Wrestling with the Devil: Cabin in the Sky as Artifact of Yesterday and Today

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

I’m a fairly obsessive fan of motion pictures, and will often watch films that capture my imagination over and over, hoping to coax out every single nuance and subtlety of a movie’s plot and characters and ingrain them into my understanding. The advent of the DVD format and by-mail DVD rental libraries such as Netflix have made it quite easy for me to indulge my obsessions, as DVD releases of classic films frequently include valuable commentaries by filmmakers and critics which explain and expand upon a film within the context of its time. Currently, I find myself enchanted and enthralled by the 1943 MGM musical fantasy Cabin in the Sky, a film which has been both praised and reviled for its depictions of African-American characters. I see this film as an important cultural artifact of the attitudes and prejudices of not only its own time, but, thanks to the recent deluxe DVD treatment given the film by Warner Brothers, the present day as well.

Cabin in the Sky was one of MGM’s earliest attempts to create a film with an all-black cast. It features an impressive roster of performers, including Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. The story is drawn from the grand tradition of Christian allegory, and while it owes much to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the legend of Faust, its presentation through the audio-visual languages of jazz and dance makes even the dustiest old tropes of sin and redemption feel fresh. Eddie Anderson, best known as Jack Benny’s sidekick Rochester, plays Little Joe Jackson, a well-meaning but backsliding Christian constantly tempted by the damnable vices of gambling and womanizing. His wife Petunia, played by Ethel Waters, is both virtuous and kind, and it is she that provides the film’s moral compass as she tries to keep her husband’s feet on the straight and narrow path. When Little Joe is mortally wounded in a bar fight, agents of Heaven and Hell gather around his death bed, each asserting their right to Little Joe’s soul and his ultimate destination. Just as it appears that Little Joe’s soul is destined to be dragged down to dire damnation, Petunia’s pleadings, prayers, and petitions are answered, and Little Joe is granted six months’ clemency in order to turn his life around.

What unfolds from here is one of the most magical musical comedies ever crafted, as Joe, an everyman painted in the broad strokes common to Christian mystery plays, attempts to turn his life around, even as angels and devils wage spiritual warfare over his soul. On the side of light is Petunia, the loyal wife to whom, as the song states, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” On the side of darkness, however, are the seductive womanly charms of Sweet Georgia Brown, played by the incomparable Lena Horne.

A big part of what makes Cabin in the Sky controversial is the film’s use of stock stereotypes as characters (the gambler, the hustler, and the Jezebel, just to name a few) and exaggerated dialects (the actors playing devils almost invariably speak in jazz-age streetwise slang). Indeed, much of the film’s physical comedy comes in the Vaudevillian song-and-dance routines which would almost certainly offend those viewers who endeavor towards a sense of political correctness. Warner Brothers, in preparing Cabin in the Sky for its DVD release, have attempted to preemptively mitigate this controversy by tacking on a disclaimer, complete with blackface angel and devil caricatures, to the film’s opening moments. It reads, in part, “The films you are about to see are a product of their time. They may reflect some of the prejudices that were commonplace in American society, especially when it came to the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”

This preemptive dismissal of the film’s more controversial moments as “wrong then and are wrong today” is a big part of what makes the Cabin in the Sky DVD as much a reflection of our own time as it is of the early 1940s. Unfortunately, the tendency to sweep stereotypes under the rug ignores the fact that stereotypes largely exist as negative images in our society; they are the base and sinful things that we, like Little Joe, must endeavor to move away from. Despite what we imagine, we have not, as a society, advanced beyond the stereotypes and prejudices seen as controversial in Cabin in the Sky, and many of them are alive and well today, and, in fact, thriving. Gamblers, hustlers, and Jezebels are stock characters which can be seen in any number of hip-hop music videos, embodied by artists ranging 50 Cent to Lil’ Kim, and stereotypes are stock and trade of countless television programs. The VH1 “reality” show Flavor of Love regularly entertains its viewers with the hustler and the Jezebel, and Comedy Central’s hit shows South Park and Drawn Together both find much of their humor in ethnic stereotypes and their continuing legacy. If directly contrasted against any one of these three shows, Cabin in the Sky would seem pristine, virtuous, and perhaps even sacred.

But Warner Brothers has done more than merely added a disclaimer to the film. Its commentary track in which USC professors Dr. Todd Boyd and Dr. Drew Casper discuss the film’s problematic faults frequently filters the film through the social morays of today rather than attempting to understand them within the context of the early Twentieth Century. Dr. Boyd in particular often seems to be more interested in espousing his own theories on race, class, and sex than he is in exploring the film on the screen. Two of his more egregious errors include his constant references to Eddie Anderson’s Little Joe as “Rochester,” and his insistence that Ethel Waters’s Petunia is an asexual character. In the first case, Little Joe and Rochester are, as characters, miles apart, and the only similarity between the two comes from the fact that the same actor plays both of them. In the second, Petunia’s supposed asexuality throughout the film’s first two thirds is the setup to a wonderful joke that is paid off as we approach the film’s climax. Petunia, dull, matronly, and rural, arrives at a nightclub dressed to the nines, full-figured and beautiful. When Georgia Brown challenges her, saying “you ain’t got what I got,” Petunia’s retort, “I’ve got everything you’ve got and more,” is priceless. This is sexy, intelligent humor that should be celebrated in today’s image-conscious world, rather than buried beneath disclaimers and scholarly analysis.

Fortunately, Cabin in the Sky is presented complete and intact, and the film has not been whitewashed in the way that the Tom and Jerry cartoons, which are products of the same era, have been. In those, the “Mammy”-inspired maid who chases both cat and mouse with her ever-present broom has recently had her rural black voice altered to an Irish brogue and her legs lightened to a more acceptable Caucasian tone. Not so with Cabin in the Sky, which, even with its more problematic depictions of race and culture wholly preserved, remains a testament to the triumphant power of good over evil. I imagine a day, far from now, in a more-enlightened future time, when the disclaimers and commentaries attached to Cabin in the Sky are seen as quaint artifacts of the early Twenty-First Century and its hang-ups, and feel just as antiquated as the film’s gleeful tap-dance numbers seem today.