Cabin in the Sky (1943): Minnelli’s All-Black Musical, Starring Lena Horne

While Vincente Minnelli’s trial period at Metro progressed smoothly, he had no indication whether the top brass felt he was ready to direct. He was just a one-year apprentice, and they opted to go with tested talents.

Commercially proven directors, such as Sam Wood, Victor Fleming, Clarence Brown, and George Cukor, all Oscar-nominated or winning filmmakers under contract at MGM, had first choice on the best properties. Despite his Broadway reputation, Minnelli would have to prove his movie worth all over again.

One day, Freed called Minnelli into his office. “What do you think of Cabin in the Sky” he asked. “I think it is true and human, a wonderful story,” Minnelli said. Showing no emotion, Freed then said, “How would you like to direct it” Minnelli was stunned.

If Cabin in the Sky had not been a small, risky picture, Minnelli would have had to wait much longer for his break. Surprisingly, he was allowed to tackle his first assignment with more freedom than anticipated. Minnelli was not aware until years later how hard Freed had to fight for him. He also didnt realize the extent of Freeds battle to get a decent budget for a second-tier film, an all-black musical.

Minnelli was eternally grateful for this insularity-not knowing anything about studio politics–the cruel in fighting, the heartless backstabbingwas an advantage at that point. In later years, when the studio system would collapse, Minnelli wouldn’t know how to fend for himself. Like other contract directors, Minnelli naively yet conveniently thought that the studio system would last forever.

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 offered 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.

Lena had complained to Minnelli that because she was black, her numbers were not integrated into the scripts of her films. The reason for that was simple: If Southern distributors expressed objection, the black performers songs could be easily deleted out of the film. Minnelli thought that this was a contemptible practice, but characteristically, he didn’t raise his voice to protest.

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 Lenas 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 was the first picture in which Lena played a major part. Minnelli gave her a great deal of confidence and she trusted him blindly.

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 showed 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 Hollywoods musical directors.

Not everything went smoothly, though. Minnelli’s first contact with the art department resulted in a battle. Most directors accepted passively the departments rules. But Minnelli, perceived it as a medieval division, too accustomed to their old-fashioned way. When the art department showed him sketches of the cabin, Minnelli’s temper, which his bland exterior usually kept hidden, flared up. The designers have missed his intent in showing that the characters were poor but not disheveled.