Monday, February 1, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #16: Cabin in the Sky

US, 1943. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram.

I watched this 10 days ago or so and have been dreading writing about it ever since. It's the kind of film that's a racial minefield, an all-black musical created mostly by whites. Packed to the rafters with African-American stereotypes most of us would love to see buried forever, but brimming with performing talent like few films can command.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is a lazy gambler wh0 gets shot during a high-stakes game. Perched on the brink of death, his life is temporarily spared because God appreciates the prayers and pure soul of Anderson's wife, played by Ethel Waters. Anderson is given six months to mend his ways, with Satan's son, Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) and noble angel The General (Kenneth Spencer) trying to sway him to their side the entire time. Lucifer Jr. enacts a plan involving a lottery ticket and town hussy Lena Horne.

The problem is that, after over an hour of piousness, mixed with demeaning racist grammar like "I'm about the most miserabelest person that ever died! " from even the loftiest characters, the finale, in which most of the players have given themselves over to sin, evil seems a lot more fun. Waters is a truly gifted performer, but the conventionally-blocked and syrupy sweet numbers she gets to deliver on the homefront pale next to the wild tap dance of "Bubbles" Sublett. Spencer is stiff as a board as the General, but Ingram (the djinni from 1940's Thief of Bagdad) is riotously enjoyable as the devil's son. Not to mention that one of Junior's minions is Louis Armstrong, not given nearly enough to do, but blowing some fine trumpet and giving one of the film's better performances. Duke Ellington's classic early-40s band also appears in the den of sin at film's end, blowing great renditions of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Going Up".

Entirely too cringeworthy to be recommended, then, but loaded with many pleasure, some of them major.

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