January 9, 2015
Factoids (extracted from imdb.com; Pictures and Photos from Cabin in the Sky):
A 1943 film version of the Broadway Musical of the same name
Directed by Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza Minnelli)
Cast: Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Bill Bailey, Butterfly McQueen, and others
Screenplay by Joseph Schrank, based upon the book of the musical play by Lynn Root
Plot Synopsis: “A compulsive gambler dies during a shooting, but he’ll receive a second chance to reform himself and to make up with his worried wife.”
[NOTE: To see movie posters and photos of the actors, please click on the “Pictures and Photos” link at the top of the “Factoids” box.]
I first saw this film on television at my Grandma Lil’s house when I was very young, somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, in the mid-1950s. It scared me. So deeply that just seeing the title “Cabin in the Sky” evokes that visceral fear more than 50 years later. With its depiction of Devils and Angels in human form fighting for the soul of “Lil Joe” (played by Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson), and the pivotal scene of the story—vividly reminiscent of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—this little film (along with another gem called “Green Pastures”) gave me my first real understanding of the battle between Good and Evil.
Last night, I watched this film again. Through adult eyes, it means so much more than my little-girl self could comprehend.
To begin with, the plot synopsis tells you nothing about the real stories told in this film. “Cabin in the Sky” is, first and foremost, a morality play. Think of it as a precursor to the current-day Tyler Perry/Gospel Play genre of storytelling. [For those of you who are not familiar with Gospel Plays, they are theatrical productions, often recorded on DVDs and available for sale, that are widely popular in some segments of the Black community, with titles such as “What My Husband Doesn’t Know” or “Love Ain’t Suppose to Hurt” or “God’s Trying to Tell You Something.”]
“Cabin in the Sky” is a story about a compulsive gambler, Lil Joe Jackson, and his second chance—not just to “reform himself,” but to redeem his very soul, so that he and his “worried” wife, Petunia (played by Ethel Waters) can have eternal life together in their “Cabin in the Sky”—their Heavenly, eternal home. It is a story about the consequences of the decisions we all make in life. Fidelity vs. Adultery; Hard work vs. Just getting by; Living just for the moment vs. Living for a Higher Purpose.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. It is the story of the human condition: of the duality of man’s spirit, and of the hopes and aspirations of a community of people.
Except that this story is told through Black Archetypes. Not “stereotypes,” but Archetypes. As you would find in classical Greek drama, or Shakespeare, or countless other stories told by countless other cultures. Indeed, a Greek chorus, in the form of a magnificent Black choir, highlights this storyline.
Do the Black Archetypes make this story any less important or less valid than, say, “A Streetcar Named Desire”? Does the idiomatic language of Southern Blacks make the film less poetic than a Shakespearean drama?
Now, before you start raising your eyebrows at this comparison, understand one thing: I am not trying to make a point-on-point comparison between this little film and two totally disparate and more “legitimate” symbols of drama and poetry! But there is a valid comparison to be made! Bear with me a moment.
First of all, if you had asked me this question 40 years ago, I might have answered “Yes” and “Yes.”
But having watched this film again with my adult eyes, I have discovered some very interesting insights. If you were to reduce the plot of a “Streetcar Named Desire” to one or two sentences, what would you be left with? Perhaps something along these lines:
“A loud and obnoxious ne’er-do-well meets and mistreats a down-on-her-luck, despondent Southern belle with major dependency issues.”
Or how about the plot of “Romeo and Juliet”?
“Two angst-ridden teens from feuding families fall in love, resulting in murder and mayhem.”
Reductionist summaries tell you nothing about what’s really going on.
Another little insight: A story worth telling gets retold infinitely—from varying points of view, in many languages and formats. The fact that there is even a “Gospel Play” genre of musical theatre bears out this point. And when I think of “Streetcar,” I am also reminded of wonderful films like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Long Hot Summer.”
Who can forget “West Side Story”—the Latino retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”?
And here’s one final tidbit for you: Did you know that there is a young black teacher who “translates” the sonnets of Shakespeare into modern rap songs? I hear your gasp—“Heresy!” But that’s not all! Because after reeling in his students with the rap, he “translates” it back to the original elegant language. Thereby enhancing their appreciation of the “finer” arts…as well as their own.
“Cabin in the Sky” is not one of the greatest films ever made. But it has its merits as a human story told in an allegorical manner with a highly and diversely talented all-Black cast. And if you look more deeply—at when and how the film was made; at the filmographies and biographies of the cast; and at the larger culture and politics and morals and philosophies of the times, you learn a whole lot more than you bargained for.
And now, here are some particulars:
An all-Black cast, in a film made by MGM, one of the leading motion picture companies in the history of film-making, in 1943—an era in which such a movie was unheard of. [Sound familiar? This was 72 years ago! How many major studios are making all-Black films today, in 2015?]
The casting: In the “Factoid” box, I have chosen to list “only” the stars whose names I remember in the course of my lifetime. The full cast includes other memorable names—of singers, dancers, actors, and a big band. [I invite you to search these names on your own.] They were the biggest names of their time. I want to highlight just a few:
(1) Ethel Waters: A beautiful, complex Black woman with a voice like no other—pure tones, with a range to die for. And some darned fancy dance moves in this film!
(2) Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson: Known to radio and television audiences as Jack Benny’s valet (read “foil”) ‘Rochester.’ This man (whom I used to be “ashamed” of in my youth) gave a performance in “Cabin” that reminded me a lot of Sherman Hemsley’s character in the musical Purlie. I was mesmerized by Anderson’s facial expressions in his role as Lil Joe.
(3) Lena Horne: More widely celebrated in the “mainstream” than many of the other stars of this film, Lena Horne was delicious as the consummate sexy “bad girl,” Georgia Brown.
(4) Rex Ingram: That “basso profundo” voice! (Comparable, in the “modern” era, to James Earl Jones.) That commanding presence! (Like Ossie Davis.) A man of great talent and depth, with an interesting filmography.
The music and dancing: The music—In addition to the lush sounds of the “Greek chorus,” there are two standout songs: “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” You don’t hear many romantic songs like these nowadays. The dancing—Did you say “Twerking”??? Oh, no. The dance numbers were so much more seductive and athletic and graceful than that: Jitterbugging and tap dancing and a “slow grind” or two—to the music of the great Duke Ellington. Dance moves worthy of the great ballet companies (Ethel Waters, no less!) Singing worthy of the Metropolitan Opera House.
By the way, just where do you think Elvis got his twitch; that shake; and, come to think of it, that voice?!? He learned them from the Black “Masters of Art.”
On that note, I conclude this review of a little movie called “Cabin in the Sky,” a movie that has had a huge impact on this Baltimore Black Woman’s psyche. If it has made you want to learn more about the film itself, about the actors, the director, the music; if it has piqued your curiosity and interest in any way, then I have done what I set out to do today.