Thursday, February 12, 2009

Faded Glory: Cabin in the Sky

Even if you have heard Duke Ellington’s band play “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” thousands of times before, you are still likely to feel a jolt of energy when they launch into it in Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky. Though his appearances in the classic MGM musical are brief, Ellington made the most of them. Simply being in such a high-profile studio project was a significant milestone at the time. From the 1920’s through the early 1940’s, nearly every film intended for an African-American audience was produced independently by entrepreneurial filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux. That makes Cabin in the Sky (trailer here) one of the few studio ringers in the Lincoln Center Film Society’s current retrospective series, Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema.

Even though Cabin is the screen adaptation of the Harold Arlen-Vernon Duke Broadway musical, it is a film jazz enthusiasts ought to see for the cast alone, including Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Lena Horne, in her first substantive screen role. It tells a Heaven Can Wait story of Little Joe, a small-time gambler who suffers an untimely demise, but is granted a six month reprieve to straighten-up and avoid spending eternity in a very hot climate. He might be tempted by the fast life, but his wife Petunia, played by Waters, is a truly devout woman. However, the forces of darkness, led by Lucifer, Jr., are not about to relinquish their claim so easily, calling in their secret weapon, the temptress Georgia Brown, played by the perfectly cast Lena Horne.

Even though Cabin was considered progressive at the time for its portrayal of serious, sympathetic African-American characters, many contemporary commentators take umbrage at its persistent racial stereotypes. While that is certainly fair to an extent, there remains much of enduring value in Cabin. In addition to some stirring music, the Christian themes are presented in a respectful, legitimately heartfelt manner. (In a case of life imitating art, Waters would perform extensively with Billy Graham’s ministry late in her career.)

Although some of the arrangements in Cabin are overly sweetened with strings, Ellington’s band swings hard. Featuring stalwarts like Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer, they tear through “Things” and “Going Up.” Waters also gives near definitive performances of the standards “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” However, we only hear a brief solo from Armstrong, as he revels with Lucifer, Jr.’s minions.

Frustratingly, Cabin is nearly as famous for what was left on the editing room floor as what was released on-screen. For years we were denied Horne’s “Ain’t It the Truth,” because the sight of her singing in a bathtub was considered too risqué. An Armstrong instrumental take of the same song was also excised, editing out what in retrospect would seem to be the most commercial scenes of the film.

Cabin very clearly illustrates how differently the two jazz greats managed their images. While Ellington’s band plays at a nightclub associated with sin and vice, Ellington himself is as dapper and sophisticated as always. Instead of mugging for the camera, he swings the band, period. Armstrong however, is stuck wearing devil horns in a supporting comedic role.

Granted, Cabin is in many ways imperfect and dated, but it is also a film of enormous historical significance. It also features some of the most entertaining numbers in the MGM musical catalog. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater on Monday (2/16) and Wednesday (2/18).