by Hilary Hulsey
Acknowledging history and its mistakes is important, but reaching beyond the stereotypes of racism, sexism, and religion can easily be achieved when good outweighs evil in the majestic onscreen musical of the Broadway hit, Cabin in the Sky (1943).
In late 1940, Russian-American composer, Vernon Duke, introduced his greatest Broadway achievement to date at the Martin Beck theatre. Cabin in the Sky featured an all-black cast (including Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram, who would later appear in the onscreen version) and the production ran 156 shows, ending in early 1941. Duke supplied new standards to the songbook and its success onstage made the production a prime choice for screen adaptation.
Who better to direct a broadway show than someone who pulls from background and experience? Vincente Minnelli’s directing debut embodies his ability to use the camera as a tool to create a masterpiece rather than a device to record a specific instance to appropriate a paycheck. Most films in Minnelli’s career requiring transition and adaption sustain the original production and add Hollywood flare without disappointing.
Cabin in the Sky was the first all-black musical since Hallelujah! fourteen years prior, and one of four all-black films since “talkies” made their first appearance. Producers felt the rookie Minnelli could implement the story carefully:
“But I knew there were such people as the deeply pious Petunia and Joe, her weak gambler of a husband, and that such wives constantly prayed for the wavering souls of their men…If I was going to make a picture about such people, I would approach it with great affection rather than condescension.” — Vincente Minnelli, I Remember It Well.
Amidst handling the matter of race and religion with sensitivity and finesse, he characteristically focused upon a beautiful, young cast member named Lena Horne. Rumored relations between Minnelli and Horne created tension onset as Ethel Waters felt favouritism and schmaltz tilted in the direction of the young, blossoming singer/actress. Their dueling versions of “Honey in the Honeycomb” add fuel to the fire, but coax sublime interpretations establishing their individuality.
“I guess she’s just jealous ‘cause she ain’t got what I got!”
“Quit kiddin’ yourself. Not only have I got everything you got, but a whole lot more!”
Cabin in the Sky’s songbook shows some of the first signs in moving forward with storytelling through song since its initial introduction a few years earlier in The Wizard of Oz (1939). As Petunia kneels at Little Joe’s bedside, she commands a gentle version of “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” from her lips and implores the audience to believe the smile in her eyes as her husband begins to see the world in a lively light. It is touching … and one of many songs Waters muscles through flawlessly. Others include “Taking a Chance on Love” as the Jacksons revitalize their marriage with jovial whistling and soft shoe, and — of course — the title song beneath a weeping willow and aside a stream. This marriage of plot lines and music is reminiscent of Minnelli and Freed’s vision for the future of the genre, and they successfully achieved the goal with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) only a year later.
“Life’s Full O’ Consequence” reflects on the conflicting relationship between Little Joe Jackson and Georgia Brown. Horne’s seductive vocals pour like honey in relation to the rough and tumble strain of Eddie Anderson — he’s not a singer by any means, but their performances fit the characters’ lament like a glove. Wit, charm, and ingenuity in the lyrics and melody of this tune point to one team and one team only: Harold Arlen and E.Y. Yip Harburg. Their contributions to the onscreen portrayal (including “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” and “Li’l Black Sheep”) add a little something extra to the original score, guide this film into greatness, and seal it with the MGM stamp of approval.
In March of 1983, Michael Jackson, wowed the world during the television special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever with a dance move called the “Moonwalk”. Jackson did popularize this illusionistic movement, but 40 years earlier a tap dancer named Bill Bailey rendered the first recorded “moonwalk” or “backslide” onscreen during a scene with Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester in, you guessed it, Cabin in the Sky! The film lacks in the area of dance alongside musical spectacle, but idiosyncrasies and special appearances sprinkled throughout reinforce the magnitude of the film as a whole. (Remember to look for Louis Armstrong portraying one of Lucifer Jr.’s parasitic followers, and Duke Ellington sneaks in a showcase near the end.)
Disclaimer aside, Cabin in the Sky brings a lot to the proverbial table. All-star musical cast, all star director, standards to last a lifetime, and a charming, humorous legend of Little Joe and wife Petunia gambling and praying their way to their little cabin in the sky.
How Cabin in the Sky made the ‘Elite 70’:
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 17 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 18 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 34 choice