Thursday, January 1, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for January on TCM

The big news this holiday season is the release of two - count 'em - two film versions of successful Broadway musicals, Annie and Into the Woods.  Once upon a time, the transfer of a popular stage hit to the screen was a given in Hollywood.  In 1943 it was time for Broadway's 1940 hit Cabin in the Sky to become immortalized on celluloid.  The book was by Lynn Root, based on his story Little Joe.  Original songs were composed by Songwriter's Hall of Fame inductee Vernon Duke, whose classical works were published under his birth name of Vladimir Dukelesky.  Taking a Chance on Love performed by Ethel Waters became a standard.  The production was staged by the legendary George Ballanchine.  Todd Duncan, Broadway's original Porgy in Porgy and Bess played The General.  Beautiful vixen Georgia Brown was played by beautiful Katherine Dunham, the pioneering dancer and choreographer whose dance troupe enlivened the ensemble.

After a year of apprenticing at MGM, set and costume designer and stage director Vincente Minnelli directed Cabin in the Sky as the first of his remarkable films.  The talent that gave us Meet Me in St. Louis, Madame Bovary, Lust for Life, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc. is mind boggling.

Two members of the original Broadway cast made it to the screen.  Ethel Waters, the great jazz artist and stage star played the pious Petunia.  In her later years, Ms. Waters was born again and toured with the Billy Graham crusades.  In the 1920s Harold Arlen wrote Stormy Weather for Ethel.  In the 1930s Irving Berlin wrote Supper Time for Ethel to sing in the revue As Thousands Cheer.  Ethel Waters also enjoyed success as a dramatic actress in the Broadway and film versions of The Member of the Wedding and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1949s Pinky.


Lucifer Jr. and his "idea men"
Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Fletcher Rivers, Willie Best

Rex Ingram reprised the role of Lucifer Jr., adding to his round-up of supernatural characters including De Lawd in The Green Pastures and the Djinn in Thief of Bagdad.    Mr. Ingram's screen acting career began as an uncredited native in 1918s Tarzan of the Apes and included such major roles and movies as Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Talk of the Town, Sahara, Dark Waters, Moonrise, God's Little Acre, Elmer Gantry and Your Cheatin' Heart.


Mr. and Mrs. Jackson
Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson

I'm drawn to the creative optimism in after-life fantasies and the touch of humour to be found in dream sequences.  Cabin in the Sky gives us both in the story of Little Joe Jackson played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.  Imagine creating a character so popular, as Rochester was on The Jack Benny Program, that it becomes part of your name.  A bit on Benny's radio show in 1937 turned into a lifelong happy association as the Benny and Anderson found in each other the perfect comic foil.  Little Joe is married to Petunia and although he truly loves his devout spouse, Little Joe has a gambling habit and an eye for pretty girls.  He is constantly getting into trouble and constantly promising to mend his ways.  Petunia is constantly forgiving Little Joe's transgressions.


Lily, Reverend Green, Petunia, the Doctor, Little Joe Jackson
Butterly McQueen, Kenneth Spencer, Ethel Waters, Clinton Rosemond, Eddie Anderson

Consorting with a dangerous crowd, Little Joe is shot and as he lays on his deathbed we watch the battle for Joe's soul play out.  In the righteous corner we have the strong faith of Petunia and an angel played by bass-baritone Kenneth Spencer.  This heavenly emissary is the "Lawd's General" and he bears a striking resemblance to the local minister.  The fire and brimstone crowd is led by Lucifer Jr. and his imps, played with comic glee by the likes of Mantan Moreland, Louis Armstrong and Willie Best.  Is this a dream brought on by delirium or are these visions true?

Little Joe Jackson, Lucifer Jr., Georgia Brown
Eddie Anderson, Rex Ingram, Lena Horne

Lucifer Jr. does not fight fair.  Apparently the worst thing you can do for someone is give them money (I've never been able to figure that one out!) and it is arranged for Little Joe to win the Irish Sweepstakes.  A lot is riding on this gig for Junior, so for insurance he calls on the services of one of their best sinners, luscious Miss George Brown played by Lena Horne in her best role at MGM.  Lena positively shines as the narcissistic Miss Brown.  She's playful, headstrong and has a couple of fun numbers in Honey in the Honeycomb and a duet with Eddie Anderson of Life is Full of Consequence.  Lena's performance of Ain't It the Truth, performed in a bubble bath, was cut from this movie but used in a 1946 short called Studio VisitHoney in the Honeycomb is one of three songs from the play to make it to the movie along with the title tune and Taking a Chance on Love.  Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote new songs for the movie including Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe, which went on to be a standard of the Great American Songbook as well as receiving an Oscar nomination.

