In a juke joint, sharecropper Zeke falls for a beautiful dancer, Chick, but she's only setting him up for a rigged craps game. He loses $100, the money he got for the sale of his family's ... See full summary »
Daniel L. Haynes,
Nina Mae McKinney,
Chronic gambler and carouser "Little" Joe Jackson is shot by Domino Johnson at Jim Henry's gambling club over an outstanding gambling debt. Little Joe's wife, the God-fearing Petunia Jackson, prays not only for her husband's mortal life, but also his eternal soul as she's afraid that if he dies now, he, despite not being an evil man, won't make it into heaven. As Little Joe is close to death, he is visited by agents of both the Lord and of Lucifer. They make a deal with him: they will give him six months to atone for the errors of his human life. Once back on Earth, he won't remember the deal but both the Lord and Lucifer will be watching over him, trying to get him to see things their way. As both sides try to get Little Joe's soul, they figure that some of the most powerful tools they have at their disposal are the women in Little Joe's life: Petunia on behalf of the Lord, and Georgia Brown, a gold-digging floozy, on behalf of Lucifer. As hard as both the Lord and Lucifer try to get...Written by
During the nightclub fight between Domino Johnson and Little Joe, the gunshot he fires accidentally hits Petunia. She falls down on the steps of the staircase, where she drapes her right arm twice over the side. See more »
Cabin in the Sky marks the debut of director Vincente Minnelli, one of cinema's greatest and most prolific directors of musicals. Already an experienced stage director, pianist and perhaps most importantly of all a painter, Minnelli came to Hollywood as the protégé of lyricist-turned producer Arthur Freed one of the most significant names in the development of the screen musical.
Although this is one of his cheaper productions (as evidenced by the simplicity of the sets and the use of borrowed footage) Cabin in the Sky is no exception to the typical Freed pattern of assembling a wide variety of musical talent. Here we get to enjoy virtually all the biggest names in black entertainment of the day the gorgeous singing voice of Ethel Waters, the musicianship of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the dancing of Bill Bailey and John William Sublett, to name just a few. With this line-up, Cabin in the Sky was bound to be a great show, but it was also likely to fall into the same trap as many of the Freed musicals that you might have a great variety show, but not a unified, coherent musical.
This is somewhat the case here, especially as the story is rather flimsy and clichéd. What saves it is Freed's firm belief in the integrated musical (every song woven into the plot) and Minnelli's inventive direction. Freed more or less gave Minnelli free rein over the staging of the musical numbers. Whereas in many of the earlier musicals there is a very conscious break in style whenever a song begins, in Cabin in the Sky each number flows seamlessly into the action. For example, in "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe", Ethel Waters' singing begins with no prior cues to the audience that a song is about to start. The narrative then leaps ahead to her hanging out the washing while the song continues. The number finishes with Rex Ingram and his Buddy appearing from behind a sheet, leading us into the next scene. The narrative has not taken a break for the song it has continued alongside it.
Also in evidence is Minnelli's graceful visual style. Minnelli, with his painter's eye, delicately frames his subjects with doorways and overhanging branches. You can also see his developing talent for movement flowing in and out of the frame, particularly in the "Li'l Black Sheep" number in the church. Perhaps the most typical "Minnelli" moment is in the large group shot that he puts together for the title song, the camera pulling out to reveal the whole crowd as the singing reaches a crescendo. For all its beauty though, it does seem to be a rather strained effort, and in his later pictures he would stage sequences that were far more complex and yet looked far more effortless.
A quick word about the actors. While most of the cast were hired more for their ability to sing or dance than anything else, those of them taken on purely as actors are nevertheless a joy to watch. Rex Ingram gets to do what he does best in an extravagant performance as "Lucifer Jr.", and is almost as scene-stealing as he was as the genie in Thief of Bagdad. And Butterfly McQueen's role may be small, but at least she really gets to act here, rather than appearing as a comic relief funny voice.
The songs too are wonderful. The Arlen/Harburg numbers which were written especially for the film version are not as good as anything they did for Wizard of Oz, but then what is? The real highlights though are the original Vernon Duke/John La Touche songs, especially the sublime "Taking a Chance on Love", and it's a shame these two barely made a splash in musicals.
In spite of all this, Cabin in the Sky is still best enjoyed as a series of performances. It is wonderful to watch, not least because it is a showcase for the talents of a whole group of entertainers who made far too few screen appearances, but it doesn't stand up as a musical in its own right.
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