Happiness is a thing called Judge Joe Armenio.
"Can't you see that cabin in the sky, mister?
This DVD release of Vincente Minnelli's 1943 musical, Cabin in the Sky, one of Hollywood's early attempts at a movie with an all-black cast, prefaces the film with a weirdly distancing and apologetic disclaimer which insists that the movie's depictions of African-Americans "were wrong then and are wrong today," and then weakly defends the choice to present the film at all, suggesting that it's worthwhile as a document of a less enlightened time. Someone at Warner thought this apology was necessary in the name of racial sensitivity, but it seems to me wildly facile and reductive; representations of race are complex little buggers, and one can spend an intellectual lifetime trying to parse the intersections of aesthetics and ideology that produce them at a particular historical moment. Stamping them as "wrong," with the authoritative voice of the reissue preface, cuts off discussion just where it might start to get interesting, besides being pretty insensitive to the great black artists who populate the film itself, among them Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
It seems to me that real respect for both the film and the history of race in the United States would entail neither a curt dismissal of the film nor an unquestioning acceptance of its attitudes, but would try to dig a little deeper into the context that produced it. The preface doesn't help with that task, nor really does Todd Boyd's commentary (I'll talk more about that later).
Facts of the Case
Cabin in the Sky is the story of Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, The Jack Benny Program), who is torn between the wholesome demands of home and family, represented by his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters, Pinky), and a dissolute life as a gambler and rabble-rouser, represented by the seductive Georgia Brown (Lena Horne, Stormy Weather). After being shot in a nightclub brawl, Little Joe has a dream which, Wizard of Oz-style, casts various figures from his life as devils and angels fighting for his immortal soul; this struggle takes place to the tune of a Harold Arlen-Vernon Duke score which includes the title song, "Taking a Chance on Love," "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," and "Shine."
As I already mentioned, Cabin in the Sky was Minnelli's first film as a director and some of his trademarks are already apparent, such as a surprising darkness (the climactic sequence is downright apocalyptic) and a graceful integration of musical numbers into the film; Minnelli used the songs not merely as set pieces but as devices by which to advance the plot, to tell us something about character and to express emotions raised by the story. Waters's jubilant rendition of "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," followed later by its heartbreaking reprise, is perhaps the most moving example of this. Not all of the musical numbers are so well integrated; the final nightclub sequence, which features performances by Duke Ellington, Horne, and John Sublett (aka "Bubbles"), is more of the old-fashioned set-piece variety.
Like 1936's The Green Pastures, one of the few other early attempts by Hollywood to make a film featuring African-Americans, black culture is seen here largely as a repository of quaint and colorful folk stories, heavily musical and influenced by a certain naive and heartfelt Christianity. Anderson's Little Joe is lovable but childlike, easily swayed, never fully a responsible grown man. Petunia is also the sort of African-American woman one sees often in mainstream culture of the period: asexual, fiercely religious, and relentlessly moral (though warmer and not as intimidating, I think, as Todd Boyd makes her out to be). Georgia Brown, on the other hand, is lighter-skinned, slimmer, dangerous, and sexually alluring. In Little Joe's hallucination-fantasy, the representative of God is an upright deacon who pronounces perfect Standard English in a booming bass, while the devils are stereotypically shiftless, comic bumblers. The film's final act takes place in the ironically named "John Henry's Paradise," the home of music (Duke Ellington's orchestra), high living (embodied by Joe's impeccably dressed, hedonistic, violent rival Domino), and beautiful women; it's a site of pleasure and sin and Joe's potential demise.
Certainly in 1943 a feature film with an all-black cast was a rarity, and seeing so much of Anderson, Waters, and Horne on screen was a rare treat and a somewhat progressive move; perhaps the demands of wartime unity gave a spur to the production of a film which would please African-American viewers. How much a viewer in 2006 enjoys Cabin in the Sky will be determined by his own moral and aesthetic calculations: Is he more offended by the caricatures on display, or moved by the skill and vigor with which the director and performers give them life? It seems to me that one can find some of the "cute" ungrammatical dialogue wince-inducing, the jokes tired, and the plot patronizing, and still not dismiss the film. One of the reasons why I find the DVD's disclaimer distasteful is its willingness to condemn the film's stars as accomplices to racism. Certainly Waters's and Horne's characters are stereotypes, but they're never simply stereotypes; to hear Waters' rich, stately, majestic delivery of "Cabin in the Sky" or "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" is to hear an artist of the highest order at work, and that's a pretty radical statement in itself.
The technical presentation is impeccable, and the film comes with a commentary by scholars Todd Boyd and Drew Casper, both of whom teach at the USC; Boyd focuses on thematic issues, mapping the system of stereotypes at work quite expertly, even if he makes as many banal points as salient ones (do we really need to have it pointed out that the devils wear black and the angels white, with all the attendant racial implications?). He also has a clunky delivery that I find depressingly common in DVD commentaries; wouldn't it be a good idea to write something out beforehand? (For example: "This becomes central in the process of the film as it goes forward.") Casper is more concerned with film technique, sounding weirdly frantic and breathless throughout. I found him helpful with his scene-specific comments, but overwrought and a little creepy. The commentary also features a few remarks from Anderson's wife and daughter, who say that they loved their husband/father very much, and that he was a fine artist and a good man; they don't go much beyond that. There are also (very) brief clips from Lena Horne and dancer Fayard Nicholas.
The 1946 short film, "Studio Visit," is narrated by one Pete Smith, chief of publicity for MGM, who shows off some of the studio's "talent": a shell-game illusionist, a little girl with an improbable sense of balance, and Lena Horne, who sings "Ain't It the Truth" while lounging in a bathtub, a performance that had been cut from Cabin in the Sky (perhaps for being too risqué, although, of course, you can't see anything through the suds). Finally, the DVD includes the surviving audio from another performance of "Ain't It the Truth," this one by Louis Armstrong, which was also cut from the film (the video has not survived, unfortunately, and the audio is accompanied by scenes from the film and publicity materials). Armstrong appears as a devil in the film, delivers a few lines, and blows a few bars on the trumpet, but it's frustrating that his big number was cut and partially lost: he was at a down point in his career in 1943, and I guess his performance was considered disposable.
Disclaimer aside, Cabin in the Sky is more than a historical document; it doesn't quite have the force of some of Minnelli's later musicals, but it shows off his already vigorous and artful style, and its cast breathes life into a well-meaning but condescending story.
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