Any intelligent critique of Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943) must first lay to rest whatever critical, and perhaps misguided, reservations persist about the issue of racism and its ‘place’ in Americana of the period – particularly within the context of film history. To begin with, the black perspective in films had until 1943 been largely neglected to quaintness for the benevolent slave and dutiful housekeeper.
Save King Vidor’s nostalgic Hallelujah (1929) –which viewed its actors as simpletons of blind religious faith, and 1936’s Green Pastures – which wholly dissatisfied its convoluted visitation on several Biblical verses reinvented for a black audience, the non-Caucasian in Hollywood was at best an appendage to the white establishment – loyal, thoughtful, menial background fodder destined for parody in minstrel shows or merely exploited as comic relief.
Cabin In The Sky had previously been a moderate success on Broadway where tastes in entertainment tended to run more the gamut toward tolerance than outright acceptance. To be certain, Lynn Root, Vernon Duke and John La Touche’s morality play about a wayward do-gooder Joe (Eddie Rochester Anderson) and his determined and forthright spouse, Petunia (Ethel Waters) played it safe by relying heavily on the aforementioned stereotypes.
Yet, in acknowledging this misrepresentation it seems equally prudent to reinstate what is usually and largely forgotten and rarely discussed, though quite obvious when attending a retrospective of 30s/40s American musicals: that rarely are any characters of this vintage – black or white – delineated beyond childlike comedic figures of fun within the musical/ comedy genre.
It must also be stated of MGM during this period, that they could have so easily chosen to ignore Cabin in the Sky – Broadway success et al – in favor of playing it safe with their prospering corporate image as purveyors of ‘family entertainment’. There is another reason to applaud MGM for its conviction. Hollywood’s foreign market, ergo its revenue derived from European exhibition was decimated by the outbreak of WWII.
Though every studio in Hollywood continued with varying degree to experiment with properties that were almost certain not to make a profit the general edict from the dream factories was to hone in the public need for certain kinds of entertainment and provide it to them without question. With its all black cast, Cabin in the Sky was a considerable gamble. Exhibitors in the deep South were more than likely to boycott its release – and did.
It is also saying much of director Vincente Minnelli that he greatly tempered the blanket stereotype of the simple-minded ‘darkie’ into varying gradations seem more enlightened in their understanding and tend to hold up far better than most of the period.
Petunia is not simple-minded (even as film scholar Todd Boyd suggest that she is in ‘Aunt Jemima mode’), but a woman of deeply instilled faith in the power of prayer. The filmic Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) is not as a woman of easy virtue as she remains in the play, but a decisive conniver whose greatest virtue is that she is able to break free of Satin’s power and recognize the error of her ways. Even character actress, Butterfly McQueen (as Petunia’s close friend and confident, Lily), whom arguably endured a legacy in idiotic depictions of child-like slaves and servants is prevented herein from repeating that expectation.
All things considered, Cabin in the Sky is a notable and noteworthy curiosity – developed with great patience under Minnelli’s direction as one of the most unique film musicals ever made. It does not represent the very best of the genre but it does bear the hallmark of perhaps the first ambitious attempt to separate those broad misrepresentations.
Warner Home Video’s DVD of Cabin in the Sky is a disappointment. Not only is it not presented in the original sepia tone it was originally photographed in, but the B&W image is a bit ‘thick’ in texture. Whites are never entirely bright but somehow more of a slightly off-putting gray. Occasionally, edge enhancement crops up, but nothing that will distract. Age related artifacts are present and minimally distracting. The audio is mono and very nicely presented at a moderate listening level.
Special features include an audio commentary by the wife and daughter of Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne, and noted black culture scholars Todd Boyd and Drew Casper. The curiosity in the extras is that Lena Horne’s rendition of ‘Ain’t it the Truth’ is absent. Instead, we are given a short subject – Studio Visit, in which a portion of that number exists, and the audio prerecording of Louis Armstrong’s rendition of that same song, which is lengthy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)