Cabin In The Sky - 1943

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Cabin in the Sky (1943)

A compulsive gambler dies during a shooting, but he'll receive a second chance to reform himself and to make up with his worried wife.

"Cabin in the Sky" is an American musical with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John La Touche, and a musical book by Lynn Root. The musical premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 25, 1940. It closed on March 8, 1941 after a total of 156 performances. Directed by Albert Lewis and staged by George Balanchine, the production starred Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson, Eddie Anderson as "Little Joe" Jackson, Katherine Dunham as Georgia Brown, Rex Ingram as Lucifer Junior, and Todd Duncan as The Lawd's General.

A motion picture based on the musical was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and released in 1943. The film version of Cabin in the Sky also starred Waters as Petunia and Ingram as Lucifer Junior. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson of Jack Benny fame took over the role of Little Joe, Kenneth Lee Spencer portrayed The General, and Lena Horne co-starred as the temptress Georgia Brown in her first and only leading role in an MGM musical. Louis Armstrong was also featured in the film as one of Lucifer Junior's minions, and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra have a showcase musical number in the film.

Cabin in the Sky tells a version of the Faust legend in which Little Joe, a man killed over gambling debts, is given six months to redeem his soul and become worthy of entering Heaven -- otherwise his soul will be condemned to Hell.
Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli in his Hollywood debut, Cabin in the Sky was a groundbreaking production for its time due to the decision to use an all-African-American cast. In the 1940s, movie theaters in many cities, particularly in the southern United States, refused to show films with prominent black performers, so MGM took a considerable financial risk by approving the film.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" sung by Ethel Waters.

Cabin in the Sky

An all-star screen adaptation of the successful Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky (1943) tells the story of the gambler Little Joe who is seriously wounded in a barroom fight. His pious wife, Petunia, prays for him to have a second chance so he can get into heaven. Joe survives, but God's General and Lucifer, Jr. begin the battle for his soul.

Conflicts arose on the set between director Vincente Minnelli, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters because Minnelli and Horne were reportedly dating. The problems reached their peak over the number "Honey in the Honeycomb." Waters was originally to perform the song as a ballad while Horne would do a dance to it. But Horne broke her ankle and the songs were reversed. She got the ballad and Waters the dance. Ethel Waters did however sing the Academy Award nominated "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe." This was one of three new songs written for the film. In her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, Waters commented on her performance in Cabin in the Sky: "I rejected the part because it seemed to me a man's play rather than a woman's. Petunia, in the original script, was no more than a punching bag for Little Joe. I objected also to the manner in which religion was being handled. After some of the changes I demanded had been made I accepted the role, largely because the music was so pretty. But right through the rehearsals and even after the play had opened, I kept adding my own lines and little bits of business to build up the character of Petunia."

Lena Horne took on one of her few acting roles as the temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky and it proved to be the ideal showcase for her musical talents and natural beauty. Minnelli originally intended to introduce Horne's sexy character in a bubble bath scene but the censors refused to let him film it. In most of her other films Horne played herself, and she rarely had interaction with the main stars. Instead, she would come onscreen, perform a number, and exit. This was done so her scenes could be easily trimmed if they offended southern audiences.

It was said that Minnelli had originally wanted Dooley Wilson (the pianist/singer from Casablanca (1942) who performed "As Time Goes By") for the role of Little Joe since he created the role on the stage but the studio insisted on Eddie "Rochester" Anderson because he was the bigger name. In his biography, I Remember It Well, Minnelli recalled the making of Cabin in the Sky: "If there were any reservations about the film, they revolved around the story, which reinforced the naive, childlike stereotype of blacks. But I knew there were such people as the deeply pious Petunia and Joe, her weak gambler of a husband, and that such wives constantly prayed for the wavering souls of their men...If I was going to make a picture about such people, I would approach it with great affection rather than condescension." As for the unique look of the film, Minnelli added, "Arthur (Freed) and I were looking at a finished print of the picture one day. I don't know which one of us suggested the possibility of reprocessing the black and white film in a sepia tint. We experimented with a portion of it. The film was transformed. It seemed more magical. Sepia created a soft, velvety patina more flattering to the actors' skin tones. The picture was released that way."

Cabin in the Sky was the first all-black musical in nearly fourteen years and only the fourth all-black film by a major studio since the coming of sound. It was also director Vincente Minnelli's first feature film.

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Joseph Schrank (based on the play by Lynn Root, John Latouche, Vernon Duke)
Cinematography: Sidney Waggner
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Music Director: George Stoll
Cast: Ethel Waters (Petunia Jackson),
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (Little Joe),
Lena Horne (Georgia Brown),
Louis Armstrong (The Trumpeter),
Rex Ingram (Lucius, Lucifer, Jr.),
Butterfly McQueen (Lily),
Ruby Dandridge (Mrs. Kelso),
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

BW-99m. Closed captioning.

Cabin in the Sky is remembered for its intelligent and witty script, which treated its characters and their race with a dignity rare in American films of the time, although some depictions are still a bit jarring to 21st century sensibilities. According to liner notes in the CD reissue of the film's soundtrack, Freed and Minnelli sought input from black leaders before production began on the film.
One musical number, in which Horne sings a reprise of "Ain't It the Truth" while taking a bubble bath, was cut from the film prior to release, though it later appeared in a 1946 Pete Smith short subject entitled Studio Visit. As Horne later said in the documentary That's Entertainment! III in which the excised performance was also featured, it was felt that to show a black woman singing in a bath went beyond the bounds of moral decency in 1943. A second (non-bubble bath) performance of this song by Louis Armstrong was also cut from the final print, resulting in the famous trumpeter having no solo musical number in the film.

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