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143. CABIN IN THE SKY, 1943

A joyous and heavenly all-Black classic that jumpstarted a new kind of movie musical

Ethel Waters, Kenneth Spencer, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Lena Horne, and Rex Ingram star in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

If you love funny, moving, and magical entertainment, “Cabin in the Sky” is for you, for this delightful musical fantasy is an explosion of energy, emotion, and imagination. Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), who made a majority of the best, most polished, and stylish musicals in cinema history, “Cabin in the Sky” is among their most original and daring. It was the most prestigious all-Black cast film made by a major studio, and its inventive direction by Vincente Minnelli marked a changing point in movie musicals. The film earned a Best Song Academy Award nomination, is filled with legendary performers, helped establish Hollywood’s first Black sex symbol, and is one of the most uplifting movie musicals of the 1940s. As such, it's bound to leave a song in your heart, an unforgettable imprint in your mind, and a smile on your face.


Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson sing the title song  while having a picnic in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

“Cabin in the Sky” revolves around married couple “Little Joe” and “Petunia Jackson”. “Petunia” is a woman of deep religious devotion who lives by the power of her faith, while “Little Joe” is a good-natured man who struggles with weaknesses for gambling and women, particularly the sexy “Georgia Brown”. While trying to reform, “Little Joe” gets sucked back into gambling only to end up getting shot. On his deathbed, he’s visited by "Lucifer Jr.", who's come to take him to Hell. But upon hearing "Petunia's" powerful praying, the Lord sends his “General” to investigate and "Little Joe" is given six months to save his soul. The catch is that he won't remember any of this when he wakes. With “Lucifer Jr.” and the “The General” each pulling his conscience in different directions, what follows is the entertaining plight of “Little Joe” wrestling with his own scruples. What could easily have been a heavy moral tale is anything but, as it bursts with humor, devotion, gorgeous tunes, and even some fun special effects.


Kenneth Spencer, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Lena Horne, and Rex Ingram in the battle between good and evil in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, classic films are historical reflections of the times in which they were made, and as such, often don't reflect today’s consciousness, and “Cabin in the Sky” is an example. Made at a time of deep racism, the film does contain some troublesome elements (such as “Lucifer Jr.’s” stereotyped crew of henchmen or mammy figures wearing head bandanas), but in its day, the film itself was progressive. Produced in the stylish, escapist, and entertaining tradition of MGM’s movie musicals, this fable was the most artful and prestigious of only a handful of Hollywood Studio Era made all-Black cast films, and contains elements of Black music, spirituality, and folklore – unusual for a mainstream movie of the day.


Rex Ingram is Lucifer Jr, surrounded by his idea men, Louis Armstrong, Willie Best, Montan Moreland,  in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

To help put this film in perspective, one must remember that minorities were almost exclusively portrayed in Hollywood films at the time as one-dimensional stereotypes, so opportunities for them were extremely limited. And because of rampant racism in the Deep South, minorities were often cast in tangential roles which could easily be cut from a film when shown there without affecting the story. There was also the Motion Picture Production Code (which I explain in my “Red Dust” post), which forbid depictions of any type of interracial social or romantic relationships in studio films, making decent roles for minorities even more restrictive, and causing white actors to play minorities. Movie theaters themselves were largely segregated, with separate seating sections, days, or even entire theaters designated for Blacks or whites.


Kenneth Spencer and Rex Ingram fight for Eddie Rochester Anderson's soul in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Separate from the studios, over 150 independent companies made and/or distributed what became known as race films – films produced for and featuring casts of a specific race (predominantly Blacks). Though the bulk have been lost, it is thought that over 500 race films were produced between 1915 and 1952, mostly financed and made by whites with some exceptions (such as those made by the Black-owned Micheaux Film Corporation and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company). Race films provided minority actors rich opportunities to use their talents, something Hollywood films rarely did. These films began disappearing by the end of the 1940’s as segregation started weakening and Black actors began getting a few leading roles in major Hollywood movies (such as Ethel Waters in 1949’s “Pinky", or Sidney Poitier in 1950’s "No Way Out”).


