Friday, March 21, 2008

Happiness is a thing called Joe

Cast of Cabin in the Sky
From left: Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne

Easter is this weekend, and TCM is playing a whole day's worth of movies befitting the holiday. One of my favorites is Cabin in the Sky, airing at 10:15 PM ET on March 22. Based on a Broadway musical, this morality play stars Ethel Waters as Petunia, a deeply-religious woman who's trying to get her husband Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) to stop gambling and lead a generally less sinful life. Unfortunately for her, matters come to a head one night when Joe gets shot while gambling, and faces a battle for his life.

That's not the only battle though: God and Lucifer also stage a battle for Joe's soul. God will gain Joe's soul if Joe can remain good for six months; otherwise, Joe's soul goes to Lucifer, who naturally tries to tempt Joe. The main source of temptation is the lovely Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). When Joe has a putatively winning ticket for the Irish Sweepstakes but discards it, it's she who brings the ticket back to him, and she who tempt him away from Petunia.

But there's so much more to this movie. One of the very few studio movies with an all-black cast, Louis Armstrong has a brief appearance as one of Lucifer's "idea men", and Duke Ellington appears as himself, leading the band at a juke joint. Of course, this was the 1940s, when segregation still reigned supreme, so some will see subtle elements of racism in the production. The characters are at best archetypes, if not caricatures; the production was in black-and-white when a lot of other MGM musicals of the day were being shot in glorious Technicolor (eg. Du Barry Was a Lady, also from 1943); and many of the actors are given all-too-brief parts (especially Louis Armstrong). Still, it's amazing that such a movie was made.

And it's not just a black movie: as a morality play, it tells a story of good versus evil that crosses all racial boundaries. Cabin in the Sky was the first major movie directed by Vincente Minnelli, and is available on DVD.

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