Cabin in the Sky

Next Screening
Movies in the Mountains

July 20
2 pm

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Forever After, Amen

Shuffle Along and Running Wild and several 1930s editions of (Lew Leslie’s) Blackbirds were among the earliest and most successful attempts to attract white audiences to all-black shows.

The attraction may have been the vicarious thrill from eighth-row center of a seeming exotica plus hot jazz and spectacular dancing, but to the African Americans who ventured to downtown Manhattan to Broadway, it was an affirmation not a revelation.

They had seen and heard it all before—in St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia. Or uptown in Harlem at the Apollo, Lafayette, Alhambra, Regent and Odeon theaters or the nightspots that featured entertainers of ‘colored’ and integrated audiences as did Small’s Paradise, Tilly’s Shack, Gladys’ Clam House, Club Hotcha, and Pod’s & Jerry’s. Even dumps like Edmund’s Cellar where Ethel Waters and others earned their stripes in the trenches of show business. Notable among the nighteries that starred black entertainers were several, such as the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn, whose gangland owners maintained a whites-only audience rule—unless you were famous and flush in spite of being ‘colored’.

For performers the jump from Harlem to Broadway was difficult. To reach Hollywood was a jump too far. Although a few East-Coast white producer-distributors invested in films made for African-American audiences, those were low-budget affairs shot with primitive sound equipment and scant rehearsal, before filming in rooms too small for cameramen to get fancy. The cheap jack process precluded musicals or dramas with musical numbers unless those could be shot inside an existing nightclub. And if the sound didn’t record properly, it still went in the can: indie producers could not afford retakes and dubbing.

Allowing a few exceptions, major studios conspicuously and continually ignored African-American audiences, aiming for the largest economic common denominator, which was white people who could afford the price of a ticket during the Great Depression. With the advent of talkies, a few black actors and musical performers found film work. If they were singers or dancers their specialty numbers would be excised from prints circulated to major movie houses in the South. If they were actors, they were hired to play servants, farmhands,  messengers or shoe-shine ‘boys’. Those roles were often written for comedians and comedy actors like Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, Stepin Fetchit, Clarence Muse and Louise Beavers,

The first talkie with an all-black cast was Hallelujah made in 1929 by King Vidor. Leaving behind no unemployed buzzwords, MGM advertised Hallelujah  as an “all-talking, all-singing drama of Southern Negro life”, a promotional pitch and production policy revived fourteen years later for Cabin in the Sky.

Successful movie musicals followed one of three paths: adaptations of operettas or Broadway musical comedies; fictive bio-pics of composers that allowed producers to use contract singers and dancers who couldn’t act. Others were ‘back-stagers’ (“You’re going out on that stage a chorus girl, but you’re gonna come back a star “or ‘barn-to-Broadway’ movies (“Hey, kids, let’s do a show in the barn (a building that would rival Radio City Music Hall in size and equipment). Either way, the plots purported to show the behind-the-scenes trials of producing a musical comedy for the stage.

Cabin in the Sky followed a rare and more difficult route: the type of fantasy  exemplified by The Wizard of Oz. If Hallelujah was life as one found it; Cabin in the Sky was a morality fantasy play—the central key of which was, as in Oz, a voyage through the subconscious.

In 1942, MGM’s chief of musical film production, Arthur Freed, handed stage director and designer Vincente Minelli his first directorial assignment in movies: the transfer to film of the 1940 Broadway hit, Cabin in the Sky. Many senior directors had shied away from the assignment, fearing that if the movie bombed it would crater their careers. However, Minelli was given access to the greatest African American stars of the 20th Century.

Top billing went to Ethel Waters who, on Broadway, originated the role of church-going Petunia. Her husband, Little Joe (who, when found on his knees, was shooting dice) was played perfectly by song-and-dance comedian Eddie Anderson.

The angels and devils are competing for little Joe’s soul, as he lay in bed after being shot by gambler Domino (a deftly menacing turn by John ‘Bubbles’ Sublett who—in the film’s finale—shows why he was the greatest rhythm tap dancer then or now. While Petunia prays for Little Joe’s life,  Lucifer Junior (Rex Ingram) employs a gold-digging vamp, Georgia Brown (glamorous Lena Horne) to lead Little Joe to damnation.

The fine supporting cast includes classical dancer Archie Savage, moonwalk-stepping pioneer Bill Bailey, fluttery Butterfly McQueen, and a quartet of fine black comedians: popping-eyed Mantan Moreland (of Charlie Chan fame), the reticent Willie Best, and the lively comedy dancing duo, Moke and Poke. All together, a must-see parade of talent.

Vernon Duke & John Latouche wrote the songs including “Takin’ a Chance on Love”, “Shine”, “Cabin in the Sky”, “Ain’t It the Truth?”, “Honey in the Honeycomb”, and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. For the film version, Minelli added Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg’s “Happiness Is just a Thing Called Joe”, which became a hit tune and a perennial favorite of women singers.

MGM, a conservative studio, should be saluted for making Cabin in the Sky, but it stopped short by filming in black and white instead of color. One can appreciate MGM’s caution: mainstream first-run cinemas in the South wouldn’t screen it. Only the smaller Southern movie houses in African-American neighborhoods would book the film. MGM also worried how the film would draw within the vast rural landscape between the Rockies and Appalachia.

To stoke box-office appeal, Minelli retained Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram from the Broadway show, but replaced Dooley Wilson with famous comedian Eddie Anderson (best known as ‘Rochester’, Jack Benny’s sassy butler on Benny’s hit radio show. Lena Horne took dancer Catherine Dunham’s role. And Minelli added top ‘name’ talent like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington & his Orchestra, and tap-dance masters Bill Bailey and John Bubbles. Cabin in the Sky gave M GM a big hit, earning three times its cost.

—Frank Cullen

for Movies in the Mountains