Saturday, January 26, 2019

Stubs - Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky (1943) Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Spencer, John W. "Bubbles" Sublett, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay by Joseph Schrank. Based on the musical Cabin in the Sky, book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John Latouche, music by Vernon Duke, as produced by Albert Lewis in association with Vinton Freedley (New York, 25 Oct 1940). Produced by Arthur Freed Runtime: 98 minutes. USA Black and White Musical

A lot has been made from the success of Black Panther (2018), the first nearly all-Black Marvel film, which was a huge worldwide box-office success, though despite the Oscar buzz was not the pinnacle of the MCU. Major studios have shied away from all-Black films, prior, due to what they thought would be less than an International appeal for such stories. Truly, Superhero films were able to change that thinking.

Though they were few and far between, Hollywood studios have made all-Black films before. One of the first examples was Cabin in the Sky made by M-G-M, the then-dominant studio. Back then Hollywood would make film versions of Broadway musicals, now it seems to be the other way around. The original musical ran for 156 performances between October 25, 1940, and March 6, 1941, with Ethel Waters, Dooley Wilson and Rex Ingram in lead roles.

While M-G-M made the film, it was producer Arthur Freed who was very insistent on making it. The studio paid $40,000 for the film rights, helping to erase the $25,000 loss the Broadway musical producers took on their production. With a rather small budget of $679,000, one of producer Arthur Freed's least expensive musicals of the 1940s, the film went into production on August 31, 1942.

There were a lot of changes between the stage musical and the film version. To begin with, only Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram, who had appeared on stage, would appear in the film. Also, only two of the original songs from Broadway, "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Cabin in the Sky” would make it into the film.

Maybe this was a sign of the times, the film was given to a first-time director, Vincente Minnelli, to helm. There were no mainstream Black directors in Hollywood in 1942. Minnelli had only directed stage musicals and musical shorts, so while not a total newbie he was far from a big name behind the camera.

Replacing Dooley Wilson in the cast was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who was already famous on radio and television as Jack Benny’s man-servant on that comedian’s eponymous show. By the time he was in Cabin in the Sky, he was already the first Black American with a regular role on a nationwide radio show. He started out his career in an All-Black vaudeville revue. A song and dance man, he added comedy to his act in 1926.

Newcomer Lena Horne was also given star-billing. Horne, who had begun her career in the chorus line at the Cotton Club, had come to Hollywood via a singing career, which included replacing Dinah Shore on NBC's jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. She left that to perform in a Cotton Club-style revue on the Hollywood Sunset Strip in 1942. She would be signed by M-G-M a few weeks later. Prior to coming to M-G-M she had appeared in the musical The Duke is Tops (1938), a low-budget race movie musical, later re-released in 1943 as The Bronze Venus and; in a 1941 two-reeler, Boogie Woogie Dream, so despite rumors to the contrary, this was not her first motion picture.

The film opens with a town, somewhere in the South, all abuzz about the return of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie Anderson) to the fold. Everyone is gathered at Church waiting for him with his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) to arrive. Petunia, unlike Joe, is a church regular on good terms with God, to whom she often prays. She’s hopeful that Joe, who now has a job as an elevator operator, will give up his gambling and womanizing ways.

At first, Rev. Green (Kenneth Spencer) wants to send the church’s Deacon (Oscar Polk) to check on the Jacksons, but is convinced that the job requires his presence. Things are progressing slowly as Petunia is ready, but Joe is still fussing with his tie. The couple, along with their neighbor and friend, Lily (Butterfly McQueen), arrive at the church. When the sinners are called to repent, Petunia is convinced that Joe is in their number but he’s not.

Having been called out of church by those he owes gambling debts to, Joe is forced against his will to take on a bigtime gambler at Jim Henry’s Paradise Club, Domino Johnson (John W. "Bubbles" Sublett). The men will stake him and it is his only way to get out of their debt since he doesn’t have the money he already owes them.

When Petunia realizes Joe is not at the front of the church to repent, she and Lily go looking for him. Her first thought is to check on the Paradise Club, but gives Joe too much credit and goes home. However, he’s not there. In the distance, she hears gunfire and knows instinctively that Joe is involved.

Rushing to the Paradise Club, she finds Joe has been shot by Domino, who has fled the scene. She takes him back to the house, where the Doctor (Clinton Rosemond) warns her to take it slow. Petunia prays over her husband, asking for God’s forgiveness. However, it appears to be too late, as Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) and three of his aides come to collect Joe’s soul. Joe, at first, thinks it is his old friend Lucius (Rex Ingram), only to learn that he’s dead and is to report to duty.

A rude awakening, Little Joe (Eddie Anderson) discovers that he's died and gone to Hell.

Petunia’s prayers, though, are answered with the arrival from Heaven of The General (Kenneth Spencer). They engage in a battle for Little Joe’s soul. Sgt. Fleetfoot (Oscar Polk) is sent to Heaven to get the judgment on Little Joe. While he’s gone, Lucifer, Jr. predicts that Little Joe’s involvement with local vamp Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) will result in his banishment to Hell. Fleetfoot arrives back with the Lord’s judgment. While he’s not worthy of going to Heaven, the Lord gives him six more months on Earth to prove his worth.

