Considering Cabin in the Sky opens with on-screen text declaring its intent to honor other cultures, the movie clearly positioned itself, in 1943, as a progressive act of artistic diversity. And so the talented African-American cast labors beneath such well-intentioned paternalism as much as they do elements that register, today, as blatantly racist. Yet darn it if both hurdles aren’t leapt thanks to the performances, which are full of panache and power. I guess that’s what happens when you give Ethel Waters the microphone.
Waters stars as Petunia, the pious wife of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson). Although Little Joe tries to stay on the straight and narrow, he can’t quite shake his gambling ways. After he is shot during a card game, he’s visited on his deathbed by The General (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram), metaphysical manifestations of heaven and hell. Hearing Petunia’s prayers, they agree to give Little Joe one more chance—though the odds are stacked against him when a seductress from his past (Lena Horne) starts slinking around.
Cabin in the Sky is a heavy-handed morality tale (with suspect theology), yet once the performers grab ahold of the music, all that falls by the wayside. Waters and Anderson have a touching duet, the title number, that captures the friction at the heart of their marriage. Anderson also gets a number with Horne, “Life is Full of Consequence,” that humorously pairs his brassy croak against her silky tone. Later, at the local nightclub, it’s Waters’ turn to square off against Horne, and it’s no contest who comes out on top. “I’m speaking my mind,” Horne’s Georgia Brown declares. To which Petunia replies, “And I don’t hear a sound.” She then announces, “I suddenly feel a musical urge,” and lets it all loose on the dance floor, a full-bodied church woman outdoing Horne’s slender lady of the night.
Of course, it’s at this “sinful” nightclub where the best musical numbers take place (no wonder, considering Duke Ellington and His Orchestra are on stage). Vincente Minnelli, making his directing debut, eases his camera in on individual bits of performance and then swings back to reveal a full room of motion, all in a single take. This elegance can be seen right from the start of the movie, when another long take follows a bit of gossip as it’s whispered from the front row of church to the back. It was remarkable, in 1943, that none of the faces in that scene, or any other, are white. Cabin in the Sky could have handled its representation better, of course, but there is some solace in that fact that Waters, in particular, rises above the movie’s limitations.