Cabin in the Sky

(Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1943): In what certainly qualifies as one of the more dubious but revealing attempts at corporate political correctness, the Warner Brothers’ DVD release of Cabin in the Sky begins with the following unskippable pre-credit disclaimer: “The films you are about to see are a product of their time. They may reflect some of the prejudices that were commonplace in American society, especially when it came to the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”

And then, presumably, we are supposed to sit back and enjoy, our refined contemporary sensibilities providing some comforting distance and insulation from the ignorance and insensitivity of previous dark ages, and assured in the knowledge that we are creatures of more enlightened times.

What bullshit. First of the disclaimer serves to flatter us into the entirely arguable presumption that we’re any better, smarter or more racially unburdened by prejudice than folks were back in 1943, and secondly it picks on what might arguably stand as one of the most daring and progressive pop cultural artefacts of its day — an all-black musical produced by MGM, Hollywood’s most powerful mainstream studio — as an instance of prehistoric attitudes and shameful insensitivity. As far as I know, similar disclaimers are not (unskippably) evident on any releases of Gone With the Wind, Imitation of Life, Shaft, Assault on Precinct 13 or Big Momma’s House, all movies which in their way are equally ‘stereotypical’ instances of racial attitudes of their day, but which presumably require no lessons in historically hermetic packaging to contextualize and forgive our amusement. Why this movie of all movies that depict race in its time, and not the virtual thousands of others? And why, for god’s sake, not westerns, perhaps the most ubiquitous form of popular narrative in which the formulation of race was an essential part of the narrative’s function and purpose? Stereotypes, if that’s the word we wish to use, are also an inescapable part of pop culture’s industry: they’re the basic ingredients for the mass production of character, and crucial to the business of creating stories that are designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences in the most direct and simple terms. They made be ideological in meaning, but in purpose and function they’re purely practical. The less we have to do to understand what a character signifies, the more successful a signifier that character is.

In its way and in its day then, Cabin in the Sky was something of a bold leap outside of the ordinary, a musical which not only insisted upon the legitimacy of a fantasy world populated entirely by black people — a form of segregation yes, but segregation imagined as wish fulfillment and fantasy ideal, the stock in trade of the musical itself — but which presumed an appeal to popular audiences based on pure entertainment and escapist surrender, and which would not have existed if there wasn’t an underlying suspicion that the movie wouldn’t appeal to both black and white audiences — and mixed variations thereof — if it didn’t first and foremost function as a whole lot of fun. If anything, Cabin in the Sky reflects Hollywood’s endearingly arrogant presumption of its own divine transcendence: that nothing promoted colour-blindness quite like entertainment. Build that stairway to heaven sturdily enough — and Cabin literally does just that — and it will hold anyone’s dreams. Everybody wants to believe they have a crack at something better. If anything, race is something to be left at the bottom, and Hollywood profited from making everybody believe they were welcome to forget who they were for a while.

A Faustian fable adapted from a Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky depicts the struggle for the stained immortal soul of the likeable but good-for-nothing gunshot gambler Joe (Eddie Anderson) fought between agents of Heaven and Hell, both of which are depicted as uniformed brass-band marchers to different drummers. But if the side of Heaven is represented by the starched-white pomp of Kenneth Spencer’s The General, it’s Hell that provides the movie not only with comic relief but the tantalizing waft of jazz, sin and sex. (It’s no accident in this regard that Louis Armstrong, his hair teased into horns and his horn at his side, is on Rex Ingram’s ‘Lucifer Junior’s’ team competing for Joe’s soul.) Given six weeks to prove he’s above temptation, and provided with monumental moral and spiritual support by his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters), Joe nonetheless constantly tilts toward the dirty, juke-joint side of town, but who wouldn’t, considering that that’s not only where the booze flows and dice rolls, but where a palpitatingly bare-midriffed Lena Horne beckons, Duke Ellington leads the band, and everybody seems to be having such an insanely good time.

You’d choose Hell too, so it seems only logical that the movie achieves its moment of peak conviction and intensity when Waters’ Petunia, who has in no way undersold the better way of doing things by praying, singing (most unforgettably ‘Happiness is a Thing Called Joe’ and ‘Taking a Chance on Love’) and direct-dialing God himself, finally decides to wrestle for her Joe on the devil’s own terms, which means going down to the dance hall and showing them all how the business of being bad is really done, in the process merely confirming what the movie’s been so unconvincingly trying to deny all along: that maybe Heaven is all sin, all the time, and the only way to get there is to give up, give in and dance.

Despite the literal appearance of that stairway to heaven at the end of the movie, which has had to resort from stock footage from The Wizard of Oz to properly destroy the juke joint and pave the way to the righteous upward path, the fact of the matter is Joe and Petunia hardly seem to be heading to a better place when the credits are about to fall and even Joe makes doleful note of just how much climbing is involved in getting to the right place. The fun is being left behind and below: we know it and they know it, and God knows Vincente Minnelli, making his movie debut after scorching his way up and down Broadway, knows it. Watch how his camera seems to practically take flight whenever required to enter the sinful side of the movie’s street, how much more jazzed the young director’s muse is when tempted by matters of the flesh. Like just about everybody involved in Cabin in the Sky, Minnelli knows that piety may play better in principle, but practice is what gives sinning its edge. No wonder he was about to embark on a career as the musical’s most stylish and shamelessly sensual manipulator. Heaven could wait until the bar closed, and everybody’s money was the same colour. (Warner Home Video)