Thursday, April 28, 2016

Depression Films: Cabin in the Sky (1943)

May it never be said that we at Movie Churches are afraid of controversy. It may well be true, but feelings might be hurt by accusations of cowardice, so please practice restraint.

First, a minor controversy: I haveCabin in the Sky in the category of Depression Era Churches, even though the film was released in 1943. Yes, history buffs, 1943 is the time of World War II, not the Great Depression. But the movie is based on a Broadway musical that debuted in 1940, so I figure the research and writing of the play took place during the Depression Era.

The second controversy is a bigger deal. Is the movie racist? The entire cast of the film is African American, composed of some of the greatest musical talents of the time: Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, along with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. But the producer of the film, Arthur Freed, and the director, Vincent Minnelli, were of the Caucasian persuasion. When the film was released, some believed its portrayal of blacks was offensive. Jean Muir, an actress of the time, called the film an "abomination." Muir, it might be noted, was the first person on the infamous Hollywood blacklist of Communists. It might also be noted she was white. It should also be noted that during production, Freed and Minnelli sought council from prominent African American leaders of the time. And MGM  took a great financial risk in making the film, knowing that large portions of the South (and many other areas) would not show a film featuring black performers.

Modern viewers of the film are likely to feel uncomfortable. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as Little Joe plays a lazy, shiftless gambler, and he's the hero. Butterfly McQueen plays the same type of ignorant young woman she played in Gone with the Wind, causing all kinds of hackles to be raised. The dialects used can be quite grating to the modern ear. And yet with all that, the film preserves performances by great African American playing roles other than servants.

Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad.

Anyway, the film tells the story a Christian woman named Petunia (Ethel Waters) married to a slovenly gambler named Joe. She's finally persuaded Joe to go to church and be redeemed, but Joe is lured away to a gambling den where he is shot. The rest of the film tells about the struggle between Heaven and Hell for Joe's soul.

What concerns us in Movie Churches is found chiefly in the opening minutes of the film; that's where the church is found. We hear church bells ringing and see two men, Reverend Green and the Deacon, greeting the congregation at the door.

Everyone at church is buzzing about Little Joe coming to church that day. Everyone agrees it's quite a special day. I might not be thrilled if everyone at church was gossiping about what a notorious sinner I was, even if they were anticipating my salvation.

Then we see Petunia and Joe getting ready for church. She's outside and he is in the house. Joe says he can't find a tie. Petunia says, "The Lord won't mind if you don't wear a necktie." But what's really delaying Joe is a "wrestling match with the devil." He can't get himself to throw away his dice or his lottery ticket.

Petunia assures Joe he belongs to the Lord because of her prayers (she has been praying against his gambling success and her prayers have been answered). Joe says, "I don't reckon any man can be bad with a wife like you." She also prayed Joe would get a job, and that very day he got a job as an elevator operator.

Meanwhile, back at church, people are concerned back about Joe's tardiness. Someone suggests that the Deacon should go and look for him, but all agree that with a sinner as notorious as Joe, only the Reverend's attentions will do. After the pastor arrives at Joe's they all head off for church.

The congregation is singing "Little Black Sheep" about a lost lamb that Jesus finds. Ethel Waters from the back row of the church joins in with a solo. Waters often sang at Billy Graham crusades (usually singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow"). Considering how Waters' voice filled coliseums, it would be amazing to hear her in a little country church.

The Reverend Green's sermon apparently puts children to sleep, but I'd love to hear his sermon just to hear Kenneth Spencer's sonorous voice. In comparison, James Earl Jones might qualify for the Vienna Boys Choir.

The service concludes with an altar call, the congregation singing "Old Ship of Sorrows." But Joe ducked out of service before the altar call, tempted by his gambling cronies. As mentioned before, Joe is shot and a battle for the man's soul takes place in the heavens. In that battle, the same actor who played the preacher plays the archangel.

SPOILER - It was all a dream. Except Joe being on death's door; that happened. But the Reverend Green can be found at Joe's bedside during the ordeal. The Reverend Green's voice alone earns this movie church Three Steeples, along with the voices of the Hall Johnson Choir which provide an excellent bonus.

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