Vincente Minnelli's debut as a Hollywood director was the first all-black musical since GREEN PASTURES in 1936 and a monument to Ethel Waters in all her glory. Though the film perpetuates racial stereotypes--hardly surprising, given the period in which it was made--it's a fresh, inventive
take on the original Broadway production which showcases a number of prodigious talents.
The story focuses on Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), a gambler who is nearly killed in a bar-room brawl and whose soul then becomes the site of a battle (fought in dream sequences) between God's General (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram). This tug-of-war is reflected in
another, real-life struggle, for Joe's heart, between his devoted wife (Waters) and the alluring Georgia Brown (Lena Horne).
Though shot in sepia, CABIN IN THE SKY offers ample proof of Minnelli's visual flair in several scenes, particularly an early sequence of a church service and a nightclub dance routine (to "Shine") performed by Domino (John "Bubbles" Sublett). The cast is quite exceptional. Anderson makes an
engaging, sympathetic rascal, whose moral dilemma is understandable given the siren call of the ravishing Lena Horne. Ethel Waters steals the show, blazing through the picture with sincerity and compassion and handling her songs with unparalleled assurance--"Taking a Chance on Love" and the
Oscar-nominated "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" are standouts.
CABIN was far from plain sailing for Minnelli and MGM. The director was supposedly romancing Horne, leading to tensions between her, Minnelli and Waters which came to a head over the "Honey in the Honeycomb" number. The number was originally slated to be sung by Waters but, during production,
plans were changed to accommodate two versions, one to be performed by Waters as a ballad, one as a dance number led by Horne and featuring John "Bubbles." Horne, however, broke her ankle during production, and the two numbers had to be reversed, with Horne singing the ballad (a highlight of the
film) and Waters displaying surprising talent as a dancer.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra lends musical pizazz and Louis Armstrong can be seen as one of Lucifer Jr.'s hilarious henchmen--his joyous face almost steals every scene he's in. Only three of the songs and three principals--Minnelli, Waters and Ingram--came from the original Broadway show.
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