Monday, October 06, 2008

October's Musical: Cabin in the Sky

It's the "Musical of the Month"

On the 6th of each month I'm writing about one hand-picked musical. Anybody who loves the genre is invited to join in by screening, commenting, or publishing their own take on it. I started the series with three goals in mind: reacquaint myself with films I haven't seen in a long time, promote rental ideas for readers, enjoy films I've never seen (there are many) from within my favorite genre. Cabin in the Sky (1943), Vincent Minelli's first full directorial effort and a rare all-black musical from Hollywood's early days, falls into the latter camp. I am so pleased that you chose it from the list offered. It's a delight.

The story of gambler Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) and his ever-praying wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) is a riff on the classic Faust tale. It's one in a long line of literary and filmed entertainments that deal with Heaven and Hell's eternal battle for our souls. Some are heavy dramas but often they're comedies. The premise lends itself to goofy sets, outre performances and good triumphs over evil uplifts. Early in the film Joe nearly dies and the forces of Heaven & Hell agree to give him six more months on earth: repentance and good behavior wins him that dreamy 'cabin in the sky', more of the same wicked lifestyle will trap him in "H-E-double toothpick" as me mum used to say.

The last movie I personally remember seeing with this out-of-fashion premise was that awful Olivia Newton-John & John Travolta flop from 1983 Two of a Kind though I know there've been others since then. Anyone remember that film? It gave the world Olivia Newton-John's last big hit "Twist of Fate" and not much else worth mentioning.


Anywayyyyy.... Little Joe is a sinner who can't resist the dice or one of the devil's favorite gals "Georgia Brown" (the legendary Lena Horne). His wife Petunia prays and prays and prays for him to change and renounce both gambling and Georgia. And then she prays some more. Early in the film, Joe is shot in the local club Jim Henry's Paradise by a ne'er do wells he owes money. As he lay dying, the battle-lines for his soul are drawn (that six month contest) between Lucifer Jr's squad and some rather uptight angels. While convalescing Joe expresses bewilderment that Petunia is so confident that he won't stray again.
Little Joe when you're good, something in here [*points to heart*] starts singing.

And the lord seems to say, 'All my angels are playing beautiful music because they feel so happy for you. Can you hear it down there?' And I listen and sho' nuff I hear it as plain as if I was up in heaven myself. They were teaching me their prettiest tunes. Then I realized that's the Lord's way of telling me to be happy.
She then sings Joe this musical's gorgeous title song, beaming with both romantic and spiritual love all the while. Ethel's voice is expressive, nuanced and mature. Here's the way I see it/hear it: Musicals make the world beautiful. I hear them as plain as if I was up in heaven myself. They've got the prettiest tunes. Musicals are the Cinema's way of telling me to be happy.

There's a lot to enjoy in the film: Ethel Waters voice and performance were rich, the songs --many of them famous -- were quite good and Eddie Anderson's comic timing and inimitable screech in the song "Consequence" provided much amusement as he tries to ward off the advances of Georgia Brown. Though the film was obviously difficult to finance due to its risky all-black status in a racist era (many theaters wouldn't show the film in the 40s), there's still a bit of variety and ingenuity in the limited sets that are utilized. I loved the freezer burn detail on the air conditioned devil's office. Funny. For a musical it's skimpy on costume changes as well, but once Georgia and Petunia face off at Jim Henry's Paradise it's a feathery, glittery event that you wish you could see in full color. For film buffs there's some amusement to be had in the recycling of cast members from Gone With the Wind (1939) and sets and special effects direct from The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Yes Cabin in the Sky made me happy despite the odd warning or "disclaimer" that ran before the movie started.


That warning indicates "films" as in this is a stamp that's been placed on other films too? But unless I missed something (which is possible as a white boy) there wasn't all that much to be offended by on the race front. More troubling was the sexism but you'd never see a warning placed on a film from this era about that, now would you? And, what's more, the kind of sexism that Cabin in the Sky trades in --very popular in 40s movies, especially noirs, with seductive women painted as dangerous destroyers -- isn't all that dated, cinematically speaking. Both of the female characters are blamed for Joe's sins. Georgia Brown is blamed for seducing him (Men have NO CHOICE about who they sleep with, don't you know?! He says sarcastically) And later even Joe's devout patient wife is blamed for his tailspin when she fails to 'stand by her man' at one crucial point. Little Joe somehow wins points for Petunia's good deeds but she loses some for his free fall??? Heaven Can Wait ...for feminism apparently.

I leave you with the lovely Lena Horne's cut song "Ain't it the truth" which was deemed too scandalous what with Lena singing gleefully whilst enveloped in a decadent bubble bath.



Isn't she a honey?

Musical of the Month'ers
Movies Kick Ass 'Heaven... I'm in Heaven'
StinkyBits - finds this movie "fascinating, strange, well worth watching."
Criticlasm thinks Ethel Waters rules the piece
StinkyLulu -profiles Lena Horne's famous role as "Georgia Brown"
If you write about it, send me the link...

Next Episodes
November 11th (delayed) -Nov 6th marks the exact 10th anniversary of the release of Todd Hayne's glam rock oddity Velvet Goldmine (1998). It was a big moment in the careers of Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Lots of angles to be explored by any willing bloggers.
Dec 6th ~'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' with Judy Garland in the classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

6 comments:

Jose said...

Happiness is a thing called musicals indeed.
You know I think that the film's racism is wrapped around the fact that it doesn't seem to be racist at all and at the moment when we don't notice these things it's when they get worse, Like your points about the sexism, they hand't even crossed my mind.

par3182 said...

i've never seen the film but that's one hell of a poster. i want one

ps - i think you're forgetting that 'two of a kind' also introduced edible sunglasses, forcing our livvy to exclaim "they taste like shit" - i've been scarred by that for 25 years

Anonymous said...

A great read. Never heard of the film, and now I'm all about seeing it, so mission accomplished.

Love this series - huge congratulations. Future episodes promised will be unmissable.

Rob

Anonymous said...

Quick question, if we have an inactive blog with like, zero readership, could we use it to make posts for especially these blog-of-thons?

NATHANIEL R said...

any blog is welcome in group parties like these. Blog-a-Thons and clubs are a great way to win new readers if that's what you're looking for. Of course inactivity is a great way to lose the new readers again too :)

Janice said...

Only YOU could connect "Cabin in the Sky" with "Two of a Kind", Nathaniel. Now that's brilliance.