Eddie Rochester Anderson and Lena Horne pull up to Jim Henry's Paradise Club in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

“Cabin in the Sky” was a big deal, made with the hopes of attracting both Black and white audiences. It was the fourth all-Black cast film produced by a major Hollywood studio, the previous three being “Hallelujah!” and “Hearts in Dixie” both in 1929, and 1936’s “The Green Pastures”. Only two more were made during the Studio Era: “Stormy Weather” later in 1943; and 1954's “Carmen Jones”. A financial success, “Cabin in the Sky” garnered mostly favorable reviews, was especially well received by southern Black audiences, was a step in opening doors for subsequent Black films and performers, and holds an important place in the history of the movie musical and in Black cinema.


Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson star in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

The film was based on a 1940 Broadway musical of the same name which ran for 19 weeks to critical acclaim. Enthralled by it, MGM producer Arthur Freed bought the rights, sending fear in all directions. Studio executives were nervous because the Broadway show had not made money (it was at a $25,000 loss until Freed paid $40,000 for the rights), and the Black community was concerned how they'd be portrayed, given how poorly and inaccurately they were depicted in previous major studio films (particularly the all-Black “The Green Pastures”, rife with condescending stereotypes). So before production began, the script was shown to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and respected Black composer Hall Johnson (whose choir appears in the film), for them to offer suggestions. And after the film was edited, test screenings were held for weeks before the opening.

Portrait photo of MGM movie musical film producer Arthur Freed behind his desk holding papers
Arthur Freed

After producing “The Wizard of Oz” and “Babes in Arms”, both in 1939, Freed was given his own production unit at MGM. Among his strongest gifts was his uncanny instinct at finding talent, and he assembled a group of creative artists (performers, directors, choreographers, costume designers, and so on – many new to filmmaking) from which he’d draw upon for the musicals he’d produce. One of them was Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli had made a name for himself designing, directing, and staging Broadway shows, and Freed perceptively thought he’d make a great film director. He put Minnelli under contract in 1940 and told him to study and observe all aspects of filmmaking. Eventually Minnelli began staging musical numbers in MGM movies that included “Strike Up the Band” and “Panama Hattie”.


Butterfly McQueen and Ethel Waters hear a gunshot in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Although Minnelli had never directed an entire film, Freed chose him to direct "Cabin in the Sky" and gave him complete creative control. Appalled by racist portrayals of Blacks in movies, Minnelli wanted the characters in this film to be dignified, and one of his first battles in doing so was with MGM’s art department, who presented him sketches of rundown looking sets for the impoverished “Jackson” home. Minnelli wanted their home to look like they were proud of it and took care of it no matter how poor they were, so he made the art department redo the sets to suit his vision. He also made a decision to show the film in sepia tones rather than black and white, which helped boost the fantasy aspect of the story and give it that extra panache (sadly, all restored modern versions are in black and white).


Bill Bailey watches Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson dance to Taking a Chance on Love in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Photo of Hollywood and Broadway film and theater director movie maker Vincente Minnelli, husband of Judy Garland, father of Liza Minnelli
Vincente Minnelli

Additionally, Minnelli felt that nearly all movie musicals at the time were static or old-fashioned and didn’t integrate their songs into the story – that plots would pause for musical numbers which had their own separate sensibilities. Blessed with an inventively boundless imagination, he set out to change that, feeling the world inside a film (including its musical numbers) should have a consistent quality and that a film should have one unified, continuous flow. He accomplished all of this in “Cabin in the Sky”.


