Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The most celebrated all-black musical came from a successful Broadway play and was the first job of film direction by Vincente Minnelli. Cabin in the Sky is a delightful comedy with great songs and powerful start performances. It plays fast and loose with stereotypical conventions, but always from a theatrical distance - and its honesty and warmth endears the entire enterprise to our hearts.
As if acknowledging a cultural PC trap, Warner DVD has placed a wordy disclaimer at the front of the show, a careful legal document that stresses the propriety of retaining movies with dated attitudes in their intact state. In this case, it's kind of like apologizing before offense is taken. If cultural police are going to use Cabin in the Sky as an example of racial oppression, all is lost. The sophisticated performers in this all-black entertainment had the intelligence to know they were making a satirical farce.
Dutiful housewife Petunia Jackson (Ethel Waters) is so virtuous, she has a powerful influence in heaven, and her Reverend Greene and a heavenly Angel called The General (both Kenneth Spencer) hope she'll be able to keep her good-hearted but weak-willed husband Little Joe on the straight and narrow. But down in the Hades Hotel, the word is out that Lucifer wants to make a test case of Little Joe. Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) heads up the satanic Ideas Department, and leans on his imp Idea Men (Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Louis Armstrong) to come up with a sure-fire scheme to cause Joe to backslide, and take Petunia with him. And part of the bait is Georgia Brown (Lena Horne), a demonic temptress with a proven record of irresistibility.
Cabin in the Sky is one of the best MGM musicals, white, black or indifferent. Bostered by Arthur Freed's orchestrators, top songwriters and performers blend beautifully into a fully-developed film blanc battle between heaven and hell for the souls of a loving married couple. Petunia Jackson's faith is so well known in heaven that her prayers receive special attention, repeatedly saving the bacon of her loveable Little Joe. The moral struggle never gets a chance to become maudlin or preachy, for Cabin in the Sky concocts the funniest pack of devils ever assembled on the screen. Rex Ingram's sycophantic corps of dirty-tricks experts think up the most devilish ideas imaginable, and it is hilarious to see their beady eyes light up with delight at the prospect of corrupting yet another sitting duck mortal. Ingram is able to visit Earth to impart evil ideas into his unassuming agent Georgia Brown.
The devil's men have tufted horns of hair and wear bellboy uniforms from Hotel Hades that contrast strongly with the starched white tunic of The General, who dresses more like the leader of a marching band. It's not uncommon to have Little Joe's deathbed attended by Petunia, her friend Lily (Butterfly McQueen) and a doctor, all of them surrounded by invisible emissaries from Heaven and Hades. Corruption follows its own logic; Little Joe has to make the choice between good and evil and without Petunia's intercession he's a gone goose for sure.
Cabin in the Sky has quite a few (perhaps one too many) static song performances, but Ethel Waters melts one's heart when singing beautiful songs like Happiness is a Thing Called Joe and Taking a Chance on Love. When it looks like Joe's gone to the Devil, Petunia pursues him to a jive nightclub where things really take off. Duke Ellington's band holds center stage for a lot of great swing dancing and "Bubbles" John Sublett cuts a rug as an underworld character named Domino Johnson.
Lucifer Jr. thinks he's played a perfect game when Petunia dresses up and heads off to the club, but she's really on the warpath to get back her man, even if it means beating the devil at his own game. It's quite a thrilling scenario, backed up with effective sets and special effects. Like some hero out of the Old Testament, Petunia brings down the wrath of God on the nightclub with a tornado straight from The Wizard of Oz ... it might even be a special effects outtake. The slightly kitschy 'stairway to heaven' finale works better here than in other fantasies, mainly because we've invested our emotions in Petunia's quest. It's just too bad that she couldn't control her man while they were both alive!
The cast is terrific. Enough time has elapsed for Eddie Anderson to start being known without the "Rochester" middle name that forever cast him as Jack Benny's comic foil. The rivalry between Lena Horne and Ethel Waters was apparently substantial. Waters was once quite thin (nickname - the beanpole!) and resented Horne singing the torchy roles that she had made popular in younger years. Waters is quite attractive in her dancing number with "Bubbles" Sublett. Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, familiar as deeply stereotyped lackeys and sidekicks in mainstream movies, are both exceptionally good as Lucifer's pop-eyed minions. In contrast to their presence here, it needs to be remembered that the talented Best was billed in some of his earlier pictures by the name "Sleep 'n' Eat --- when it came to a career based on demeaning clowning he was second only to Stepin Fetchit.
Lena Horne proves adept with her temptress character - "Sweet" Georgia Brown is not exactly a demon, just an earthly sinner that Lucifer Jr. can depend on when the time comes to put the hex on some gullible sucker or another. This is easily her best picture, as most MGM musical appearances marginalized her with an isolated song. Her outspoken ways (read: refusal to be submissive) led to the practice of engineering her numbers so that they could be excised without breaking continuity. A look at her short list of credits shows that the successful singer didn't really have a Hollywood career per se. She was considered a big star on the basis of knockout appearances in just two or three pictures.
Warners' DVD of Cabin in the Sky is a flawless B&W transfer of this jewel, which, like Fox's Stormy Weather has the power to transport us back to an older age of musical perfection. The mono soundtrack is also without issues.
The disc comes with four extras, starting with the original trailer. A Pete Smith Specialty shows a bit of the famous excised scene with Lena in a bathtub, but is more interesting for a novelty act featuring a tiny tot with a remarkable sense of balance. An audio excerpt (backed by a montage from the film) lets us hear Louis Armstrong's deleted number "Ain't it the Truth." It explains why Armstrong should be given such high billing yet have such a small part.
The commentary pairs 'black cultural scholars' Todd Boyd and Drew Casper, who are actually USC professors. Casper is a Minnelli expert and tends to gush over screen business ("it's getting darker, look at the wind picking up") but knows the story behind the making of the picture. Boyd addresses the race issue and makes many excellent points about the film's fantasy scheme, even as he seems rather harsh in his criticism of the main character concepts - Waters' Petunia doesn't fit his negative description of a cantankerous 'mammy'character. His other observations are more balanced. The Angels speak "the Queen's English" while the (much more entertaining) Devils talk in black dialect. Little Joe might as well be a spineless fool or a child; the film implies that as long as he's kept in motion with busy work he's okay, but as soon as he gets lazy (shiftless?) he becomes the devil's pawn, the "idle hands" of legend. Georgia Brown is sexual and therefore sinful; Petunia is a dedicated church lady and therefore can do no wrong. All of these stereotypes extend to the minor characters and basically say that hep black culture as represented is inherently on the side of the devil, an argument that probably makes sense. Yet Cabin in the Sky knows that it is an exaggerated farce playing with these stereotypes, and is benign. Better than benign.
Also interpolated into the commentary track are Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers, and Eddie Anderson's widow and daughter Evangela and Eva. Older archived remarks by Lena Horne are edited in as well.
Cabin in the Sky floors us with its fable-like drama and compelling emotions, making such analysis a beside-the-point activity. It's a wonderful, feel-good experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cabin in the Sky rates:
Supplements: Audio excerpt deleted Louis Armstrong number; deleted Lena Horne number in short subject Studio Visit; trailer, commentary with Drew Casper, Todd Boyd, Fayard Nicholas, Evangela and Eva Anderson, and Lena Horne (archival)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson