The first musical directed by Vincente Minnelli showcases an all-star, all-black cast that includes Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Delivering solid entertainment and plenty of heart, Cabin in the Sky flaunts Minnelli's distinctive flair and features such memorable tunes as "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe." Warner Archive's top-flight Blu-ray presentation includes a new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements, rafter-raising audio, and several worthwhile supplements. Highly Recommended.
Vincente Minnelli toiled for two years as an apprentice in the Arthur Freed Unit before the MGM producer deemed him ready to tackle his first directorial assignment. And what a tricky assignment it was. Cabin in the Sky may seem like an innocuous musical today, but back in 1943, it was a controversial and risky project. Not only was an all-black musical a tough sell to a national audience during a racially segregated era but constructing the film so it wouldn't offend and degrade the population it depicts further challenged the fledgling director. Minnelli lacked experience - that's for sure - but his sensitivity and artistic vision made him the perfect choice to helm what would turn out to be a charming, heartwarming, and very entertaining motion picture that painted a far more positive portrait of black America than any previous Hollywood film.
Based on a moderately successful Broadway musical, Cabin in the Sky exceeded expectations when it premiered in the spring of 1943, earning a hefty profit and putting Minnelli on the cinematic map. Prior to production, Freed vowed he would "spare nothing and...put everything behind [Cabin in the Sky]. It will be a picture on a par with any major film under the MGM banner." And he delivered on his promise. Freed assembled an impressive cast - Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra - and Minnelli presents them in the finest possible light, pulling out all the musical stops in a celebration of black culture. Sadly, some stereotypes and biases still crop up, but despite those occasional uncomfortable reminders of an ignorant and bigoted age, Cabin in the Sky stands as a groundbreaking film that tried to advance and broaden social attitudes long before the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
The simple story, which, much like The Wizard of Oz, emphasizes the themes of home and family through a fantasy lens (there's even a tornado sequence that uses some of Oz's special effects footage), focuses on the moral struggles of Little Joe Jackson (Anderson), an amiable, good-hearted, yet shiftless man who loves to gamble and drink, much to the chagrin of his devoted, pious wife Petunia (Waters). Just when Petunia's tireless efforts to put Joe on the right track are finally paying off, his disreputable cronies lure him back into their fold. A subsequent barroom brawl leads to Joe getting shot, and while his soul hangs in limbo, the spiritual forces of good and evil, personified by The General (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer Jr. (Ingram), argue over his fate.
After much negotiation, they agree to give Joe a second chance at life, offering him six months to prove whether he's worthy of admittance to the kingdom of heaven or doomed to a hellish hereafter. And just like the miniature angel and devil on the shoulders of cartoon characters, The General and Lucifer Jr. surreptitiously try to tip Joe's moral scales in their respective directions. Lucifer Jr., though, has an ace-in-the-hole operative, the beautiful temptress Georgia Brown (Horne), who's deployed to lead the all-too-susceptible Joe down the Primrose Path.
With its mixture of whimsy and warmth, an array of vital memorable characters, and a host of relatable themes, Cabin in the Sky sails along as it gently reinforces core values. Religion swirls around the story, but the screenplay by Joseph Schrank rarely preaches. At times, emotions run hot, but the overwhelming feeling that permeates this picture is joy. The uplifting songs (the most notable of which are the inspirational title tune, the heartfelt, Oscar-nominated ballad "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," and the lilting "Taking a Chance on Love"), exhilarating dances, jazzy orchestrations, and the mile-wide smiles that so often grace the actors' faces buoy our spirits and keep us aloft throughout.
If any director knows his way around a musical, it's Minnelli and Cabin in the Sky kicked off a career that would spawn such classics as Meet Me in St. Louis (which he would make the following year), An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and Gigi. To think this was his first musical, not to mention his first film, boggles the mind, but all the trademark Minnelli elements are on display. Cabin in the Sky is polished, elegant, energetic, lyrical, and - despite its relatively low budget - very lovely to look at.
Minnelli deserves a lot of credit, but Cabin in the Sky would be nothing without its sublime cast. Whether their roles are big or small, all the actors contribute stellar work. Waters, of course, leads the list, filing a sincere, often luminous portrayal that rivets attention. Her inimitable, velvety voice and radiant aura make all her songs memorable, and she even shows off some fancy footwork, partnering with the legendary John W. Bubbles (who years earlier gave a young Fred Astaire dancing lessons) in a high-kicking routine. Known for her temperament off-screen (she reportedly resented the expansion of Horne's role and regarded the young, beautiful, and extremely talented singer as a threat), she's the spitting image of serenity here and carries the film with grace and ease.
Waters and the imposing, irresistible Ingram reprise their stage roles, but the original Little Joe, Dooley Wilson (the piano-playing Sam in Casablanca), was passed over in favor of the more famous Anderson, whose raspy voice, expressive face, and high-energy performance enliven the part. Gone with the Wind fans will spot Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) and Oscar Polk (Pork) in minor roles, such recognizable character actors as Willie Best, Mantan Moreland, and Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy Dandridge) supply some flair, and Bill Bailey (brother of Pearl Bailey) performs an electrifying dance solo.
And then there are the three musical titans - Horne, Armstrong, and Ellington. Horne rarely got the chance to play dramatic parts (her MGM film appearances were limited to guest shots that could be easily deleted when Southern theater owners demanded it) and she makes the most of Georgia Brown, bringing a playful allure and plenty of spice to a flashy role. Though her rendition of "Ain't It the Truth" in a bubble bath was cut (the footage was later included in an MGM short that's part of this disc's special features; see review below), she delivers pizzazz and glamor galore with "Honey in the Honeycomb."
Armstrong, who totes his trusty trumpet but only plays it for a scant 30 seconds, also recorded "Ain't It the Truth" and his version was cut as well (the audio still exists and also is included in the disc extras). As a result, Armstrong doesn't get to show off his considerable musical chops, but his high-wattage personality and electric, grin nevertheless juice up the film. Ellington and his swinging orchestra only made a handful of screen appearances - Cabin in the Sky would prove to be their final feature film gig - and they blow the roof off a nightclub figuratively right before the tornado does it literally.
Cabin in the Sky deserves a more lofty place in the annals of movie musical history. It's an enormously entertaining feel-good film that's packed with fine performances, great songs, and more heart than many of its genre cousins. The racial stereotyping can't be overlooked, dismissed, or forgiven, but it shouldn't overshadow all the wonderful, artistic components that comprise this magical musical. Cabin in the Sky is a little slice of heaven that every fan of Golden Age musicals should cozy up to. Ain't that the truth.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Cabin in the Sky arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand-new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements yields a superb 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that far outclasses the 2006 DVD. Excellent contrast and clarity, rich blacks, bright whites, and varied grays produce a vibrant, often arresting film-like image that faithfully honors the cinematography of two-time Oscar nominee Sidney Wagner, who would sadly pass away a mere four years later at the tender age of 46. Grain is present, but it's beautifully resolved. Strong shadow delineation enhances nocturnal scenes, costume textures are distinct, fine details are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups highlight beads of sweat, teardrops, Waters' radiant, toothy smiles and Horne's breathtaking beauty. All the speckles, blotches, and reel change markers that plagued the DVD have been erased, leaving a pristine picture that showcases the artistry of this engaging and delightful musical.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies the kind of robust sound movie fans expect from a musical. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of Louis Armstrong's blaring trumpet and Duke Ellington's brassy, swinging big band, as well as the smooth-as-silk vocals of both Waters and Horne, without a hint distortion. A subtle volume boost adds extra oomph to the musical numbers, which benefit from superior fidelity and tonal depth. Sonic accents like gunfire and storm effects are crisp, all the dialogue and song lyrics are easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the purity of this very satisfying mix.
All the extras from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, which is good news indeed. The material is top-notch.
Audio Commentary - USC professors Todd Boyd and Drew Casper host this exceptional 2006 commentary that accompanies a standard definition print of the film. Boyd covers black stereotypes and cultural issues and analyzes the plot and characters, while Casper, who wrote a book about Minnelli and his work, examines the movie's style, construction, and musical numbers. Interpolated into their discussion are remarks from Evangela and Eva Anderson (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's widow and daughter), dancer Fayard Nicholas, and Lena Horne. Horne recalls how she was discovered and had no interest whatsoever in going into the movies, then describes the pressure she felt from organizations like the NAACP to stay in Hollywood to present a positive role model. The Anderson women share personal memories and Nicholas remembers his good friend Ethel Waters. This is a terrific commentary that provides essential context and perspective to this entertaining and important film.
Vintage Short: Studio Visit (SD, 10 minutes) - The highlight of this short, part of the popular and long-running Pete Smith Specialty series, is an outtake from Cabin in the Sky of Lena Horne singing "Ain't It the Truth" in a bubble bath. Horne mixes honey-toned vocals with a sexy, sly, and playful attitude and the result is a mesmerizing performance that would have further enhanced the movie. It's such a shame this number was cut (reportedly the censors pressured MGM to remove it), but we're lucky at least some of the footage was preserved (see clip below). The rest of this amiable one-reeler gives movie fans a backstage pass to a couple of MGM sets where novelty acts show off their talents. https://youtu.be/W7zLKZld5xM?si=UVEp6oQYVFRaNAom
Audio Outtake (SD, 6 minutes) - Stills and clips accompany Louis Armstrong's rendition of "Ain't It the Truth," which was deleted prior to the film's release. The sound quality is superb, so play this one loud!
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview touts "the screen's greatest gathering of musical entertainers!"
A morality tale that blessedly favors humor and heart over preachy platitudes, Cabin in the Sky boasts some of the finest musical talent of the era, a couple of classic tunes, and expert direction from a young Vincente Minnelli. Warner Archive honors this warm and wonderful musical with a new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements, excellent audio, and a terrific array of supplements. Highly Recommended.