My favorite podcast, Filmspotting, is doing one of their marvelous marathons again, and I thought in order to help me make sure I see all of the films in a timely fashion, I should task myself with writing reviews on each movie they highlight.
The first, Cabin in the Sky, is Minnelli’s first credited Hollywood directing role. The story concerns Little Joe Jackson (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) a low-down gambler who has a wonderful, loving, God-loving wife, who won’t give up on him no matter how shiftless he is. In the first act, he’s shot and killed doing something he shouldn’t, but Petunia’s (Ethel Waters) prayers convince God to give him six more months. If he mends his ways, he can go to heaven. If he doesn’t, then down he goes. The catch is he won’t remember the deal, he’ll have to do it on his own without any guarantee of salvation.
It’s important to know going into to viewing this film that by today’s standards it’s racist in that it’s based on stereotyped characters and situations. However, at the time it was released the NAACP reportedly sent a letter to MGM and writer Joseph Schrank congratulating them on, “the treatment of this black fable, which avoided cliches and racial stereotypes.” That’s according to a letter Schrank wrote The New York Times in 1983.
But let’s set politics aside and focus on the directing, the acting, and the musical numbers. When we do this it becomes clear from his first feature that Minnelli had a bright future ahead of him, which may be why MGM let him helm the juggernaut Meet Me in St. Louis the very next year. Take the “Cabin in the Sky” number for example. At first watch it may seem quaint, boring actually, just two people sitting by the river singing to each other. There’s no dancing, no real action by the actors. But Minnelli takes advantage of his camera’s point-of-view. As Petunia sings of her dream that the two will share a cabin in heaven when they die the camera slowly moves almost directly above her. When Little Joe starts to sing about how he doesn’t think he’ll ever make it to heaven, the camera moves back down again. It’s subtle, and the first time I watched I didn’t notice it, but upon second viewing I was delighted by how Minnelli had used his camera to provide not only some action, but editorial as well.
There are a number of other megastars in this picture, from Lena Horne, as the Other Woman Georgia Brown, she’s fantastic. Duke Ellington as Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong as one of Lucifer Jr’s bad angels. Rex Ingram as Lucifer Jr. And John W. Bubbles as Domino Johnson.
The last 30 minutes are pure magic. Minnelli starts outside a nightclub following dancers as they dance their way into the club. Then he cuts inside as a couple dances through the doors. He cranes the camera up and we see the entire dance floor crowded and Duke Ellington and his band on stage.
After this number we get a little drama and then the “Shine” number (guest directed by musical director Busby Berkeley) where we again stop the show to gaze as Domino Johnson (Bubbles) dances his signature style of tap throughout the nightclub.
Cue the drama once more and we see Petunia sing “Honey in the Honeycomb” which she starts solo and then moves to a couples dance with Domino.
It’s these three numbers alone that make this film worth watching. Minnelli’s direction of the camera here gives us an intimate portrait of these characters and their settings. It’s too bad they cut both the number and the reprise of “Ain’t It the Truth” from the film because we lost the chance to see Armstrong play and Horne sing. Although we can still watch an outtake of Horne’s reprise.
Minnelli’s willingness to use his camera to accent the drama, motions and personalities of the actors, along with the unbelievable so much talent on one screen make Cabin in the Sky a lost treasure.