Cast & Crew
Eddie "rochester" Anderson
Hopeful that her gambling, ne'er-do-well husband Little Joe Jackson has finally reformed, Petunia suggests that he have Rev. Green burn his dice and release the devil's hold on him. A religious woman and loving wife, Petunia is heartened by Little Joe's promise to repent his sins in church. Little Joe soon resumes his gambling, however, when gambler Domino Johnson entices him to return to the casino at Jim Henry's Paradise Café. Petunia later goes in search of Little Joe, only to discover that he has been shot in a gunfight at the Paradise Café. As Petunia prays over her wounded husband, Lucifer, Jr., the ghost of Little Joe's friend Lucius, enters the room and orders Little Joe to "report to duty." Little Joe does not believe that he is dying until Lucifer, Jr. and his three aides show him his lifeless body. When the General, responding to Petunia's prayers, suddenly appears in the room, Lucifer, Jr. engages him in a battle for Little Joe's soul. While Sgt. Fleetfoot is sent by the General to get a judgment on Little Joe's case from the Lord, Lucifer, Jr. predicts that Little Joe's involvement with vamp Georgia Brown will result in his banishment to Hell. The Lord determines that Little Joe is not fit for Heaven, but he permits Little Joe to return to Earth for six months and prove his worth. With no recollection of his meeting with the Lord or Lucifer, Jr., Little Joe regains consciousness and begins his six-month reprieve. Petunia believes her husband's recovery to be a miracle, but both she and Little Joe are unaware that Lucifer, Jr. and the General will be talking to his conscience and battling for his soul. No sooner does Little Joe resume his daily life than his gambling pals, Jim Henry and Dude, who have been sent by Lucifer, Jr., try to tempt him into a game of dice. Petunia chases Jim and Dude away, but Lucifer, Jr. devises another scheme to distract Little Joe and make him backslide into Hell. Heeding the advice of those working at the Hotel Hades Idea Department, Lucifer, Jr. decides to corrupt Little Joe with riches, and sends him a winning lottery ticket. Little Joe's chances at getting into Heaven improve when he plans to use the money to buy Petunia a washing machine and a house, but when Georgia intervenes, Little Joe returns to the Paradise Café. Petunia succeeds in winning back her husband by going to the casino and singing better than Georgia, but before they leave, a gun battle ensues and Petunia and Little Joe are shot and killed. Furious at Lucifer, Jr.'s meddling, the General sends down a storm and wrecks the Paradise Café. In Purgatory, Petunia is told that she is eligible to pass through the Pearly Gates into Heaven, while Little Joe is rejected. It is only after Little Joe repents and the Lord vouches for him that the General reverses his decision and allows Little Joe to join his wife in Heaven. Moments after he is told of the decision, Little Joe realizes that his brush with the afterlife was all a dream, and vows to change his ways.
Eddie "rochester" Anderson
John W. "bubbles" Sublett
Fletcher "moke" Rivers
Leon "poke" James
Ford L. "buck" Washington
The Hall Johnson Choir
Curry Lee Calmes
Meade Lux Lewis
E. Y. Harburg
Harold F. Kress
Edwin B. Willis
Cabin in the Sky
Conflicts arose on the set between director Vincente Minnelli, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters because Minnelli and Horne were reportedly dating. The problems reached their peak over the number "Honey in the Honeycomb." Waters was originally to perform the song as a ballad while Horne would do a dance to it. But Horne broke her ankle and the songs were reversed. She got the ballad and Waters the dance. Ethel Waters did however sing the Academy Award nominated "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe." This was one of three new songs written for the film. In her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, Waters commented on her performance in Cabin in the Sky: "I rejected the part because it seemed to me a man's play rather than a woman's. Petunia, in the original script, was no more than a punching bag for Little Joe. I objected also to the manner in which religion was being handled. After some of the changes I demanded had been made I accepted the role, largely because the music was so pretty. But right through the rehearsals and even after the play had opened, I kept adding my own lines and little bits of business to build up the character of Petunia."
Lena Horne took on one of her few acting roles as the temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky and it proved to be the ideal showcase for her musical talents and natural beauty. Minnelli originally intended to introduce Horne's sexy character in a bubble bath scene but the censors refused to let him film it. In most of her other films Horne played herself, and she rarely had interaction with the main stars. Instead, she would come onscreen, perform a number, and exit. This was done so her scenes could be easily trimmed if they offended southern audiences.
It was said that Minnelli had originally wanted Dooley Wilson (the pianist/singer from Casablanca (1942) who performed "As Time Goes By") for the role of Little Joe since he created the role on the stage but the studio insisted on Eddie "Rochester" Anderson because he was the bigger name. In his biography, I Remember It Well, Minnelli recalled the making of Cabin in the Sky: "If there were any reservations about the film, they revolved around the story, which reinforced the naive, childlike stereotype of blacks. But I knew there were such people as the deeply pious Petunia and Joe, her weak gambler of a husband, and that such wives constantly prayed for the wavering souls of their men...If I was going to make a picture about such people, I would approach it with great affection rather than condescension." As for the unique look of the film, Minnelli added, "Arthur (Freed) and I were looking at a finished print of the picture one day. I don't know which one of us suggested the possibility of reprocessing the black and white film in a sepia tint. We experimented with a portion of it. The film was transformed. It seemed more magical. Sepia created a soft, velvety patina more flattering to the actors' skin tones. The picture was released that way."
