Cabin In The Sky
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. (IMDb)
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
CW/TW: 1940s Cultural Stereotypes
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While watching Cheryl Duyne's The Watermelon Women last weekend, I was struck at how her movie star Faye Richards, really reminded me of Lena Horne. So we made the switch to either Stormy Weather or Cabin In The Sky, and the group picked this Vincente Minnelli film from 1943.
In 1942, Louis B. Mayer wooed Vincente Minnelli out from Broadway with an MGM contract. Minnelli, who had never made a film before, actually was paid to shadow MGM directors for a year before settling on his first project. He settled Cabin In The Sky, an adaptation of a 1940 musical of the same name with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root. The movie features notably the standard "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe", Louis Armstrong in a supporting role, and a captivating performance from Ethel Waters that gives real weight to the picture that otherwise, by today's standards, could come off a hokum morality play centered on African-American stereotypes. The film also stars Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson (who took over from the Dooley Wilson, of Casablanca fame, who played Joe on stage.)
Ethel Waters was a noted blues singer and pioneer of the stage. She was the first woman to integrate Broadway's theater district and the highest-paid woman on Broadway in the 1940's. Her version of Stormy Weather is the National Recording Registry/Library of Congress. In fact, when Lena Horne was asked to perform the song for her movie, she was a ball of nerves. The director came over to her, and simply whispered: "Ethel Waters". Lena was able to do it on the next take.
Lena Horne, like Duyne's Faye Richards, had a terrible time at MGM due to racism, and the studio execs not knowing how to really package her. Most of all of her "films" at MGM use her as a "featured player" -- meaning her musical numbers were not integrated into the plot, so they could be easily removed when the movie was shown in The South.
[Sidebar: This happened with 20th Century Fox and The Nicholas Brothers as well. The only time they ever danced with a white actor was Gene Kelly in The Pirate... which was directed by Vincente Minnelli.]
I think the absolute worst explain of this is the Til The Clouds Roll By/Showboat sham. If 1946, MGM produced a whitewashed and sterilized bio-pic of Jerome Kern, who wrote Show Boat. For Clouds, they cast Horne as Showboat's Julie, who is a light-skinned Black woman, passing as White, who is married to Steve, a White man.
AND THEN, in 1951, when MGM decided to actually adapt Show Boat, guess what? They refused to cast Lena Horne as Julie. Nope. They cast Ava Gardiner, and I kid you not: sent her albums of Lena Horne singing and told her to do it as she does. 🙃.
By the mid-1950s, much like Duyne's Faye, she said she was "tired of being typecast as a Negro who stands against a pillar singing a song. I did that 20 times too often." She left MGM for a very successful nightclub and musical career, appeared as guests throughout early Variety Shows, and became the first African-American woman nominated for a Tony for "Best Leading Actress in a Musical". She would return to film in the 1970s, most notability playing Glinda in The Wiz.
On a personal note, this woman is an ICON. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. After seeing that the US Army was treating its Germen POWs to better seats at USO shows than their own African American soldiers, she quit the USO in 1945. And then she financed tours of military camps herself. She was blacklisted during the 1950s for her affiliations in the 1940s with communist-backed groups. (She wasn't a communist, but any Democrat/Socialist/Reformer in the 1950s was labeled a communist.). She was part of the 1963 March On Washington.
She was an amazing performer that never really reached her full potential at MGM -- like so many actors of color. Cabin In The Sky is her favorite film, and I'm really excited to watch it with everyone.
And here's a clip that was cut from the film cause it was too risque: