By Paula R. Stiles
Cabin in the Sky (1943). Director: Vincent Minnelli. Cast: Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne.
Good-natured Little Joe Jackson (Anderson) is a slothful gambler who embodies all of the deadly sins, save maybe Wrath. His saintly wife Petunia (Waters) has wrestled him into repentance in the opening moments of the film, but he has a relapse and slips out of church to run off to the local gambling house, instead. There, he gets shot by a rival. While he lies at death’s door, Petunia’s prayers reach even Heaven and gain him a second chance. But the Devil wants Little Joe’s soul badly and his son, Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram), is happy to oblige, determined to make the major coup of gaining Little Joe’s soul for Daddy. Nor is Lucifer Jr. beyond using other sinners – notably, local temptress Georgia Brown (Horne) – to get Little Joe downstairs permanently. But while Petunia may be Good, she’s not dumb, and she has a few tricks up her sleeve (well beyond her not-inconsequential influence with Heaven) that will shock Heaven almost as much as they shock Little Joe.
Based on a stage musical, Cabin in the Sky was intended as a way of bringing together as much of Hollywood’s African-American talent as the director could possibly manage. When you’ve got the likes of Waters, Horne, Louis Armstrong, John Bubbles (who taught Fred Astaire how to tapdance), and Duke Ellington on board, it’s safe to say that whether or not the movie achieved its goal, it gave its level best to the effort.
By today’s standards, Cabin in the Sky has some racial stereotypes that aren’t too comfortable and it doesn’t address racial problems at all, instead living in a fantasy world where everyone is black. On the other hand, it’s a musical and the character types here are no more stereotypical than in, say, Oklahoma. The makers of the film wanted to avoid the racial conflicts that bogged down other “black” musicals like Porgy and Bess and the results are quite interesting, both from a cultural and a theological viewpoint.
For one thing, not only the humans but also the angels and demons are black. The celestial and demonic figures are dressed in band uniforms (reflecting the frame story that Little Joe’s redemption arc occurs as a sort of dream and that he is populating it with people from his own life), with the demons dressed in black and sporting horn hairdos, while the angels are dressed in white. This cancels out some of the most fundamental concepts of racism (like “black” being “evil”, so black people must be evil) because everyone is the same basic colour. You can use black and white to connote sin and righteousness without imposing ugly connotations on innocent people if everyone is black.
For another, most of the action revolves around two major and diametrically opposed settings that were central and highly influential in African-American society back in the early 20th century – the church and the gambling hall. Ironically, both are places of passion, of high emotion, one for Good and one for Evil. The enthusiasm that the performers bring to the table (It was a very rare film seven decades ago when African-American performers got leads and didn’t find themselves playing third banana to a white performer) fuels the passion that makes Little Joe’s conflict believable. Petunia is a good woman, and cleans up very nicely (especially considering Waters was 47 compared to Horne’s sultry 26 at the time), but the old tyme religion she subscribes to is stern and bland and cold. You can see why the fire of the gambling hall, with its dancing, drinking and fast women, draws her husband in and you actually kind of cheer a little when Petunia shows up there later in the film, all dressed to the nines, and lets it all hang out.
But the film also gives us some excellent reasons for the Good side of the equation. If the angels seem a bit wussy, it’s because they can’t interfere in a soul’s free will, or even overtly influence it. This gives righteous humans like Petunia considerable power, even over Heaven. On the flip side, an early (and rather creepy) scene lays out why Evil is Evil, under all the “sin” stuff (even leaving aside Lucifer Jr.’s being a poster child for nepotism over hard work and brains as a recipe for success in life). In it, Lucifer Jr. appears on Georgia’s bed as she’s going through her toilette. He’s determined to use her as a tool to get Little Joe into Hell (feeling that her soul is already safely bound for the same place). Does he talk to her or tempt her? Not really. She can neither see nor hear him. Instead, he makes suggestions that she does not seem to realize are not her own thoughts, manipulating her like a puppet into sluttier and sluttier actions that will damn her own soul even further. The idea seems clear – humans who listen to Hell are giving up their own free will, whereas, the best way to keep one’s free will is to follow the path of Heaven. Hell will always try to bully and boss you around for its own purposes; Heaven will never tell you what to do, only guide and teach, and even then, only if you’re willing to listen. That’s actually a pretty compelling argument for going Good.
Also, while the love triangle of an older woman and a younger woman fighting over a no-good man is not exactly the most feminist plot out there, the execution in Cabin in the Sky tends to subvert these stereotypes by casting two powerful and highly-talented female performers – Waters and Horne – in these roles. You no more feel sorry for Petunia (who is a clearly a woman of great fortitude and cosmic influence) or Horne (who is Lust personified in this and knows it) than you would for Mae West in She Done Him Wrong. Little Joe may be “enjoying” the attentions of one woman more than he ought to (and two more than he deserves), but the only real power he has is over the eventual disposition of his own soul. And even that is heavily influenced by the two strong-willed women who know there’s a lot more at stake than keeping him in their respective beds.
All that aside, this musical is just plain good fun. And rare, as I said before. It’s one of the few times you will get to see African-American performers take the center stage and interact with each other in a Hollywood film of the forties. In the process, you’ll probably be surprised at how much of that talent there was back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and how impressive it could be when the muzzles of segregation and prejudice came off.
You can rent or buy Cabin in the Sky at Amazon.com.
Angels and Demons Week continues through December 31.