The church congregation sings Little Black Sheep in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Minnelli’s vibrant direction adds excitement to every scene. A glorious example is the film’s first song, "Little Black Sheep”, sung by church congregants. Nearly the entire song takes place in one continuous shot as Minnelli's camera floats over the singing congregants, with soloists rising to sing a line or two and people whispering about “Little Joe”, and it ends on “Petunia” and “Little Joe” seated in the back of the church. The song comes alive while continuing the story. All of the film’s songs are just as seamlessly integrated, be it “Petunia’s” feeling the need to express her joy in the tender "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe”, or when "Little Joe" and "Georgia Brown" vie with one another in "Life is Full of Consequence”. All throughout, Minnelli moves his camera inquisitively about, stopping to highlight emotions and action through beautiful framing and stirring closeups, and utilizing lighting and sets to further establish mood and atmosphere.


Ethel Waters sings as Butterfly McQueen and Eddie Rochester Anderson listen in church in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Minnelli’s stylish sophisticated direction was a breath of fresh air for the movie musical. As he said of “Cabin in the Sky” in the book “The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak”, “I liked to feel that numbers should be given as much importance as dramatic sequences, that they should be woven into the story completely in a way they hadn’t been before”. His work proved a bridge between previous musicals and a more natural, flowing one in which the songs, story, performances, and direction equally blend. As a result, it launched a new period in movie musicals – when a bulk of the greatest were made. You can read more about Vincent Minnelli, Arthur Freed, and the movie musical in my posts on “An American in Paris”, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, and “Singin’ in the Rain”. Just click the film titles to open those posts.


Ethel Waters stars in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

A large part of “Cabin in the Sky’s” appeal undoubtedly comes from its sensational performances, spearheaded by Ethel Waters who stars as “Petunia Jackson”. With an infectious warmth and a sparkle in her eyes, Waters paints a whole-souled picture of a loving woman trying to keep her husband in the right. Waters was already an enormously popular and influential jazz and blues singer known for her sweet voice, unusual singing style, great articulation, and ability to saturate a song with emotions that audiences could feel, and “Cabin in the Sky” gives ample opportunities to witness this force of nature, be it her overpowering hope and love while singing “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” or deep despair reprising the film’s title song. Her natural delivery and abundant sensitivity while acting and singing keep “Petunia” and the film wholly enthralling.


Ethel Waters prays in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

portrait photo of younger blue and jazz singer Hollywood Broadway actress movie star Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters had a very tough childhood. Born to poverty outside Philadelphia to a teenage mother as the result of a rape, she was raised by her grandmother and felt unloved and unwanted. After working menial jobs, at the age of 17 Waters began singing and dancing in vaudeville and with her tall and skinny build, was billed "Sweet Mama Stringbean”. Performing in nightclubs (including Harlem’s famed The Cotton Club), her very distinct approach and style singing the blues made her a sensation. She began recording music in 1921 and in her career recorded well over 200 songs with many hits, including two # 1's: 1929's "Am I Blue?” and 1933's "Stormy Weather”, both of which became her signature songs (and along with “Dinah”, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame). A few of her other notable songs include "Sweet Georgia Brown", "There'll Be Some Changes Made", and "Supper Time”. Waters had a trailblazing Broadway career which began with the 1927 musical "Africana" and included standout roles in 1933's "As Thousands Cheer", 1935’s “At Home Abroad” (directed by Minnelli), and a starring role in 1939's "Mamba's Daughters” (for which she became the first Black actress to have a lead in a Broadway drama). She also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for 1950’s "Member of the Wedding”. At one point, Waters was the highest paid actress on Broadway.


Ethel Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson at the bar in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Waters made her film debut in the 1929 musical "On with the Show!", and appeared in ten more films by 1959, including "Tales of Manhattan”, “Cairo”, "Stage Door Canteen”, "The Member of the Wedding", and 1949's “Pinky", which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, making her the second Black performer to be Oscar nominated (the first being Hattie McDaniel for 1939's "Gone with the Wind"). Waters’ final film was 1959's "The Sound and the Fury". She also appeared in short films and on TV, became the first Black person to star in their own television show (1939's "The Ethel Waters Show”), and the first Black woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award (for a 1961 episode of "Route 66”). She also starred in the title role in the first season of the 1950 sitcom “Beulah”. Waters’ tough beginnings turned her into an angry person, which I’m sure her encounters with racism only amplified, and as she became more successful her ego grew, and she was known to be an absolute terror (such as causing movie director John Ford to quit the film ‘Pinky” because he couldn’t deal with her, or verbally attacking Duke Ellington for not playing her music the way she wanted).


