Cabin in the Sky: Minnelli's Debut

If “Cabin in the Sky” had not been a small, risky, all-black picture, Vincente Minnelli would have had to wait much longer for his directorial break at MGM.

“Cabin in the Sky” was the first all-black musical since King Vidor's 1929 musical “Hallelujah!” The militant black press was critical of the endeavors patronizing tone. Minnelli himself had some reservations about the story, which reinforced the naive, childlike stereotypes of blacks.

In “Cabin in the Sky,” the characters are marked by essential simplicity, and they embody absolutes of good and evil, lacking any shading or ambiguity. However, once he committed to the project, Minnelli decided to approach the material with passion and affection, giving no serious thought to the potentially negative reaction.

Ethel Waters, who had appeared in Minnelli's first Broadway musical, At Home Abroad, became his talisman when she agreed to repeat her stage role as Petunia. Minnelli wanted Dooley Wilson to recreate his Broadway role as little Joe, but he was overruled since Wilsons name was not as big as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson's. Had they waited a couple of years, after Dooley's great success in Casablanca, Dooley would have gotten the part.

“Cabin in the Sky” also offers a good part for Lena Horne. Lena arrived at MGM at about the same time as Minnelli. She had met Minnelli in New York when they toyed with the notion of Lena playing the lead in Serena Blandish, a musical that never materialized. Bonding right away, they became known in Hollywood as the high-strung New Yorkers.

Georgia was Lena's first real acting role at Metro. Lena had made her film debut in “Panama Hattie,” a Red Skelton vehicle, in which she did a number with the Berry Brothers. One of Minnelli's first assignments was to stage Lena's musical numbers at minimum cost and maximum style. Minnelli costumed Lena in a lavish gown, positioning her in front of changing sets. Since her numbers were shot on a proscenium stage he had to learn quickly how to move the camera. Cabin in the Sky is the first picture in which Lena played a major part.

White characters are not only invisible but also irrelevant to the story. The degradations that whites have imposed on blacks are not even mentioned. Poverty is simply seen as a fact of life, passively accepted by the blacks. But the absence of black anger in Cabin in the Sky made it palatable to white audiences. The country was at War, It was comforting and reassuring for a country that was at War and needed to be unified that blacks (and other minorities) were content with their lot.

Ethel Waters plays the deeply pious Petunia, a woman praying for the soul of her weak gambler-husband Joe. Minnelli wanted Petunia to look as appealing as possible, which was a challenge, as Ethel was not physically attractive. In contrast, turning Lena Horne into a beautiful siren posed no problem at all.

The sensuality and materialism of Georgia Brown, Petunia's nemesis, is viewed as threat. Minnelli embellishes her portrait with alluring touches, as when she snatches a magnolia from a tree and fashions it into a seductive hat. Minnelli felt that the only way for Lena to compete with Waters' intensity was to play Georgia as a helpless, almost babyish woman. Since Waters had the sympathetic part–the good woman protecting her marriage at all cost–she wanted to give Lena's role more complexity, even excess.

Among the films highlights are a John Bubbles solo dance, “That's Why They Call Me Shine,” and Waters' rendition of the title song, filmed on a sound-stage hillside, with Waters framed by a chorus of mammies wearing bandannas and urchins.

Despite Minnellis tactful efforts, he doesn't really resolve the issue of stereotypical treatment. Passively resigned to her situation, Waters spends a lot of time on her knees, with eyes uplifted to the Lord, vanquishing the Devil's emissaries. The competing forces of Heaven and Hell are presented as more urgent than the stress of everyday life. As the title song suggests, Petunia's vision of Heaven is a replica of her life on earth: The cabin will be on a cloud “as the angels go sailing by.” ‘

Minnelli shows his gift for integrating a diverse gallery of characters into a coherent structure: the robust Ingram, Louis Armstrong (in a non-musical bit) as the Devil's chief man, dressed in a harlequin bathrobe, Kenneth Spencer as God's goody-goody. He humanizes Rochester’s gravel-voiced dismay and pop-eyed befuddlement.

Budgetary constraints limited Minnelli's imagination. Half of the action takes place in Petunia's cabin, which made the film stagy. There were too many moments that smacked too much of theatrical tableau, such as Little Joe and Petunia's ascent to Heaven. Hell is depicted as one cramped white-deco office suite in Hotel Hades, while Heaven is painted staircase to infinity, surrounded by dry ice with black cherubs sitting on broken Greek columns.

Minnelli demonstrates his stage talent of imbuing objects with the fantastic. Oil lamps flare with the arrival of messengers, Lacy iron bedstead on which little Joe awaits his fate. Without Minnellis stylized direction, the film would have been too arch and simplistic. Minnelli deployed the camera's power in shaping the distinct mood of each scene, without calling attention to itself. Minnelli was beginning to show the mastery of technique that would make him the most cinematic of Hollywood's musical directors.

Minnelli makes Petunia’s surroundings as pleasant as her limited funds allowed. At his request, handsome but inexpensive wicker furniture was used to transform the cabin. Minnelli liked the street in the southern ghetto with its warm golden look, which was created from a studio version of a New York street. Eventually, Minnelli adjusted to the department's style and they did to his, resulting in a workable compromise.

The musical sequences are filmed succinctly. Waters bathed in a saintly key light from above for her song, “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” A Radiant Lena from a froth of white plumes sings, “Honey in the Honeycomb.” In the first number, the Sunday meeting “Little Black Sheep,” Minnelli's camera zigzags backward through the church, pausing to focus on the soloists and gossipy residents.

“Cabin in the Sky” displays themes and images that would preoccupy Minnelli for the rest of his career. Mirrors would become emotion-frought objects in Minnelli's universe, exposing the characters worst fears of themselves. In Cabin in the Sky, the mirror reveals the characters' true nature: Little Joe's moral ambivalence, Georgia's self-satisfaction, Petunia’s faith.

Though there's pain, and the plot is motivated by greed, adultery, and homicide, Cabin in the Sky uses fantasy as sublimation for real human conflicts. Most of the action is set within a dream, using a structure similar to that of The Wizard of Oz. In Minnelli's work, dreams can turn painful truths into beauty.

Credits

Produced by Arthur Freed
Associate Producer: Albert Lewis
Screenplay: Joseph Schrank, based on the musical play; book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John Lelouche, music by Vernon Duke
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibson
Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis
Costumes: Irene

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Cast

Little Joe Jackson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson)
The Trumpeter (Louis Armstrong)
Lucius/Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram)
The General (Kenneth Spencer)
Domino Johnson (John W. “Bubbles” Sublett)
The Deacon/Fleetfoot (Oscar Polk)
First Idea Man (Mantan Moreland)
Second Idea Man (Willie Best)
Third Idea Man (Fletcher “Moke” Rivers)
Lily (Butterfly McQueen)
Mrs. Kelso (Ruby Dandridge)
The Hall Johnson Choir

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