Director – Vincente Minelli, Screenplay – Joseph Schrank, Based on the Play by Vernon Drake, John Latouche & Lynn Root, Producer – Arthur Freed, Photography (b&w) – Sidney Wagner, Music Adaptation – Roger Edens, Art Direction – Cedric Gibbons. Production Company – MGM
Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Little Joe Jackson), Ethel Waters (Petunia Jackson), Rex Ingram (Lucifer Jr/Lucius), Kenneth Spencer (The General/Reverend Green), Lena Horne (Georgia Brown), Butterfly McQueen (Lily), John William ‘Bubbles’ Sublett (Domino Johnson)
Little Joe Jackson is shot in an argument over gambling debts. Lucifer Jr arrives to take him Down Below. At the same time, The General, summoned by Joe’s wife Petunia’s powerful praying, arrives to take him to Heaven and confusion reigns. The powers that be decide to allow Little Joe a six month reprieve to prove himself and he is returned to his body. However, Lucifer Jr has arranged a string of temptations, allowing Little Joe to win the Irish Sweepstakes and then sending seductress Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe into abandoning Petunia.
The main footnote Cabin in the Sky has in film history is as Hollywood’s first attempt to mount a film with an all-Black cast. The added attraction for blues and jazz buffs is in the extraordinary cast it has assembled, which includes legendary names such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and John William ‘Bubbles’ Sublett brought together – and all on magnificent form. The film was based on a Broadway show of the same name that premiered in 1940.
Down beneath the film’s surface bubbles a heavy and sanctimonious crock of Christian moralising. The film looks as though it has been designed by a conservative White majority in order to lecture good Christian morality to Black folk. Gambling and adultery are taken to task and, at one point, idleness is directly connected with The Devil’s work. Even more incredible is the ending where Little Joe’s entrance into Heaven is solely dependent upon the amount of money he has given to the church.
In the end, it is the acts that the film brings on that one remembers Cabin in the Sky for – Rochester Anderson who plays in likeably bug-eyed agog as Little Joe, singing through a voice that seems to have a bad dose of TB. As Petuniua, Ethel Waters seems impossibly happy, all teeth and eyes squeezed tight. When she opens up it is with a good deal of power – she is never more in command than when she gets to tart it up and strut her stuff. Also excellent is Kenneth Spencer as The General who lets go with an amazingly beautiful baritone.
Director Vincente Minelli is the father of Liza Minelli. Minelli became known for directing principally musicals. These included the likes of An American in Paris (1951), Kismet (1955) and Gigi (1958), along with dramatic works such as Meet Me in St Louis (1944) and Lust for Life (1956). His two other ventures into genre material were the musical Brigadoon (1954) about a timeslipped village and the reincarnation musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) with Barbra Streisand.