Ethel Waters sings Happiness is a Thing Called Joe while doing laundry in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

early portrait photo of blue jazz singer Hollywood Broadway movie film actress star Ethel Waters in white fur coat
Ethel Waters

In 1957, Waters attended the Billy Graham Crusade, which she felt filled a void. Touring with the Crusade became her main focus for the rest of her life. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Christian Music Hall of Fame, was pictured on a 1994 US Commemorative postage stamp, and has a historical marker named for her in her hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania. Waters wrote two autobiographies, 1951’s "His Eye Is On The Sparrow: An Autobiography”, and 1975’s "To Me It’s Wonderful". She was married three times (the first at the age of 13), was bisexual, had a live-in relationship with dancer Ethel Williams, had no children, and was the great-aunt of singer-songwriter Crystal Waters. The great Ethel Waters died in 1977 at the age of 80.


Rex Ingram wants to take Eddie Rochester Anderson to Hell in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

portrait photo of a young radio, film, Hollywood movie star character Black actor Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson
Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson

Another truly wonderful performance in “Cabin in the Sky” is that of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson who stars as “Little Joe Jackson”, “Petunia’s” husband who's wrestling with the devil. Where Waters brings a sweeping dose of heart to the film, Anderson adds the bulk of the comedy with masterful timing, amusing physicality, and genuine emotion. It’s a first-rate, consistently solid performance in which he plays the comedy to the hilt without overdoing it. Anderson deftly listens and reacts to his fellow actors, and his chemistry with Waters carries such a natural glow and familiarness that we completely believe they are a married couple and that she could love him no matter what. He shines in such moments as when dealing with “Lucifer Jr.” and “The General” on his deathbed, wholeheartedly listening and dancing (even doing the moon walk) to “Taking a Chance on Love”, and singing "Life is Full of Consequence” with “Georgia Brown”. Marvelous and hilarious at the same time, Anderson is guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face.


Eddie Rochester Anderson stars in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

portrait photo of a young radio, film, Hollywood movie star character Black actor Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson at NBC microphone

Known for his raspy voice (the result of constantly shouting while selling newspapers as a boy), Eddie Anderson’s considerable comic talents eventually landed him a spot on the hugely popular radio show "The Jack Benny Program” in 1937, as Benny's valet. Anderson was so popular, he became Benny's sidekick and the first Black person to have a regular role on a national radio program. The two appeared together on radio, films, and TV for over two decades, and Anderson’s character was so popular, he became known as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. A major radio star by the time of "Cabin in the Sky", he'd already appeared in over 50 films. For a time, he was the highest-paid Black actor in Hollywood. You can read more about the life and career of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in my post on "You Can't Take It with You”. Be sure to check it out.


Lena Horne flirts with Eddie Rochester Anderson in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

The third star of “Cabin in the Sky” is the sublime Lena Horne who plays “Georgia Brown”, the woman “Little Joe” can't resist. Described as “one of ‘Lucifer’s’ favorite daughters”, “Georgia” is easily swayed to unwittingly help “Lucifer Jr.” try to obtain “Little Joe’s” soul, as deliciously seen in her first appearance primping while reacting to “Lucifer Jr.’s” suggestions. With her powerhouse singing, Horne adds a girlish charm to “Georgia’s” devilishly kittenish ways. There’s a playful quality as she devours “Little Joe” with her eyes and body during the song “Life is Full of Consequences” before becoming a full-blown temptress singing the sexually charged "Honey in the Honeycomb”. This was Horne’s first major film role and was instrumental in establishing her as Hollywood’s first glamorous Black movie star. In addition to singer, actress, and great beauty, Horne went on to become a legendary icon, civil rights activist, and one of the 20th Century’s most popular entertainers.


