Cabin in the Sky (1943) has always been a controversial musical.
Because it features an entirely African-American cast, it was banned in several U.S. cities when it was first released. It remains controversial today because of its use of black stereotypes.
Having said that, our goal is to look at individual aspects of this film, as part of the Vincente Minnelli Blogathon. Cabin in the Sky is Minnelli’s first full feature film as a director.
Minnelli explained his approach to the film in his autobiography, I Remember it Well. “If there were any reservations about the film,” he wrote, “they revolved around the story, which reinforced the naive, childlike stereotype of blacks. But I knew there were such people as [these characters]…If I was going to make a picture about such people, I would approach it with great affection rather than condescension.”
Is the film condescending? We think so. Does it portray black stereotypes? Yes. Should it be discounted from Minnelli’s (and Hollywood) history? We don’t think so, and here’s why.
One reason is the cast. The heart of the film is the fabulous Ethel Waters, who has charisma to spare and ought to have been a much bigger movie star. Her husband, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, is a man with perfect comic timing. Plus, there’s the glamorous Lena Horne, and our new fave, Rex Ingram, who plays a sharply-dressed, smarty-pants villain.
A second reason is the script. This is a story about God and Lucifer fighting over the soul of a wayward man (Anderson). But Anderson’s wife (Waters) is a pious woman who believes the goodness in her husband will prevail. It’s the familiar Good vs. Evil scenario, served with great music and witty lines.
In one scene, Anderson decides he’s going to Change His Ways and give up gambling. When he goes to church, he tells the pastor, “Reverend, when you call on the sinners to confess, you better give me the rest of the evening.”
Alas! Anderson is hauled out of church by his gambling creditors, who want him to recoup his (their) losses in a high-stakes game. Robinson tries to dodge them:
Robinson: “Right now I’ve got an appointment with Repentance.”
Creditor: “You can get saved any day. An opportunity like this comes once.”
A third reason is Minnelli’s direction. You can tell this film was based on a stage play, but it doesn’t feel static or hemmed-in, like some stage-to-film productions. Everything is beautifully filmed, from Cedric Gibbons‘ set design to Irene‘s costumes. This is no low-budget enterprise.
Cabin in the Sky is Minnelli’s redemption parable: It’s ordinary people who are worth fighting for.
We know this by watching Waters’ character, a woman who is poor and black and ignored by Society At Large. However, Waters, who fought to expand her character’s role, makes us believe she can the world. She sees the extraordinary in the ordinary and fights to preserve it.
Minnelli doesn’t subvert Waters, nor does he mock her character. She is someone to be reckoned with; even Ingram’s Lucifer realizes that. Waters’ character is the remarkable woman this story needs her to be.
Cabin in the Sky is far from a perfect movie. Yet, because it has an all-black cast, this Vincente Minnelli film remains a rarity in mainstream American cinema history.
Cabin in the Sky: starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (and an uncredited Busby Berkeley). Written by Joseph Schrank. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943, B&W, 98 mins.
This is part of The Vincente Minnelli Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Click HERE to see more fab entries!