Vincent Minnelli (ex-husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli) directed this morality tale in 1943. Cabin In The Sky stars Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne and features Louis Armstrong. The huge cast also includes lots of other top Black performers of the era: Bill Bailey (Pearl's brother), Butterfly McQueen, Willie Best, Mantan Moreland, Nick Stewart, listed as Nicodemus (best known as Lightin' from The Amos n Andy Show) and many more.
Cabin In The Sky was originally a play that ran on Broadway for 156 performances. Ethel Waters reprises her role as Petunia Jackson, as does Rex Ingram in his role of Lucifer Junior. An interesting note is the part of Little Joe Jackson played by Eddie Anderson in the movie was originated on Broadway by Dooley Wilson, the never to be forgotten piano player, Sam, from Casablanca.
The plot of A Cabin In The Sky (ACITS) is about Little Joe Jackson and his wish to do better and his wife Petunia's attempt to try to help him be a better man. We first see Little Joe going to church with Petunia and she's all excited about him becoming part of the church. At church, Little Joe gets called to come outside by some of his gambling buddies, who convince him to go into town and gamble with a big time gambler named Domino. Little Joe, unbeknown to him, gets slipped loaded dice by his buddies and Domino, thinking Little Joe is cheating, shoots him.
At home on his death bed, as Petunia prays for him to get better, the armies of The Devil and The Lord are both arguing over the soul of Little Joe. And when I say armies, I MEAN armies. Both sides are dressed in military type uniforms, with of course, The Devil's side being black and The Lord's side being white. Another good touch is that The Devil's army all have their hair twisted into little horns at the front of their heads.
It looks like Little Joe is on his way downstairs, but because of Petunia's strong prayers, Little Joe is given another chance. He's granted six more months of life to turn himself around. But Dang It! Wouldn't you know that there's a catch. Little Joe won't know he only has six more months to live and he must turn his life around on his own accord. I'll let you watch the rest of the movie yourself, to see how things turn out.
Ethel Waters was great in her role as Petunia Jackson. The five songs she performs in ACITS are all top notch, with "Taking A Chance On Love", a duet she performs with Eddie Anderson being my favorite. Eddie Anderson had performed in a song and dance act earlier in his career with a group known as Three Black Aces. His singing in ACITS isn't that strong, but his dancing was a joy and it was nice to see someone who could actually play a guitar, instead of just pretending to make chords.
I was disappointed that Louis Armstrong had such a small role in ACITS. He only appeared in one scene as one of The Devil's Idea Men. In that scene Louis is only featured playing the trumpet. Doing a little research, I found that he had another song "Ain't It The Truth" cut from the film. That song had also been cut from the film earlier, when it featured Lena Horne singing it in a bubble bath, since that was deemed to provocative for 1943 audiences.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra get to do a couple of swinging numbers near the end of the movie. Duke and his band are featured doing the first song. During their second song they are mainly background music for a great dance sequence.
Lena Horne, as Little Joe's temptress Sweet Georgia Brown, has two musical numbers, one by herself and one a duet with Eddie Anderson. While both songs are good, neither in
my opinion, were on the same the level as Ethel Waters' performances. I've read, that Ethel wasn't very happy with all the attention paid to Lena and it somewhat soured her on the movie, which is too bad, since Ethel is the real standout female performer in the film.
Two final things to watch for in ACITS, a dance number by Bill Bailey, which will make you remark "So, that's where Michael Jackson learned that move!" and a tornado scene, with the set and the tornado lifted straight from The Wizard Of Oz.
ACITS garners some criticism from people who see racial overtones in the film. I guess if you watch the movie looking for such, you may see something that I didn't. However, if you go into ACITS expecting to hear some good songs, see some good dancing, and get a few laughs, all included with a nice story and superbly acted, then I don't think you'll be disappointed.