Monday, February 18, 2013

Cabin in the Sky

The 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon is an event coinciding with Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" month-long celebration, in observance of the Academy Awards. In both events, the theme is the same: recognition of Oscar-nominated films throughout history. The blogathon is hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. See the links above for a list of participating blogs.

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.
The angels and demons in Cabin can influence humans to a degree, but to what extent do they control behavior? The first time we see Horne's character, the head demon, Lucifer Junior (he's the son of the Devil, don'tcha know) plants the idea in her head to go visit Anderson's Little Joe and pretty much spurs her into action on his behalf. If he can do this much, though, why can't he control Little Joe the same way? I know, I know, that wouldn't serve the story. I don't care too much about the answer; I just like thinking about it - and given the film's ending, the point is probably moot anyway. Regardless, this is a wonderful movie. Seek it out!

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


  1. Georgia Brown was probably more open to suggestion than Little Joe. She didn't have a Petunia on her side.

    I have adored this movie since childhood. The first time I saw it I was all for letting Little Joe into Heaven on that "technicality" in the bookkeeping. Boy, I was sure put in my place!

    Such a richness of music, performers and heart.

  2. I thought the same thing about Georgia, actually, like maybe she already had the idea in her mind to see Little Joe and Lucifer Jr. just fanned that flame.

  3. one of the best musicals ever! A great film and I am so glad you chose to highlight it. When it comes to musicals perhaps people have seen one too many and feel the way Joe did when temptation came his way:

    "I've been burned more than twice, and I ain't payin' the price."


    Great spotlight

  4. It's good to know that so many people are aware of and love this film.

  5. Ha... I will cop to being the kind of person you're talking about in your intro paragraph. I'm trying to change, I swear. I find that it helps a lot to enjoy other aspects of the musical- the plot, the actual dance sequence itself, the choreography, etc...

    This is one I recently watched and liked it quite a bit. I believe it's basically Faust (I could be wrong about this), given a mid 20th century American flair.

    More than anything, I was pleasantly surprised to watch an American film from the 40s where the black characters weren't (all) disgusting stereotypes.

  6. Leonard Maltin apparently believes it's somewhat racist, but I didn't see it either.

  7. I admit I'm not much of a musical person, but you made a good point about teenagers with super-spider powers.

    I saw this film for the first time about a year ago & really enjoyed it - musical number and all!

    Thanks for including this film in the blogathon.

  8. I'm not much of a musical person either, FWIW.

  9. Great write-up, Rich! A film worthy of attention and great addition to the blogathon! I will be borrowing the "musicals / superhero" movies parameters explanation. Nicely done. A great way to get musical detractors to take a second and consider the possibility.

    Nicely done!


  10. I'm kinda surprised more people haven't made that correlation between musicals and superhero films. But I'm glad you appreciated it.


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