Ooh, a movie from the 1940's with an all-black cast? And they're all actually black actors? Yes! I have the pleasure of reviewing the 1943 stage play adaptation Cabin in the Sky...
Little Joe Jackson is a decent guy, but has troubles with gambling, despite the efforts of his loving wife Petunia to keep him on the straight and narrow. One day, after ducking out of church to play at a gambling house, in the hopes of paying back some outstanding debts, he's shot, and on the moment of his death, Little Joe is visited by a nasty crew of demons led by Lucifer Jr, after his soul, as well as a troupe of angels, who review his case thanks to the power of Petunia's prayers to keep Joe alright. They decide to give him a six-month reprieve on life, and after erasing his memory of his brief encounter with the afterlife, both parties watch from the sidelines, each trying to unconsciously coach Little Joe into salvation, and temptation, respectively...
Cabin in the Sky was a movie I was a little worried going into to start with, given the time it was made. I was paranoid there'd be repeated use of the N word, offensive caricatures, or maybe blackface! Luckily there was none of that on display here, and instead this was a very entertaining time!
The music is great, and the pacing is fine. There's a decent amount of songs, they're evenly spaced throughout, and are a ball to listen to!
The acting is good all-round. Ethel Waters does most of the singing, which might be why she's given top-billing. She definitely deserves it! As for Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, he's very good too, though some might find his gravelly voice grating. He's certainly got pipes though! I enjoyed his singing in the titular song, and in the Consequences number. That latter one is maybe not as good, with his voice breaking a bit at times, and some may find him shrill, but there's absolutely passion in the performance, which sells it for me. Lena Horne is entertaining as the 'devilish' temptress Georgia Brown, but doesn't appear anywhere near as much as the other leads. Kenneth Spencer and Rex Ingram do fine jobs as the heads of their supernatural groups, and finally, Louis Armstrong appears for a few minutes!...And doesn't get any kind of musical number. He did, but it was deleted from the finished product, along with another song where Lena Horne sang nude in a bathtub. Now THAT I would've liked to see! Dammit, 1940's censors!
Before I get to the story, a couple things to address about the writing first. A lot of the film's characters talk in a certain way sometimes, "He ain't never gonna win", "I'm about the miserabelest person what ever died", "We's on the spot", etc, but as far as I thought, it comes across more as vernacular, rather than lack of intelligence, or anything like that. Your mileage may vary though. It's not heavily overused, but it does get a little tiring after a while.
Now to discuss how some people find Cabin in the Sky to be racist. I'm not super knowledgeable on 'negro' stereotypes of the time, so maybe I just didn't pick up on some things that smarter people might, but to me the characters didn't seem stereotypical at all. Take for example Little Joe, who has a gambling problem. I'm not sure if that'd count as a stereotype here, because it's a trait isolated to this one character, and far from all sharing that same character flaw, almost every other character in the movie is trying to get him to beat his addiction and be on the straight and narrow. Overall, I find that Cabin in the Sky has dignified portrayals of strong, well-rounded characters. I've no idea why people would decry the film as being offensive.
Seeing as how I'm not black, and there'd be a chance I might not know what the heckballs I'm talking about, I figured I'd better listen to the commentary track before I put 'pen to paper'. It's presented by scholar Todd Boyd, who I assumed would know a thing or two hundred about the subject. However, I switched it off after only a few minutes, because I found him to be incredibly annoying. He starts by harshly criticizing the movie's supposed 'problematic' stereotypes, and I found myself strongly disagreeing with him. Then he goes on a weird tangent, criticizing the character of Petunia for being 'cantankerous and argumentative' (BULLSHIT!), as well as 'asexual', which were apparently stereotypes for black female characters back in the day? To which I thought "Dude, how the hell do you know she's asexual or not?" Just because we don't see a character's sex life onscreen, doesn't mean they're asexual, it's just that it's not important to the story! Also, at no point is she argumentative or grumpy! And then he just gets plain confusing, like when he says that the movie showing African-Americans having strong religious beliefs is problematic, because racists strongly believe black people are inferior...Huh? Yeah, I wasn't quite sure what he was on about, but it really does sound like he was saying 'Because racism exists, it's racist to show African-Americans being religious'. You can see why I immediately turned the commentary off!
In closing, I don't find the movie racist at all (like, say, an annoying pre-menu text-intro on the DVD seems to). Just the opposite, it pissed off racists back in the day like crazy! Some states banned it outright, offended by its showing of 'social equality and racial mixture'. The poster, though? Oh yeah, that's totally cringeworthy...
Onto actual problems I have with Cabin in the Sky, and this is a doozy! I hate awkward misunderstandings in stories at the best of times, but that trope's used here to extremely frustrating measure. It's when Little Joe is visited by Georgia Brown, who tries seducing him, and it almost works, but then Joe stands strong, belting out a defiant musical number. It's a great triumphant moment for the character, and feels like a turning point in the story...Then Georgia tells him about the discarded sweepstakes ticket he won, but surprisingly, that doesn't turn out bad for Joe either. Far from it, he interprets this plan by Lucifer Jr. and his devilish cronies as a reward by God for his renewed good behaviour, much to the shock of the demons. Joe thanks Georgia for telling him about it, and says he'll buy her some gifts as thanks, but Petunia overhears just enough to lead to her assuming Little Joe is cheating on her, and the following several minutes are incredibly hard to watch. *sigh*
Following that, I of course didn't like where the plot was going, because it was all coming off of that irritating development, but it was ok. The climax feels a bit...forced, though? I dunno, it seems to escalate a little too quickly, and doesn't feel as well-rounded as it could've been. As for the ending, it's a cop-out, but I don't mind. It's nice regardless.
Another problem I have with Cabin in the Sky is its treatment of the character of Georgia Brown. The movie constantly makes her out to be a tremendous sinner, and 'one of the Devil's greatest children', but what little we see of her (she doesn't show up until well over halfway though), she doesn't seem all that bad! Sure, not the best person, what with her willing to seduce a guy she knows is married, but we never see her doing anything evil, and she shows genuine concern for Little Joe.
The direction in this movie is very good! It's fine most of the time, but there are a few scenes that are great, especially at the climax, which looks very impressive for a film from the 1940's! Moving right on from there to the effects, which are mainly on display in the finale, what with the rest of the movie being more character-based. They're really good, and lend much to the grand conclusion. The costuming for the angels and devils looks neat too!
Cabin in the Sky is an enjoyable musical for sure, most of the time, and despite some issues I had with it, it's still very much worth a watch!...