Ethel Waters, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Bubbles John Wl Sublett, and Lena Horne at the club in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Horne and Minnelli first met in New York where they instantly bonded and talked of working together. They happened to both move to Hollywood around the same time and he directed her two musical numbers in the 1942 MGM musical “Panama Hattie”, which immediately defined her sultry and exotic screen image. The two became close friends for life with unsubstantiated rumors of a romantic relationship. Minnelli looked after Horne during the making of “Cabin in the Sky”, and being a professional, she was respected and loved by everyone on the set. Everyone but Waters that is. Waters loathed Horne, and the cheerful set would turn uneasy when Waters arrived. According to James Gavin’s book, “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne”, “Waters decided that the studio had hired Horne as part of a conspiracy to humiliate her. She made no secret of her assumptions that the young singer had gotten the part by sleeping with the director – an appalling notion to her, given the gossip about Minnelli’s homosexuality”.


Lena Horne sings Honey in the Honeycomb to Eddie Rochester Anderson and people in the nightclub in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

Horne was supposed to dance to "Honey in the Honeycomb” while Waters sang the song, but during rehearsal Horne broke a bone in her ankle, which Waters reportedly reveled in, saying aloud when it happened, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform” (and when someone brought Horne a pillow for her foot, Waters went on a tirade). Horne returned the next day in a cast, and Minnelli restaged the number with “Georgia” singing the song sitting on the bar and “Petunia” reprising it and dancing. Thank goodness, for it is one of only two songs Horne sings in the film. Horne's main number, "Ain't It the Truth”, sung while taking a bubble bath, was cut from the film before it opened (it’s believed censors thought it too sexy and immoral for a Black woman to sing in a bath tub). Decades later that scene made it into the 1994 documentary about MGM musicals, “That’s Entertainment, III”.


Lena Horne primps herself in the mirror in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Hollywood movie star Black sex symbol film actress singer, legend icon, glamor photo young Lena Horne
Lena Horne

Brooklyn-born Lena Horne's parents divorced when she was about three, and she traveled the road with her actress mother, returning to New York when she was 12. Dropping out of high school, she began dancing and soon singing at Harlem's famed Cotton Club at the age of 16, and was taken under the wings of such musical geniuses as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Her first Broadway appearance was in 1934's "Dance with Your Gods", and her first film appearance was as a Cotton Club dancer in the 1935 short film "Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party”. She then toured as a singer for Noble Sissle & His Orchestra, where he taught her how to carry herself and move onstage, and with whom she recorded her first songs. In 1938, she made her actual film debut singing in the 1938 race film "The Duke is Tops", and in 1939 broke racial barriers as the lead vocalist for the nearly all-white Charlie Barnet Orchestra swing band (sometimes having to eat or sleep on the tour bus when they stopped at restaurants or hotels that didn’t serve Negros). A solo gig at New York’s Cafe Society nightclub followed. It was the first racially integrated night club in the United States where any form of racism was forbidden as per its owner, the white and Jewish Barney Josephson.


Rex Ingram gives Lena Horne devilish suggestions in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

At this point, Horne’s beauty was her most valuable asset, as she was still evolving into an artist. She could sing on pitch, had a pretty voice, a solid stage presence, but sang devoid of deep feeling. Because she didn’t sing like other Black singers, was light skinned, and sang with Latin rhythms, some thought she was Latin, and Josephson challenged her to present herself as Negro, to feel the songs she sang, and to sing the blues (something she didn’t think she could do). During her ten-month Cafe Society run, she observed and studied the club’s other performers (such as Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey). She also appeared in a short race film set in Cafe Society, 1941’s “Boogie Boogie Dream”. Her stint at Cafe Society raised her career and artistry to a new level.