Cabin in the Sky was the first all-black musical in nearly fourteen years and only the fourth all-black film by a major studio since the coming of sound. It was also director Vincente Minnelli's first feature film.
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Joseph Schrank (based on the play by Lynn Root, John Latouche, Vernon Duke)
Cinematography: Sidney Waggner
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Music Director: George Stoll
Cast: Ethel Waters (Petunia Jackson), Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (Little Joe), Lena Horne (Georgia Brown), Louis Armstrong (The Trumpeter), Rex Ingram (Lucius, Lucifer, Jr.), Butterfly McQueen (Lily), Ruby Dandridge (Mrs. Kelso), Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Deborah Looney
Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky on DVD
The great Ethel Waters repeats her the her stage success as Petunia Jackson, a very religious woman whose only possible source of trouble is her husband, the comical sinner Joseph "Little Joe" Jackson (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) who likes to gamble now and then, dabble with the ladies, and whose one fervent hope in the world is that he will win the Irish Sweepstakes. Petunia's latest attempt to get Little Joe into church to be saved almost works, until some of his gambling cronies turn up at the church door and tempt him away to "Jim Henry's Paradise," where gambling and drinking are the chief forms of entertainment. When Petunia gets out of church, she hears a gunshot ring out, and rushes toward town, only to find a mob pouring out of Jim Henry's in panic. Inside the club she finds Little Joe, shot but still alive.
Petunia gets him home and a doctor tends to the wound, not particularly holding out very much hope for recovery. In fact, as it turns out the spirit world has already been put on notice of Joe's upcoming demise. Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram, also repeating his stage success) appears along with a trio of henchmen/devils, which include Mantan Moreland (Birmingham Brown of the Charlie Chan series), and Willie Best, who was also known on screen as Sleep'n Eat. The devils bring Joe's spirit out of his body and inform him that he's dead, and that he's theirs! But Petunia intercedes: when she discovers that Joe's body is getting cold, she lets out with an impassioned prayer to God, and immediately The General (Kenneth Spencer), one of God's most trusted minions, appears to help save Joe. Lucifer, Jr. argues that it isn't fair for God to be changing the rules in the middle of the game, but The General comes up with a good compromise: God will allow Joe to live for only another six months, and his behavior during that period will determine his dispensation in the after-life. The only problem is, Joe will not remember any of this when he returns to his body, so his conversion will have to be totally spontaneous.
Much to the dismay of the devils, despite not being able to remember the spat between the angels and the devils, the near death experience itself has caused a change in Joe's character. He is much more a home body (partly due to his slow recovery), and he seems all the more in love and at peace with Petunia. But the devils aren't to be foiled so easily: the rig it so that Joe actually does win the Irish Sweepstakes, then send Satan's favorite temptress, Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to try to wheedle her way into his affections. Initially she fails, as Joe sings about being all-to-aware now of the Consequences of his actions. But when Georgia is caught expressing her gratitude toward him with a kiss, Petunia shows up unexpectedly and misconstrues what's going on.
Weeks later Joe is escorting Georgia to Jim Henry's place on a nightly basis, until a newly gussied-up Petunia arrives to let him know that she's about to sue him for her half of his winnings. The brewing cat fight between Petunia and Georgia is broken up by the arrival of Domino Johnson (John William Sublett), who has just been released from jail for shooting Joe. When their latest meeting erupts in violence, Petunia once again calls on the Lord to end it — telling him to blow the place down if he has to. And the Lord does just that, smashing the club with the use of a freak tornado (and some unused storm footage from The Wizard of Oz). When Petunia and Joe discover that they've been killed, they find that for both of them to get into heaven will entail striking one last bargain.
Cabin in the Sky is another black-themed film that unfortunately presents some overt stereotypes (of which Domino Johnson's rendition of "Shine" is particularly eye-opening). But the film is so exuberant and so beautifully acted that it can be forgiven for its racial shortcomings. Waters is flawless as Petunia, giving perfect voice to a pair of songs that would quickly become standards: the adoring "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," and the slyly sensual "Taking a Chance on Love." Waters also gets to do a lovely duet with Anderson on the film's title song. Petunia is a role that probably could've been embarrassingly stereotypical in the hands of a lesser actress, but Waters has the confidence and the emotional range to make the role three-dimensional. Anderson is equally good as the mildly sinful Little Joe, whose minor infractions disappear in the strength of his love for Petunia. And Lena Horne provides some needed sauciness in the role of Georgia Brown, though unfortunately her best number, "Ain't It the Truth," would end up on the cutting room floor after the Hayes office decided that it would be too sexually stimulating to see a black woman in a bubble bath (and I don't even want to think about how they arrived at that conclusion!). Ironically, the number would appear just three years later in the short subject Studio Visit (which is included on the disc).
