‘Cabin in The Sky’ or — ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with Extra Jazz?
‘Cabin in The Sky’ (1943) is a morality tale mixed with a ‘The Wizard of Oz’ style framing device and a healthy dose of jazz. It’s also one of those Celestial Admin films where the bureaucrats of Heaven and Hell attempt to claim a human soul, usually on the basis of a technicality, whilst the poor schmuck has to figure out a way out of his predicament.
Little Joe is a decent guy apart from his tendency towards sloth, addiction to gambling and his womanising — so having 3 out of the 7 deadly sins isn’t too bad. His devoted wife, Petunia, still loves him even when Little Joe is fatally shot at a nightclub over a gambling debt and is lying at death’s door. She prays to the Lord with all her might — ‘Save Little Joe, Lord’. She puts on some mighty praying that even Heaven is impressed by her faith.
The Lord doesn’t save Little Joe but, instead, Little Joe is given another chance, sent back into his body and given six months to mend his ways, quit gambling and be faithful to Petunia. Otherwise it’s downwards, down to where there’s a nice asbestos chair waiting for him.
The Lieutenants of Heaven and Hell can’t interfere to either help or hinder Little Joe — there are rules, you know — but they can ‘influence’ events and people from the other-side. But what are Little Joe’s weaknesses and temptations? Well, there’s that lottery ticket Little Joe bought before he was shot; if that came through then he’d be rolling in cash and that’s a sure way to destroy a man’s soul. And what about Georgia Brown, Little Joe’s gold-digging ex-girlfriend? Give Little Joe a heap of dough and a sinful temptress with a hunger for dough and his soul is going down.
So it’s a tale we’ve heard many times before and it’s a tale that still, and pretty much always, works. It’s by turns sweet and touching then sad and moving with lots of fun, music and sex along the way. It’s not ground-breaking (apart from in one very important way) or original and never quite hits the heights you feel it could’ve, never really fully bursting into life the way the cast and material potentially promise (for example, Louis Armstrong pops up with his trumpet but never gets a song) but this is still an enjoyable and easy watch.
What is unique about ‘Cabin in The Sky’ is that it was the first MGM musical to feature an all black cast which was really something at the time, especially considering this was when certain U.S. states would refuse to show films starring black actors (this is only 1942 so it’s not ancient history and still within living memory). Watching ‘Cabin in The Sky’ it’s striking, and depressing, just how much was lost by Hollywood and American culture neglecting part of their own population for so long.
Yet there is the feeling of legacy here, that this movie had an impact and, for me, it’s the way it seems to have fed into animation, specifically Tom and Jerry (not a surprise as both were MGM productions). The device of sinful temptation, the zoot-suits, Tom’s evil grin when he’s in devil mode is stuff you find in many T and J cartoons and it all feels very much lifted from ‘Cabin in The Sky’. For example — there are moments where Lena Horne is seductively lounging in Little Joe’s hammock that you suspect were used as reference material by animators, even down to specific poses or eye-lash bats. Even the music has that Scott Bradley tone and sass to it.
‘Cabin in The Sky’ is a sweet, lovely, endearing film. As a musical it’s not quite a classic with the music, whilst energetic, not quite memorable enough despite excellent performances, and it has a story that’s maybe a little lacking in dramatic punch to really pull you in. But for a film about understanding, forgiveness and love it’s a rather delightful way to spend the time.