Billy Rowe, Vincente Minnelli, Lena Horne, and Melvyn Douglas on the set while filming the all-Black movie musical film "Cabin in the Sky"
Billy Rowe, Vincente Minnelli, Lena Horne, and Melvyn Douglas on the set of "Cabin in the Sky"

Invited to sing in Los Angeles at the Little Trocadero, Horne traveled West. Her beauty and growing talent as a singer with her own style made her a success. Freed Unit musical director and vocal coach Roger Edens saw her at the Little Trocadero and introduced her to Freed. After singing for Freed and studio chief Louis B. Mayor, Horne was signed to a long-term contract with MGM, becoming the second Black person to do so (the first was Nina Mae McKinney, signed to a five-year contract in 1929). Horne’s seven-year contract stipulated she would only sing and play legitimate roles and not play maids, cooks, illiterates, or other stereotypical parts assigned to Blacks at the time. She was given the studio’s full star treatment.


Lena Horne on a hammock, stars as Georgia Brown in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

But even at MGM, racism reared its ugly head, as hairdressing department head Sydney Guilaroff recounted in his autobiography “Crowning Glory”, when preparing Horne for her studio debut in "Panama Hattie": “Despite all the glory of MGM’s golden era, the studio’s treatment of Lena Horne was unforgivable… not one of my hairdressers at MGM would so much as touch her, and as head of the department, I was appalled by such rudeness directed against anyone of any color. In order to serve Lena’s needs as an actress, I had to beg a woman named Priscilla, one of the leaders of the hairdressing and makeup union, to get me the finest Black hairdresser she could find to become Lena’s standby, the artist who remained on the set to maintain the style I gave Lena each morning for that day’s particular scene. The person hired [Tiny Kyle] became the first Black hairstylist in the history of MGM to serve in that capacity”. Horne also experienced discrimination in the studio’s commissary, as the manager wouldn’t serve her until Mayer stepped in to make sure she'd always be welcome.


Hollywood movie star Black sex symbol film actress singer, legend icon, glamor photo young Lena Horne
Lena Horne

Though not a critical success, "Panama Hattie" made money, and critics praised Horne's two musical numbers as the film’s highlights. She was glamorous, sexy, confident, proud, and unattainable – something audiences never saw before from a Black person in a studio film. Horne was on the path to stardom. Being an avid movie buff since she was a child, she badly wanted to act and not just sing in movies, and to her joy, “Cabin in the Sky” came next. But even after the splash she made in this film, MGM didn’t know what to do with a Black musical star. So Horne returned to New York for a six week gig at the Savoy-Plaza, becoming the first Black entertainer to play an extended run at an upscale white hotel. MGM then loaned her to 20th Century Fox for their own all-Black musical, “Stormy Weather”, which featured more top Black talent, including Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers.


Lena Horne shows off her dress and jewels and accessories in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

Top-billed in “Stormy Weather”, Horne was to sing the title song which she feared because it was Waters’ signature song. Waters was known for expressing deep pain when she sang it, and Horne was brought up not to express her feelings. After two days and many takes with the film’s director trying to coax passion from her while prerecording the song, Cab Calloway whispered something in Horne’s ear and she instantly sang the song with tears in her voice and eyes (he reportedly whispered “Ethel Waters”). The film was a box-office hit and her performance of the song was so strong, “Stormy Weather” became Horne's signature song.


Kenneth Spencer, Ethel Waters, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Lena Horne star in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
“Cabin in the Sky”

Now the top Black entertainer in America, MGM sent Horne to do charitable work, and she also entertained troops during World War II (but because the Army required segregated audiences, she’d refuse to perform where Black servicemen were seated behind POW’s). With no plans to make another all-Black movie, MGM was floundering about how to cast her, so she was put in films singing songs that could easily be removed by local distributors for Southern audiences without affecting the plot (such as "Ziegfeld Follies”, "Till the Clouds Roll By”, “Words and Music”, and her final under contract, 1950’s “Duchess of Idaho”). As she said decades later, “I never felt like I really belonged in Hollywood. At that time, they didn’t quite know what to do with me, a Black performer. So I usually just came on, sang a song, and made a quick exit”. Sadly “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” turned out to be her only major film roles, and two of only three in which she acted.


