Friday, August 19, 2011

"Cabin In The Sky" with Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Eddie Rochester (1943)

This is one of those movies which I have watched quite a few times over the course of about 40 years. Each time it is more of a delight than the last time. It deals with the age old question of just what happens to us when we die. That it confines itself to the traditional interpretation of Heaven and Hell does nothing to diminish the pleasure the viewer can get from watching it.

Little Joe, played by Eddie Rochester, is married to Petunia, played with real heart and soul by Ethel Waters. Joe is a "sporting" man; in other words, he prefers drinking and gambling, along with the company of women other than his wife, to working hard and making something of himself. In spite of these faults, Petunia is very much in love with him.

He rewards this love by fooling around with Georgia Brown, played by Lena Horne, drinking and finally getting knifed in a gambling club, which begins an epic struggle between Heaven and Hell as to whom his soul belongs to. Satan argues that, since the man lived a life of sin, his soul is forfeit to the Devil, and accordingly, he shows up to claim his due.

But what about Petunia? She is a blameless person, who now finds herself with her heart broken at the loss of her love. She prays in such earnest that God sees fit to give him 6 more months in which to prove that he is worthy of both God's grace, and Petunia's love. This turn of events really ticks the Devil off, and he proceeds to place every obstacle he can find in Little Joe's path, in order to claim the soul he feels rightfully belongs to him.

The scenes in Heaven, with Louis Armstrong as the Trumpeter, and Kenneth Spencer as "The General", who works at the direction of God himself, are extraordinary. Rex Ingram, who as both Lucifer, and Lucius Ferry, Little Joe's "best friend" and gambling buddy, are reminiscent of Dorothy's awakening at the end of "The Wizard Of Oz", in that the characters she encountered in that magical place were all people she really knew here on earth.

Surrounded on all sides by temptation, and conciously unaware of the high stakes for which he is playing, Little Joe is torn between his love for Petunia and the "sporting" life. Will he fall prey to the Devil's tactics? Or will Petunia's love pull him through?

With a cast of the best of the African-American performers of the time, including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Butterfly McQueen and Ruby Dandridge; whose beauty rivals that of Ms. Horne; and under the careful direction of Vincente Minnelli, this movie comes to life right off the screen. The "Shine" sequence, featuring John William "Bubbles" Sublett as Domino Johnson, and as himself, was choreographed and directed by the great Busby Berkeley, though he is uncredited in the film. If you have never seen this wonderful movie before, you should.

Here, courtesy of You Tube, is a 14 minute "short" synopsis of the film, which includes some of the most memorable scenes;

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