Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Written by Joseph Schrank, based on the musical by Lynn Root, music by Vernon Duke
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
Cabin in the Sky was a daring movie when it was released in 1943: a film in 1943 with an all-Black cast. While it wasn’t the first time this happened,* but the studios ran the risk that theaters in the South would not show it, and, though the movie may have some things that seem stereotyped today, it was a major step forward in its time – and an entertaining movie to boot.
It’s the story of Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and inveterate gambler who is married to the long-suffering Petunia (Ethel Waters). Joe is shot over his gambling debts but, when he gets to heaven, the General (Kenneth Spencer) gives him another chance: six months to straighten up his act.** However, Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has other plans, and sends Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to tempt him.
The film employed just about every Black actor in Hollywood. Though the characters were comic, they were not caricatures, and the casual racism of the time was toned down. The script overall is witty with an studied attempt to avoid condescension and all of the human characters are portrayed a real human beings.
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was probably the most successful black actor of his era, primarily because of his role on the Jack Benny Show.*** He is good as Joe, and manages to be tempted without being a buffoon.
Ethel Waters gets one of her best roles here. Her Petunia is a wonderfully sympathetic character and, of course, a great singer.
And Lena Horne was terrific. This was her first important acting role**** and she lights up the screen. Her Georgia is playful, sexy, and the perfect seductress, something that probably bothered a lot of the white supremacists of the time.
This was director Vincente Minnelli’s first film. Minnelli (Liza’s dad) made a specialty of musicals, and in this case he wanted to be respectful of the people involved. Much of the original Vernon Duke score was removed in favor of songs by The Wizard of Oz’s Arlen and Harburg.
The movie manages to retain its entertainment value, and is one of the few films of the era with African-Americans can be seen without wanting to cringe for them.
*The Green Pastures – not a musical, with some of the same themes (its screenwriter helped with the screenplay) – came out in 1936 (with some of the same cast) and it’s always risky to call any movie a “first.”
**This was a common fantasy theme of the time: people being killed but getting a second chance. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that so many Americans were dying in the war.
***One thing about the character is that Rochester often got the better of Benny and spent much of the time ridiculing Benny’s ego. In a time when that sort of behavior could get you lynched, it was an important milestone.
****She had appeared as a singer in two earlier films. Ethel Waters took a dislike to her, feeling her character was not behaving like a lady. Waters also was miffed when publicity for the movie featured Horne very prominently, even though Waters was billed above her.