Hollywood movie star Black sex symbol film actress singer, legend icon, glamor photo young Lena Horne
Lena Horne

1950 was a tricky year for Horne. She and MGM parted ways, and because it was being leaked by the press, she went public with her secret marriage to white MGM musical director and composer Lennie Hayton (interracial marriage was still illegal in most US states, so they married in Paris in 1947). Also in 1950, because of her extensive civil rights work, the outspoken Horne was listed as a communist (even though she wasn’t) as part of the McCarthy Era, which was targeting liberals, homosexuals, Jews, and minorities, and Horne was blacklisted from working in Hollywood (see my post on "High Noon" for more about McCarthyism and blacklisting). In her career, Horne appeared in 16 feature films, others include "Meet Me in Las Vegas", "I Dood It", "Death of a Gunfighter" (her only non-singing role, little more than a cameo), and her final, 1978’s “The Wiz”. She appeared in over 100 TV shows from 1951 through 2004, mostly as a musical guest, including "The Muppet Show", "The Judy Garland Show”, "Sinatra Duets", and "Sesame Street”.


Eddie Rochester Anderson falls for Lena Horne in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

In 1958 Horne earned a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award nomination for the Broadway musical “Jamaica" (which included the song “Ain’t It the Truth” cut from “Cabin in the Sky”), and in 1981, won a Special Tony Award, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards for her autobiographical one-woman Broadway show "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music”. I was lucky enough to see that show and can honestly say it was something to behold and the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. My mom and sister accompanied me, and I still remember my mother telling me several days later that she still couldn’t sleep because of her adrenaline watching the show. Horne earned eight career Grammy Award nominations (winning two), plus a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1989. Her countless accolades also include a Kennedy Center Honor, NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame, and the ASCAP Pied Piper. She was married twice, and her marriage to Hayton lasted until his death in 1971. She had one child, Gail (who married film director Sidney Lumet), and her great grandson is actor Jake Cannavale. Lena Horne died in 2010 at the age of 92.


Louis Armstrong has an idea for Rex Ingram in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Another legendary performer in “Cabin in the Sky” is Louis Armstrong who plays “The Trumpeter”, one of “Lucifer Jr.’s” think men. He’s in one scene that takes place in the Idea Department of the Hotel Hades, as they all try to figure out how to entrap “Little Joe”, which opens with Armstrong playing his trumpet. Armstrong originally had his own song – a big production number version of "Ain't It the Truth” (which “Georgia” reprised), but like “Georgia’s" rendition, it was cut from the film. Footage of Armstrong’s version has been lost.


Portrait photo of young music legend jazz founder actor singer Louis Armstrong holding his trumpet
Louis Armstrong

New Orleans-born Louis Armstrong remains one of the most important, famous, and influential figures in jazz music. Considered one of the founding fathers of jazz, his unmatched, innovative, and improvisational trumpet playing began a tradition of jazz instruments being featured within a song. He is credited with pioneering scat singing, made famous by his 1926 song "Heebie Jeebies”, where he improvised sounds when he forgot the words while recording. Armstrong, also known as “Satchmo”, began recording music in 1923, and was soon touted as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player". While touring and recording, he appeared in movies starting with 1930's "Ex-Flame" (“Cabin in the Sky” was his tenth film), on radio, and TV, and broke racial barriers of his day, becoming an international figure and beloved icon regardless of race. That said, part of the Black community disliked him because he didn't take a strong vocal stand in the civil rights movement, and felt he was an "Uncle Tom" figure (someone trying to win the approval of whites).


