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".



thanks for posting.

I also LOVED Lena's hat trick and I was going to write about it in detail but there was so much else to discuss.

I really didn't see the racism. With an all black cast there were all types of characters and it just felt balanced to me. Little Joe was illiterate which I guess might upset some people but some people are still illiterate even today and not every character in the film had that particular lack of education.

but i'm really glad we watched it. The musical numbers were great -such fine voices on Ethel & Lena

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for this post.

I tend to think that the racism is so embedded in the architecture of Cabin in the Sky that it's really complicated to parse it out.

At the same time, what was nearly radical about the piece in its historical moment is virtually impossible to intuit today.

First, on the embedded racism, the piece has a really blithe view of the role of faith in African American life. (Waters reportedly was so insulted by the stage depiction of African American religious culture that she submitted a list of demanded changes for assenting to perform the role of Petunia; Minnelli backed her requests.) For me, the most obvious grossness is the way Lucius is depicted as blood kin of the satan, while The General is an earthly ambassador (no relation to the man himself). And I'll have to leave the costuming of Lucius and The General (a clear, mildly mocking riff on the Black Nationalist style of Marcus Garvey, several decades too late to be considered timely commentary).

Yet I do think that Minnelli's insistence on the best African American performers of the era, as well as his quest to get Dooley Wilson for the lead, is itself a fairly amazing action for a new Hollywood director. Remember, that in 1943, the most popular radio entertainment remained Amos and Andy, a radio serial in which all the African American characters were envoiced by white actors. Likewise, note the ubiquity of blackface novelty performances by the legendary MGM stars of this period. As I watched the film, especially that first sequence in Lucius's office, I was struck by how many of the greater performers of the moment (Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Louis Armstrong, etc) were all in the same scene, rather than relegated to being the comic color in an otherwise white scene. (Cinematic integration in this era carried its own costs.) Indeed, I was struck by how the film is fairly early in the longer trajectory of black actors being considered skilled enough to essay complex characters.

It's a complicated bag, this film, especially within the history of African American Hollywood. But one certainly worth sifting through...


I didn't see the religion viewed blithely at all. It was the entire foundation for the narrative and devout faith or conversion was the triumph in every act