Cabin in the Sky
seen on TV @ TCM
It always amuses me whenever I see some people who have a real problem with musicals just because people sing and dance in them. I would argue that the parameters of a musical are no stranger than those of your average superhero movie. If one can accept seeing a teenage nerd with spider-like powers, or a dude with claws that pop out of his hands, are singing and dancing that much stranger? I doubt it!
Classic Hollywood used to do extremely well with musicals. Of course, we've got one up for the Best Picture Oscar this year, Les Miserables, but the genre isn't quite as big today as it was way back when, especially during the Depression, when audiences turned out in big numbers to escape their troubles through them. Post-9-11, superheroes and other, similar sci-fi films seem to serve a similar purpose. In both cases, musicals and superheroes rely on silly, sometimes bizarre premises that can often stretch the bounds of reality for the purpose of entertainment, and in both cases, some filmmakers become known for them if they make enough of them over time...
...which brings us to Vincente Minnelli and Cabin in the Sky, his first credited film. In looking over his list of films, I realize I've seen more of them than I realized, both musical and non-musical. Some of the musicals I'm lukewarm about (Brigadoon, Meet Me in St. Louis), but others I enjoy greatly (An American in Paris, Bells Are Ringing).
Cabin in particular was such a great pleasure. Based on a Broadway musical, it's about the forces of heaven and hell competing for the soul of a small-time gambler trying to go straight, and features a mighty awesome array of black performers. There's a brief text crawl at the very beginning that acknowledges Cabin as part of a tradition of American folklore, and I believe the musical aspect serves to enhance that fact. The archetypal characters, not to mention the presence of angels and demons, don't seem as unusual within this context because the whole thing comes across as a parable anyway.
Cabin, like many Hollywood film adaptations of musicals, included a new song in the hopes that it would get an Oscar nomination, and in this case, it worked - Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harberg's "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," sung in the movie by star Ethel Waters, whom I totally did not recognize as the same woman from Pinky! At least not at first. Seeing her sing this, you almost can't believe that Eddie Anderson's character would betray her, not even for Lena Horne!
I've written before about films that dramatize the relationship between humans and the minions of heaven and/or hell, such as Heaven Can Wait (which also came out in 1943), as well as films that disguise their biblical themes within sci-fi conceits, such as The Adjustment Bureau. It's the notion of cosmic beings manipulating the lives of humans that interests me in these cases.
|The world is full of kings and queens,|
who blind your eyes and steal your dreams.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang