Decades before African American filmmakers like Gordon Parks, Jr., Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Julie Dash, Eva DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons, Steve McQueen or Tyler Perry were given the opportunity to express themselves in film, during Hollywood’s so-called “Golden era” of the 1930s-40s, writers, directors and stars of color were greatly underrepresented and even worse, rarely showcased in a significant, non-stereotyped or any positive manner. Furthermore, according to film scholar James Naremore, “Between 1927 and 1954, the major Hollywood studios produced only six feature films that took place in all-black—milieu: “Hallelujah!” (1929, MGM), “Hearts of Dixie” (Fox, 1929), “The Green Pastures” (Warners, 1936), “Cabin in the Sky” (MGM, 1943), Stormy Weather (20th Century Fox, 1943) and Carmen Jones (20th Century Fox, 1954).”
One of these unique films that featured an all-black cast was Vincente Minnelli’s very first feature film, “Cabin in the Sky”, a truly entertaining adaptation of the 1940 Broadway musical, with music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root, and lyrics by John Latouche. This musical featured two stars of the original Broadway cast Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram, including Lena Horne, with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Butterfly McQueen, and Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Famed musical director Busby Berkeley chipped in and directed the film’s “Shine” number, also.
Naremore emphasizes that “MGM’s ‘Cabin in the Sky’ warrants special attention—“not only because of its considerable entertainment value, but also because it appeared at a critical juncture in the series when African Americans were increasing their demands for better treatment from the movie industry, when black musical performers were receiving a degree of celebrity they had not enjoyed before and when the federal government was engaged in a semi-official drive to encourage more pictures with black casts.” This film was Lena Horne’s first starring part in a major motion picture.
The film’s story is a folkloric, mythical tale that concerns a good-natured compulsive gambler, Little Joe (Anderson) who loves for his good wife, Petunia (Waters) yet fights demons with temptations for the local bad gal, Georgia Brown(Horne). When Joe is shot by big-time gambler Domino Johnson (John William Sublett) Little Joe must seek his redemption from his bad ways. Joe is visited by agents of the Lord, a man called the General (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) who battle for Joe’s fate. The Lord gives Joe six months’ reform and to prove he’s worthy of redemption.
After Joe’s shooting Petunia prays that Joe not be taken from her. The radiant Waters breaks into a tender, heartfelt song, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe”. Soon after, when Joe’s soul is returned to his earthly body, Petunia expresses her high hopes for their future by singing the peaceful “Cabin in the Sky”. Later still in Petunia’s rendition of “Taking a Chance on Love”, she is accompanied by Joe’s tap-dancing friend Bill, played by the immensely talented Bill Bailey (brother of singer Pearl Bailey), who dances an interesting “backslide” step, which later became known as the moonwalk.
When we finally meet the elegant Georgia Brown, she’s in her bedroom dressing and applying make up for a day on the town. With a fancy hat, leather skirt and halter top, she’s in hot pursuit of Joe. She learns that Joe has won the Irish Sweepstakes and is anxious to snuggle closer to Joe. This leads to Joe’s ironically humorous song “Life is Full of Consequences” which turns into a duet with Georgia.
The film’s show-stopping number occurs right before the story’s climax, in a night club restaurant, with Duke Ellington at the piano with his band jamming, when a roomful of dancers breaks into an exciting swing dance ensemble. The place is electrified!
From his very beginning, Minnelli took great concern for his film’s visual style and used Sidney Wagner as the film’s stylish cinematographer. According to Minnelli biographer, Emanuel Levy, “The film was shot entirely in sepia, which was quite original. The fantasy sequence was a photographic feast for the eyes by the standards of the time. Minnelli showed his talent for imbuing objects with the symbolic and the fantastic.”
Despite the film receiving only one Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, “Cabin in the Sky” remains a film of significant importance in the history of African American cinema.