual pain with the exaggerated sort when he realizes his mistakes have potentially corrupted Waters, which makes it all the sweeter when they do make it in the end.
This said, we must take a moment to discuss how the film’s positioning as an all-black production by a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s hinders it in addition to making it damned-near unique in the annals of American movie history. Namely, while the cast before the camera in Cabin in the Sky is Black African by ancestry to the last, the director, the producers, the writers, and (to the best of my ability to determine) the majority of the crew who made the film were white, aiming for a predominantly white audience. Stereotype creeps into the film with great readiness, a moral conflict based around whether the protagonist can resist being a no-good gamblin’ layabout long enough to make himself an upstanding churchgoer who praises DE LAWD with his every breath, beset by forces who employ hot jazz and women dressed in the latest black fashions as their primary weapons against his soul. Despite Minnelli’s presentation positioning the scenes in Jim Henry’s Paradise as some of the most enjoyable and liveliest on the display, they are meant in-context as a den of vice and sin, the last place a God-fearing man like Little Joe oughta be, and the promiscuity seen in Georgia Brown and soon after Petunia is angled as morally indefensible, signs good women have reduced themselves to whores for the whole world. It’s so bad the tornado from The Wizard of Oz pulls a cameo appearance to tear the whole place down, and like with Dorothy’s adventures, it all ends on a reveal Joe dreamed the whole thing up, having pitched himself moral softballs in which everything depended on his ability to keep Petunia walking the straight and narrow by not slipping up once, rather than keeping watch on his own soul.
The problem becomes, while there is happily depth and earnestness about the characters and their struggles, it is largely here as coloring on parts and routines only a step removed from the roles these actors would play as exaggerated caricature as the stand-in for their entire race in other productions. The problem becomes, while the spiritual underpinnings of an MGM musical aren’t exactly what anyone would call serious or well-developed, you still stumble into a quandary where the moral framework of the movie characterizes the cultural expressions you’re visually and audibly celebrating as tools of the devil, same as most of the American mainstream at the time. The problem becomes, in spite of the performances and filmmaking and musicality all being very good across the board, they remain lightly tainted by reminder that for the majority of the stars, this was practically it in terms of their chances at legitimate, headliner stardom. Though I draw comparison to Micheaux’ Body and Soul for the common African-American religious elements, this isn’t a black independent filmmaker speaking directly to his audience to condemn vice and corruption in the church; its a white studio director upholding the status quo through caricature. Stereotype and caricature can make workable tools so long as one does more with them than simple replication, so long as there’s further depth, thought put into the hows and whys, subversion on the template, anything to make it clear this is the baseline of our work instead of the totality — which I do believe we find here. They will, however, always be tools limited by their root in restrictive boxing perceptions of the target group, and no matter how Minnelli and his crew made a good film of Cabin in the Sky, no matter how good a thing it is to see Waters and Andrews and Ingram and Horne and all the rest highlighted as talented leading performers all on their own, it is ever so disheartening to think the heights they could reach on the highest peak in American entertainment media of their day still required them to play at being poorly spoken, undereducated, and either slavishly devoted to their religion or nogoodniks whose gambling and jazzy dancing put them on God’s shit list. If the film must be exactly as it is, a juster world would at least have provided opportunity for less stereotypical, more nuanced work elsewhere.
(Plus I think it’s just plain sucky how the real third act conflict turns on a misunderstanding based in Little Joe’s excitement at having won the lottery, and the sin isn’t so much his being loose with the money or unfaithful with Georgia, but Petunia refusing to listen to his explanation and making herself a boozy socialite who’d sooner see Little Joe dead than spit on him. This is his story, his soul on the line, his choice between Heaven or Hell; why we gotta drag his wife down through no real fault of his beyond momentarily expressing excitement to the wrong woman and pretend there’s any fairness about Heaven’s bookkeeping if any of this reflects badly on either of them?)
Should note, I’ve written about Cabin in the Sky once before, as part of a program on classic Hollywood films about three years back. There, I concluded the film’s issues with racial representation and confused messaging on black culture ultimately did not matter much compared against the delights of its existence and the strengths of its performers, and finishing off another review of the film today, I’m inclined to hold steady with my old conclusion. With the damage of this era off racial stereotyping already done, and the modern forms having mutated into their own distasteful, far-too-widely-perpetrated forms, the best approach is to keep one’s mind aware of just why Cabin in the Sky trades on the stereotypes it does (lack of thought regarding a less-adequately discussed or understood tendency towards presenting those not in the majority as entertaining fools or pious saints who cannot threaten the status quo, as part of a framework of mass entertainment based in simple pleasures), understand they do not reflect reality nor should not have been the best these actors and singers could ask for, and appreciate just how talented and enjoyable they were all the same. Best I can tell, everyone at least got properly paid for their work here, and there’s a tenderness about the production all throughout, my favorite stock praise of love for their material and the work required to make it live. T’ll’be a better world if we can disentangle good from bad in these matters and venerate the one while understanding and critiquing the other.
Any favorite performers of yours featured in this film? Any songs from the picture you’d call a favorite? Be sure to hash it out down below, close to publication or whenever you get here; discussion’s always appreciated! Next time, we head for the 1950s, when Ida Lupino directed Mala Powers in a B-picture for RKO that was one of the first post-Code American films to seriously grapple with the topic of rape: it’s Outrage! Unfortunately not up for streaming or rental anywhere at the mo’, but there’s DVDs out’ve a few specialty stores and uploads through YouTube/third party sites if you know where to look. Catch you for discussion next week!