Monday, October 6, 2008
Heaven...I'm in Heaven?
The etymological roots of the word "heaven" take us to the second century where we find the word "heofon" which meant "place where God dwells". Combined with the earlier meaning of "sky" and "firmament" as well as Germanic dialects we end up with the idea of heaven pretty much all of us have created.
But what happens to those of the school of thought that heaven is something different for everyone else? And what about those for whom there is no heaven?
1943's "Cabin in the Sky" is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name which grabs the Faust concept to tell the story of Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), a gambler who dies but gets a second chance for redemption when the powers above, and below, decide to give him a six month trial to redeem his soul.
Directed by the legendary Vincente Minnelli, in his Hollywood debut, and produced by the extraordinary Arthur Freed (who was perhaps the creator of the film musical as we know it) the film proved to be controversial because of its all-African-American cast, which at the time was considered a commercial bomb as well as scandalous in segregated America.
Nowadays, although the film has aged wonderfully, because of the songs which have become standards as well as the creative script and altogether entertainment, as well as cultural, value one can begin to examine it under a more critical eye, especially because of its depictions of spiritual beliefs and above all heaven.
Despite its groundbreaking qualities, "Cabin in the Sky" still comes off looking as a slightly racist film that suggests that even heaven might've been segregated during the time. Perhaps not intentionally, but sometimes it's a rather upsetting portrait of the historical context.
Everyone in the film is African American, which obviously implies that figures like God or the devil, which historically have been represented as Caucassian males, are black.
Rex Ingram plays Lucifer Jr. with a delightful mix of dark comedy and charm (Louis Armstrong plays one of his henchmen) while Kenneth Spencer plays the General, a sort of archangel, sent to help Little Joe get to paradise.
The screenplay gives them some brilliant moments to play off the duality that lies within human beings. Think of them as those little representations of good and evil which became popular in cartoons. But they also force the audience to wonder if our ideas of the afterlife and spirituality are determined by our racial background.
Hollywood was known for limiting the appearance of black artists (just take a look at the filmography of Butterfly McQueen who is also featured in this film), and one can argue some things haven't really changed (they just call it "urban cinema" nowadays), but what can be made about the mutual exclusion this has brought onto artistic manifestations?
Because "Cabin in the Sky", although produced with what one assumes was a pretty much white crew, comes off looking as if it was made in a world where everyone had the same skin color.
There are several factors that come to mind as causes and consequences of this representation, including the fact that perhaps the film was aimed at a specific demographic and social group, that the idea of a majorly black cast instantly made actors of other races ineligible to be hired, or that maybe it was purposely done as some sort of "payback" for the mistreatment which had been given to black performers up to that point. Joe's wife, Petunia (played wonderfully by the exceptional Ethel Waters) at one point utters "sometimes when you fight the devil, you gotta jab him with his own pitchfork" which could very well express the injustice of intolerant behavior and the use of "eye for an eye" philosophy to take on it.
Maybe a white audience member watching this would wonder "why aren't there any white people here?" which would have the same repercussions of a black person watching a predominantly white film.
...or not, which is why "Cabin in the Sky" comes off as a film that has a lot of flavor but still can't help but feel bittersweet.
It has (un-?) surprisingly remained mostly unknown throughout the years (it was out of print until 2006) despite the fact that it's perhaps one of the most enjoyable early modern musicals (and worthy if only to see the delicious Lena Horne grab a flower to wear as a femme fatale hat) and can even be seen as a sort of "The Wizard of Oz" remake.
Despite the fact that the film is plagued with stereotypes which come as a shadow over film history (as well as having some cinematic flaws mostly related to its somewhat stagey transition from Broadway to Hollywood) the one thing that the movie never loses is a sort of unbridled joy.
It takes twists and turns that are completely implausible, but it does so with such style and, might one say it, sass, that make the happiness its trademark song talks about believable, despite the hell that was raging on outside.
- This post is part of "Musical of the Month" hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".