It is a titanic struggle between the bible loving Petunia and all that would take her beloved Joe from her side.  Who do you suppose will win?  There are some knowing laughs and wonderful music in Cabin in the Sky, plus a few surprises in store.  Fair warning: I learned from the General that you can't get into Heaven on a technicality.  I found that aspect rather upsetting when I was a kid and I still keep looking for loopholes.  

The depth of talent in Cabin in the Sky is phenomenal.  Along with the lead actors there are performances from Duke Ellington and his orchestra, "Bubbles" Sublett, the Father of Rhythm Tap and Broadway's original Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, Pearl Bailey's dancing brother Bill Bailey, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and the Hall Johnson Choir.  Mr. Johnson and his talented choristers cornered the movie market for choirs appearing in The Green Pastures, Tales of Manhattan, Way Down South, St. Louis Blues and more. 

A hit in its day and a joy today, TCM is screening Cabin in the Sky on Thursday, January 8th at 12:30 a.m. as one of guest programmer Michael Feinstein's selections.  It is essential entertainment.   

22 comments:

  1. I was strong-armed into seeing the Annie re-make last week. Disappointed doesn't even come close and, to add insult to injury, it's ruined all my childhood memories of the original. Cabin in the Sky sounds like one not to be missed though - those costumes look interesting too!

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    1. I was in the ensemble of a community theatre production of "Annie" years ago and have a very soft spot in my heart for the show. The trailer for "Annie" didn't look half bad. I'm sorry to hear they dropped the ball.

      "Cabin in the Sky" should work its magic on you. It is amusing entertainment.

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  2. So that's why he's called 'Rochester'...

    Ethel Waters is sublime in this movie. I had first seen her as a dramatic actress, so seeing her sing here came as a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to also learn she had an entire career as a singer before she came to Hollywood.

    This one is indeed a winner.

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    1. I always like to start the new year with music or a musical. I'm not sure how this is different from the rest of the year, but it is a tradition. My soul is happiest in Tin Pan Alley. Ethel Waters life and career is as fascinating as her talent was prodigious. Where is the biopic?

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  3. A great pick, and thank heavens some of those Broadway stars of the past made it to the big screen when it came casting time, or we'd never come to appreciate their talents.

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    1. Hollywood did us a great service when they brought stage stars to Hollywood to recreate their famous roles. I'm not saying that strictly film-bred stars aren't just as wonderful, but casting is the closest thing we have to a time machine.

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  4. "Cabin in the Sky" is a joy, and a great pick for January, CW. This is a must-see for so many reasons and it seems to me you mentioned them all!

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    1. Thanks a lot. It is a movie I never get tired of watching. The reaction is never "Oh, that again", but always "Hooray!".

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  5. Great movie. It is one of my favorites from that era. There was so much talent in that movie. Now I have to watch it again this weekend!! Thanks for the great article!

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    1. "Now I have to watch it again this weekend!!"

      I know how that is. A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.

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  6. Now that's a hot-diggity-dog darn fine pick for January (and a damn fine article, to boot!).

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    1. Thanks. You're a doll, and I just knew you'd be a fan of "Cabin in the Sky".

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  7. Great write up. I especially like Lena Horne and the comic genius of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

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    1. Thank you. Lena and Eddie are a treat for the ages.

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  8. Exactly: "...casting is the closest thing we have to a time machine"

    By the way, just a note of trivia, and since I'm still knee-deep in Ann Blyth research, CABIN IN THE SKY was the play that had just ended at the Martin Beck Theater in NYC, just before WATCH ON THE RHINE debuted in that theater less than a month later in April 1941. There's a photo, I think on eBay, with director Herman Shumlin and Lillian Hellman, and I think leads Paul Lukas and Mady Christians (memory might be a little hazy here) talking on stage in an early rehearsal for WATCH, and you can still see the CABIN IN THE SKY set in the background.

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    1. An interesting connection. I sometimes think of these classic plays and their time as if they were in a vacuum, but they were part of some very exciting times for those involved and for audiences.

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  9. I've only seen bits of this movie, but you've encouraged me to make this Appointment Viewing. What a phenomenal cast! Thanks for the great review - and for the heads up! :)

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  10. I guarantee you'll have so much fun that Petunia will fear for your soul!

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  11. A wonderful choice for any month and an excellent article on CABIN IN THE SKY. The film always reminds me, though, of the talented black performers who rarely got work in Hollywood. That's one of the things that makes this film so special.

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    1. In a perfect world, you would think that such a marvelous film would have opened the floodgates. We have a long way to go before we get a perfect world.

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  12. Love your charming, delightful post on one of the great movie musicals. You're so right about the astonishing depth of talent here; and Lena Horne is so dazzlingly luscious, it's no wonder Joe is tempted by her. I think my favorite bits are the ones with Lucifer Jr; I love Mantan Moreland in anything and he does not disappoint here. Thanks so much!

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    1. That gang down in Hades is so darn funny that I can't help but think it might be more fun to ... shh, don't let on to Petunia!

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