Jazz music legend, icon, portrait photo of young Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet
Louis Armstrong

Armstrong appeared in over eighty TV shows and thirty films, others include "High Society", "New Orleans", "The Glenn Miller Story", "Paris Blues", and his final, 1969’s "Hello Dolly!". His countless honors include three Grammy Award nominations (and one win), a posthumously awarded Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972, a dozen songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he even has an asteroid named after him ("9179 Satchmo”). His hit songs include "What a Wonderful World", "On the Sunny Side of the Street", "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "St. Louis Blues", and "When the Saints Go Marching In”. He also famously collaborated with Ella Fitzgerald. His incredible sense of rhythm, contagious exuberance, and musical genius are extraordinary and his influence on music is immeasurable. He was married four times. Louis Armstrong died in 1971 at the age of 69.


Duke Ellington makes a cameo appearance in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Young photo of father of jazz, icon, music legend, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington

Yet another legendary musician in “Cabin in the Sky” is Duke Ellington, who appears in a cameo with his Orchestra performing inside a nightclub. In a fantastic dance number, dancers swing and sway to Ellington’s jazzy song “Going Up”, leading us inside the club where we see Ellington playing the piano while the crowd dances the Lindy Hop. It’s a fabulous sequence that can’t help but titillate. Duke Ellington was another of jazz’s preeminent and most influential figures, and you can read more about his life and career in my post on “Anatomy of a Murder”. Please check it out.


Butterfly McQueen and Ethel Waters at the deathbed of Eddie Rochester Anderson in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

photo of Hollywood character actress Black movie star Butterfly McQueen in hat and coat with fur stole
Butterfly McQueen

I’ll mention one more actor recognizable to readers and watchers of the films on this blog as well as classic movies lovers, and that’s Butterfly McQueen who plays “Lily”, “Petunia’s” friend and neighbor. McQueen doesn’t have much of a role (primarily showing concern for “Little Joe” while he’s on his deathbed), but as always has a memorable presence. She’s appeared in three classics I’ve already written about so far, "Mildred Pierce", "The Women", and most famously "Gone with the Wind”, and you can read more about the life and career of Butterfly McQueen in those posts.


Ethel Waters sings Happiness if the Thing Called Joe to a dying Eddie Rochester Anderson in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

"Cabin in the Sky" retained only two songs from the Broadway version ("Taking a Chance on Love" and "Cabin in the Sky"), and new songs were written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, including "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe", which earned the film a Best Song Academy Award nomination. Arlen and Harburg also wrote the music for "The Wizard of Oz", and you can read more about them in my post on that classic.


Lena Horne sees a tornado headed her way in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Because of the film's lower budget, studio stock footage was used for the tornado, and avid moviegoers may recognize it from "The Wizard of Oz".


Eddie Rochester Anderson and Ethel Waters meet Kenneth Spencer on the way to Heaven in the MGM all-Black cast movie musical classic Vincente Minnelli film "Cabin in the Sky"
"Cabin in the Sky"

Jammed with legendary talent, laughs, drama, and heart, this week’s classic is guaranteed to make you happy. A film as entertaining as it is groundbreaking. Enjoy the highly enjoyable “Cabin in the Sky”!


This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!



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4 Comments


Karen Hannsberry
Karen Hannsberry
Jan 10

Happy New Year, Jay! What an outstanding, epic post! I've never seen Cabin in the Sky (just clips), and I was never really interested. I'm not the world's biggest fan of musicals, and I also didn't think I would appreciate the depiction of the Black characters in the film. Your post makes me want to give it a look, though. Thanks again for this -- I learned so much!


-- Karen

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Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
Jan 10
Replying to

Wow - Thanks Karen - that's awesome! If you do watch it, would love to know your thoughts!

Happy New Year to you too! Hope it's your best yet.

Jay

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Carmen Martínez Aniorte
Carmen Martínez Aniorte
Jan 10

Hola Jay-, No conocía esta película, pero tu texto me anima a querer verla.

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Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
Jan 10
Replying to

Thanks Carmen! It is definitely worth watching!

xo, Jay

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