Joe’s soul is more than willing to make changes, but he’s informed by The General that human Joe will have no recollection of what has happened but assures him that he will be talking to his conscience and battling for his soul, knowing that Lucifer, Jr. will be playing to his baser desires.
When Joe, who had been thought to have died, suddenly recovers, Petunia believes it’s a miracle.

Petunia (Ethel Waters) comforts Little Joe as he recovers.

Petunia, who is a loving wife, can’t do enough for Joe during his recovery. About a month in, two of Joe’s gambling pals, Jim Henry (Ernest Whitman) and Dude (Nicodemus) come to call. They’re after the debt that Joe owes them, $6 and $4 respectively. Petunia intercepts them and makes a wager, she’ll roll them dice for double or nothing. She takes a few practice throws with the dice that Jim Henry provides. However, when she offers to let him throw, he changes them, which she, of course, notices. She takes back the dice and throws 7 and 11 and wins back the debts and chases the two away.

Using their dice, Petunia wins back Little Joe's debts from Jim Henry and Dude (Nicodemus).

Joe gets a job at a factory and fulfills his promise to buy Petunia an electric clothes washer, which he delivers to her during his lunch hour on her birthday. “Now all we need is electricity,” he tells her.
Don’t think for a minute that Lucifer, Jr. has given up on his wager. Back at the Hotel Hades, Lucifer, Jr. and his ideas men, played by Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Fletcher Rivers, and Leon James Polk are joined by Trumpeter (Louis Armstrong), who comes up with the suggestion to have Joe win the Irish Sweepstakes. A lot of money is the quickest way to turn a man into a sinner. Adding to the mix of temptations is Georgia Brown, whom Lucifer, Jr. convinces to unexpectantly go see Joe.

Louis Armstrong (l) listens as Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) gets clearance for his plan for the big guy.

At work, that afternoon, Joe receives a telegram from the Messenger Boy ('Buck' Ford Washington Lee). Alas, Joe doesn’t know how to read and assuming it is only some sort of advertisement, throws it away to The General’s pleasure. Joe goes home and misses Georgia’s arrival. She is about ready to leave when Lucifer, Jr. uses his powers of persuasion to get her to pick up the telegram and read it.

Meanwhile, Joe goes home but Petunia is out. Lily tells him that Petunia has gone to buy him some clothes. Joe starts to repair the roof, which is in the process of falling down but, to the disappointment of The General, decides to put it off for another day.

Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) proves to be a great temptation for Little Joe.

While he’s relaxing outside, Georgia Brown arrives. Joe tries to be strong but Georgia is awfully tempting. He starts to kiss her but pulls back, telling her he can’t go through with it anymore. She shows him the telegram offering him $50,000 for his lottery ticket and he thinks of all the things he can do for Petunia. He also promises to give Georgia something for bringing him the good news.

Unfortunately, that is the moment Petunia arrives home. She won’t let Joe explain and kicks him out of the house.

Domino Johnson (John W. "Bubbles" Sublett) arrives at the Paradise Club.

Later, Duke Ellington and his orchestra are playing at the Paradise Club, Domino, fresh from six months in prison, arrives. He’s looking for Georgia Brown and Jim Henry puts him off, sending him upstairs to the card game in progress. Joe and Georgia then arrive dressed to the nines and her dripping with jewelry. Joe is now a high roller, who is lavishing his wealth on Georgia and being the big man down at the Club. Not only does he buy everyone at the Club a drink, but he is also the one to have paid for Ellington’s appearance.

Domino makes a play for Georgia even though Joe is the one who brought her.

When Domino learns that Georgia is there, he makes an obvious play for her, right in front of Joe. But Petunia is also there, having come, dressed up as well, demanding half of Joe’s winnings in their divorce. She makes a play for Domino, through singing, but Joe can’t let that happen. He fights for Petunia and Domino pulls out a gun.

Petunia makes a play for Domino, which is the last straw for Little Joe.

Petunia prays for God to intervene, which takes the form of a tornado headed for the club. Despite the winds ripping the Paradise Club apart, Domino manages to fire his gun, first killing Petunia and then Little Joe.

The General (Kenneth Spencer) informs Petunia that she's made it into Heaven. Little Joe has not.

The night, which is exactly six months since Little Joe’s reprieve, has turned the Club into Purgatory. The General informs Petunia is eligible to pass through the Pearly Gates into Heaven, while Little Joe has been rejected. It is only after Little Joe repents and the Lord vouches for him that the General reverses his decision and allows Little Joe to join his wife in Heaven. The start to walk up the long stairs to Heaven.

Little Joe and Petunia ascend into Heaven hand in hand on their way to their cabin in the sky.

Little Joe then realizes that his brush with the afterlife was only a dream, and he vows to change his evil ways for good.

Little Joe recovers with Lily (Butterfly McQueen), Rev. Green (Kenneth Spencer),
Petunia, and the Doctor (Clinton Rosemond) watching over him.

