Warner Home Video presents
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
"How in the world am I gonna reform if I don't remember what a mess I was in when I was dead?"- Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson)
Stars: Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne
Other Stars: Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Duke Ellington
Director: Vincente Minnelli
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nothing objectionable
Run Time: 01h:38m:31s
Release Date: 2006-01-10
DVD ReviewWarner keeps cranking out quality catalog product, and as this is Black History Month, they're releasing a handful of their best related titles. Perhaps the cream of that group is Vincente Minnelli's directorial debut, Cabin in the Sky. Transported from Broadway to the cinemas after its rousing success on the Great White Way, Cabin added some material to its musical score and was bolstered by a group of wonderful performers who each bring a special quality to their performances. If the film has weak spots in its story, they're reasonably easy to overlook.
Cabin's story is framed as a fable, centering around Little Joe Johnson (Eddie Anderson, here billed as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson due to his success on the Jack Benny Show on radio) and his long-suffering wife Petunia (Ethel Waters, reprising her Broadway role). Little Joe is a no-account, lazy, philandering bum, essentially, spending his time at Jim Henry's Paradise, a local club where Little Joe succumbs to his primary vices of gambling and Georgia Brown (Lena Horne), a sultry tool of the devil. That is meant literally in this film, as we learn when Joe gets shot by another gambler, Domino Jackson (John William Sublett). As Little Joe hovers between life and death, he is also the subject of a tug of war between heaven and hell, personified by the "General" (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram). Hell feels they have a valid claim on Joe's soul due to his less than stellar behavior while alive, but the heavenly forces decide to investigate the matter due to Petunia's strong prayers. It is decided from above that Joe will have six months to straighten himself out, all the while unaware of his near-death experience. Both sides pledge to do their best to win, but hell has some clever plans in store.
As a simple morality tale, Cabin is fairly enjoyable, but I found the oppressive quality of goodness (or perhaps it should be Goodness) rather offputting. Religion is used as a bludgeon to keep the faithful in line, to the point where Petunia feels she must offer a hasty apology to God for tricking some of Joe's gambling buddies by playing dice. And to be honest, the sinners look a hell of a lot more fun than the saints, if you'll pardon the pun. If it's a choice between starchy heaven and a hell where I can hang with Louis Armstrong, listen to jazz, lounge about in a bathrobe and smoke cigars, I know which one I'd pick. The film goes on to pitch the club where Joe misbehaves as an all-around jazz age Sodom, and God is only too happy to oblige Petunia when she asks him to wipe it off the map. This sort of moralizing comes too close to a fundamentalist "everything fun is evil" mentality for my tastes. As noted in the commentary, however, some of this relates to making the "good" characters more appealing to potential white audiences through showing their strong religious grounding, and that's an understandable notion.
Prior to the film's start, Warner has added a screen of text alerting the unaware to the content within, noting its distinct properties as a product of its time. And the old stereotypes are there, most notably in Anderson's portrayal of Little Joe. The song Happiness is a Thing Called Joe features Waters, obviously able to enunciate quite well, forced to sing "de" for "the" and so on. One could catalog the stereotypes on display here (and Todd Boyd goes through them quite well in the commentary), but for the most part, the characters are warmly played, and I saw no overt attempt to belittle or demean.
Waters, the film's heart as Petunia, brings much to the role, making her character's love for Joe, as inexplicable as it sometimes seems, a palpable thing, full of joy. Anderson does the best he can with a somewhat thankless role, and his singing is, ah, not always pleasant to the ear, but he carries it off pretty well for the most part. The cast of devils make for fun viewing, and I would have liked to see more of them; Louis Armstrong in particular stands out, not that this should be a surprise, as one of the devil's "Idea Men." Kenneth Spencer certainly fills the role of the General and the Reverend well, with his magnificent voice, even if the roles were limited by the characters' overweening goodness. And Lena Horne, as bad girl Georgia Brown, gets the best moment in the film, a deliciously saucy scene in which a crowd gathers round to peer at her high-class underwear. Her singing isn't too bad, either!
Vincente Minnelli, moving from the theatrical world to the cinema, shoots the musical numbers crisply, and keeps things light and breezy throughout. If only this film could have been in Technicolor, given his later use of that format. Cabin in the Sky deserves a look from musical buffs, especially for the talent on display in Waters and Horne to name just two, and fans of Minnelli will certainly want this as well.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: It isn't spotless, but the transfer for Cabin looks pretty good overall, with only the odd speckle here and there to detract. Contrast levels look good, and the level of detail looks fine as well.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The original audio is really all we need, and it sounds fairly good, though it sounded, on at least a couple occasions, like the volume level fluctuated during some scenes. Still, the music comes across well and I can't otherwise complain.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 30 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Film scholars Todd Boyd and Drew Casper, Evangela and Eva Anderson, Fayard Nicholas, and interview snippets of Lena Horne
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
- Pete Smith Specialty short subject, titled Studio Visit
- Audio outtake of Louis Armstrong performing "Ain't It the Truth"
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA good deal of fun if a little too goody-goody for my more, uh, worldly tastes, Cabin in the Sky benefits from some quality performances and music. Warner's DVD does a solid job of presenting the film and adds a couple interesting extras.
Jeff Wilson 2006-01-09