The Pink Elephant Again
Cabin In The Sky (1943)
A Review By Ben Hunter
4 Out Of 5 Stars
GET TO THE POINT BEN!
Even though it’s VERY cliché for African Americans, I can look past the offense and experience the story with a smile!
"... We will be oh so gay
Eat fried chicken every day
As the angels go sailing by
And that is why my heart is flyin' high, Mister
Cause I know we'll have a cabin in the sky!"
It’s the early 1940’s, WWII is in full effect, Franklin D. Roosevelt is president, and segregation in America is the normality. Black culture is inferior to white, so much so that in the south where segregation is immeasurable, the scenes from black actors in films are either altered to trim down their appearances in such films, or completely taken out all together. Singer/actress Lena Horne experienced this tremendously during this time. Yet after a surprising birth, IN ADDITION TO a successful run on Broadway, the movie studio MGM decided to escort the melodic narrative to a wonderful Cabin in the Sky that is the big screen!
The film tells its rendition of the well-known, German legend of the “Faust” tale. A man, who’s down on his luck, makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for riches and learns a lesson of life and death in the end.
Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) has a gambling problem. So his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) is a hard working, praying, Christian woman who prays for the soul of her troubled husband. After a gun fight, angels and demons battle for that very soul of Little Joe making a pact with each other informing Little Joe that he has 6 months to prove himself back on Earth to deem himself worthy of Heaven or Hell. Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) and his minions (one of which is the world renowned trumpeter Louis Armstrong) try to throw riches and sexual temptation his way; and with the 24-year-old Lena Horne who had scenes taken out of her visual and vocal beauty, I don’t know a man who would be able to resist such temptation. Thus the struggle begins and teaches all characters a valuable lesson.
Talk about courage, MGM. Making a film with all black actors, the main characters being unknown, during the early 40’s when it was EXPENSIVE to make a movie, let alone one of the minority culture for an even bigger cost as the rate of return is in grander jeopardy. There was so much riding against the studio. Everything was telling them not to make this film. With its success on Broadway as their only candle in a dark storm, I’m glad they took a chance as they succeeded and made a profit.
When dealing with this film, MGM took it upon them to address the pink elephant in the room, the racial politics and ideology in the film. The producers sought input from black leaders in the community before production began. Yet the backlash seemed inevitable. Some deemed the script witty and intelligent. Others, like some actors during this time felt that moviegoers should protest to studios and write to them in outrage and disgust when they see these “old stereotypes of negro caricature” displayed on screen like those in this film. When released on DVD in 2006, MGM makes it VERY clear before the film begins that acknowledging that these stereotypes exist is in no way uplifting them but belittling their power. To ignore them would be to acknowledge that they never existed in the first place and were never a problem to recon with in our society.
As a black man, it is a bit rough to witness the slave mentality of my people. Everyone has an “inferior than” take on society stemming from the slave mentality, insinuating that we eat fried chicken all day (like the song lyrics say) and other hackneyed foods from our culture; or that ALL black people are of the southern, Baptist, Christian community, and not a diverse one. Taking out a seductive, bubble bath scene with the beautiful Lena Horne because it crossed the “bounds of moral decency” and basically “we can’t have white men lusting after a black woman”, resulting in another scene filmed an then cut leaving Louis Armstrong not having a trumpet solo throughout the entire film. But this is a reflection of where we were as a country at this time in our history. What Hollywood portrayed us as, a portrayal we took part in the construction of.
But in 1943, the very fact that we even received a movie, let alone a successful one, let alone one based off of a successful Broadway production that we had as well. I can’t complain about this. I’m happy we had an era where we developed a starting point to progress forward as a people and as a nation as a whole.
Once the credits roll, it does put a smile on your face.
Cabin in the Sky
Musical, 98 Minutes, Not Rated
Based on the book of the musical play by: Lynn Root
Screenplay by: Joseph Schrank, Marc Connelly (contributing/uncredited)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli, Busby Berkeley (“Shine” sequence/uncredited)
Cast: Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Spencer, & Louis Armstrong