Released on April 9, 1943, the film was a box office success despite some theaters refusing to show the film, especially in the South. In one incident, in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, the film was pulled after only 30 minutes by order of the sheriff. Despite the boycott, the film turned a profit, making $1.7 million in its release in the US and Canada and $234,000 in the rest of the world. With the low production costs, the profit was over $587,000. There were talks at M-G-M of doing other all-Black films, like a version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess but none ever materialized at the studio.

The film did garner one Academy Awards nomination, for Best Music, Original Song: Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) for the song "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe".

Variety, in their review of the film, complained that little had changed from the stage version, noting “In the legit version Cabin seemed constantly to be constricted by the limitations of the stage. But difficulty has not been solved in the present film adaptation. The yarn still appears weighed down by unimaginative conception, the few changes in the screen medium merely filling out the story, without expanding or developing its fantasy. In only one of two moments, such as the stairway to heaven finale, is there any apparent effort to utilize the facilities of the camera. There are far too many close-ups, particularly in the vocal numbers.”

Variety's review singles out only Ethel Waters, stating she “remains the one transcendent asset of the film Cabin, just as she was in the original. Her sincerity, compassion, personal warmth and dramatic skill, plus her unique talent as a singer make her performance as Petunia an overpowering accomplishment.”

Waters is clearly the star of the film. She began her career in Black vaudeville starting at the age of nine. At one time, she played the same club as Bessie Smith, who didn’t want her to compete by singing Blues songs, so Waters turned to ballads and popular tunes. She recorded for Cardinal Records. Her first hit was, however, for Columbia Records with “Dinah” in 1926. Her best-known song was “Stormy Weather” released in 1933, which would get to #1, her second song to reach that milestone.

She would appear as herself in Warner Bros. On With the Show! (1929), the first all-color all-talkie film released by the studio. (Sadly only Black and White prints remain.) and Rufus Jones for President (1933), a musical short, also released by Warner Bros., which also featured a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. Following her run on Broadway in Cabin in the Sky, she came to Hollywood to make Cairo (1942) at M-G-M and stayed to make Cabin in the Sky. She would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Pinky (1949).

Quite talented, Waters could be difficult to work with. John Ford, who was the original director of Pinky was fired after bumping heads with her. Elia Kazan, who took over the film, would describe Waters as a "truly odd combination of old-time religiosity and free-flowing hatred.”

There were a number of firsts in Waters’ career. The first black to have a TV Special, a 15-minute variety special on NBC on June 14, 1939. In 1969, she would be nominated for an Emmy, for an appearance on Route 66, the first dramatic performance by a black performer so recognized (male or female), as well as the first black woman nominated for an Emmy.

In this film, she seems to do it all: sing, dance, and act delivering both heartfelt speeches as well as holding her own in comedic sequences, as when she takes Jim Henry’s money playing dice. While the film is about Little Joe, it seems to revolve around Waters’ Petunia character. It’s a good thing, too. Even though everyone gives strong performances, it is her talent and screen presence that the story depends on.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, who was already known for his comedic talents, also sings and dances a little. Even though he began his career doing these things, it is good that he didn’t quit his day job to resume his career doing either.

Lena Horne is not only a good singer but she is very attractive and provides as much distraction as any man trying to mend his ways can take.

Rex Ingram seems to have a lot of fun as Lucifer, Jr. While the part is obviously a supporting one here, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role with as much spirit as he does. Louis Armstrong, the great trumpet player, gets billing over Ingram, even though his part is much smaller. I’m not sure why Armstrong was cast other than to take advantage of his fame.

The vaudeville duo of Buck and Bubbles is represented, though only 'Bubbles' John W. Sublett really has much of a role as Domino Johnson. 'Buck' Ford L. Washington plays the role of the messenger and while he has a nice sequence with Anderson, his talent as a singer and piano player is not used here. Known as the father of rhythm tap, Sublett had also been featured on stage as Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Sublett is also the one who, in 1920, gave tap dancing lessons to Fred Astaire.

Having never seen the stage musical this is based on, I don’t have Variety’s issues with the film version. For some reason, I had avoided this film for a number of years. The version I watched was one I had Tivo-ed from TCM back when the late great Robert Osborne was still the prime-time host on that channel. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what took me so long.

The tornado that destroys the Paradise Club is a recycled special effect from The Wizard of Oz.

There are a couple of bits that might remind you of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Some of the roles in Little Joe's dream are played by friends and neighbors. Even Joe realizes this in the dream itself but the scene when he recovers definitely will remind you of when Dorothy regains consciousness in that film. And the tornado that rocked Dorothy's world seems to return to destroy Jim Henry's Paradise Club. M-G-M, not wanting to waste a good special effect, did reuse, or at least use an alternative take, of the footage in not only Cabin in the Sky but also in High Barbaree (1947).

The film is very entertaining with strong performances from everyone. Not only do you get Ethel Waters but you also get Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Lena Horne at the start of her career. Seeing Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington is sort of icing on the cake. It’s funny, it’s spiritual and it’s very, very good. I would definitely recommend that you watch this film as soon as you can.

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