While the film might not have been a smash when released, it was enough to prove that Vincente Minnelli was an extraordinarily gifted director. He demonstrates this in the film's first number, sung inside the church, as the camera makes a lazy zig-zag from soloist to soloist in the congregation, while also tracing the spread of a juicy bit of gossip. His propensity for fluidly integrating songs into the story is shown over and over again, particularly in "Happiness is a Think Called Joe," where the camera almost caresses Waters' beautiful face, then follows her through her chores, at the same time showing the passage of time. It really is amazingly subtle and canny direction, which did not go unrecognized by the studio.
Warner Bros.'s DVD has been struck from source material that is in remarkably good shape, with a modicum of debris and no damage. The black level is very deep, and the image is beautifully contrasted throughout. The audio is also in surprisingly good shape, with very little in the way of deterioration, and full-bodied tone quality and strong bass.
The disc includes the aforementioned short "Studio Visit" (though I wish Warner had provided the "Ain't it the Truth" number separately). Additionally there is an audio outtake of Louis Armstrong performing that same song. The disc also includes a feature-length commentary by Professor of Critical Studies Dr. Todd Boyd, who recently provided one of the worst commentaries I've heard (for Stormy Weather), and does the same here. Boyd repeats the words "Represents, representative, and representation" so many times one would think he had just learned them – and apparently feels that nothing in this film is actually what it is. He offers such mind boggling insights as describing Petunia as "representative of cantankerous, argumentative" black women (and anyone familiar with the film will be scratching their heads at that one). He later points out that Mantan Moreland's hair, which like all the rest of the devils is twisted into a pair of devil's horns, is actually a racist image hearkening back to Bbuckwheat in The Little Rascals. Boyd even goes so far as to claim that Butterfuly McQueen's voice is a racial stereotype. Fortunately we are given relief from Boyd with comments from Minnelli expert Drew Casper, as well as snippets from Evangela Anderson (Rochester's widow), and their daughter Eva. Fayard Nichols of the Nicholas brothers also provides comments, and interview excerpts from Lena Horne are included as well.
For more information about Cabin in the Sky, visit Warner Video. To order Cabin in the Sky, go to TCM Shopping.
by Fred Hunter
Cabin in the Sky on DVD
A scene showing Lena Horne singing "Ain't It the Truth" while taking a bath was cut, but later appeared in Studio Visit (1946).
MGM recycled some of its tornado footage from Wizard of Oz, The (1939) for a key scene in this movie.
Actors Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram appeared in the 1940 Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky and reprised their roles for this film. The Broadway production also starred Katherine Dunham, Dooley Wilson and Todd Duncan. An April 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that M-G-M purchased the film rights to the musical play for $40,000, and that the producers of the Broadway show lost $25,000 during its New York run. Cabin in the Sky marked Vincente Minnelli's first comprehensive screen directorial assignment. Prior to this film, Minnelli had directed stage shows and individual musical numbers in two Judy Garland films. Although some modern sources refer to Cabin in the Sky as Lena Horne's first film, she actually made her motion picture debut in the 1938 Million Dollar Production The Duke Is Tops (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1147) and had also appeared in the 1942 M-G-M film Panama Hattie (see below).
According to a July 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, writer Marc Connelly contributed to the screenplay by "bending the storyline to make 'Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe' a plot point." Modern sources list Eustace Cocrell as a contributor to the screenplay, and note that Busby Berkeley directed one of the film's musical numbers. An early August 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Gene Kelly was set to direct dances, but his participation in the final film is unlikely. Although news items in Hollywood Reporter announced that Paul Robeson was being considered for a starring role, and that Cab Calloway was set for an "important" role opposite Waters, neither Calloway nor Robeson appeared in the film. Various news items in Hollywood Reporter list actors Raymond Turner, Clinton Rosemond and Napoleon Whiting in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
According to an April 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, this picture was to have been the first of three M-G-M "all-Negro" musicals. M-G-M considered producing a second all-black cast film, a motion picture version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, but made no additional all-black cast films. Cabin in the Sky featured only two songs from the original stage musical, "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Cabin in the Sky." One musical number written especially for the picture, "I Gotta Song," was removed from the film before its release. According to modern sources, the film cost approximately $680,000, making it one of producer Arthur Freed's least expensive musicals of the 1940s. Modern sources note that prominent caricaturist Al Hirschfeld designed posters for the picture. The song "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Song.
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 1998
Released in United States March 1977
Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.
Shown at Filmfest DC in Washington, DC April 22 - May 3,
Feature directorial debut for Vincente Minelli.
Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Mighty Musical Movie Marathon) March 9-27, 1977.)
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in Los Angeles (Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex) as part of program "Turner's Tuners: Great Musicals From the Turner Library" October 12 - December 29, 1996.)
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.)