Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Engaging with Representation from the Past

On Saturday night, I was watching Turner Classic Movies and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ava DuVerney is co-hosting "The Essentials" series this year.  Along with TCM regular host Ben Mankiewicz, DuVerney has been hosting the series for a couple of weeks now, but Saturday was the first of the films I caught her talking about before the movie played - the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky, notable for being the first film ever directed by Vincente Minnelli -- Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), The Bandwagon (1953), and many others, a great director -- and for having an all-black cast. 

Cabin in the Sky had been a Broadway musical before it was a film.  Appearing in the film from the show's cast were Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram.  The film also starred Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Lena Horne.  Besides perhaps Lena Horne, none of these names are well-known now, but they were, at least to black audiences, at that time. Ethel Waters, for example, in 1939, was the first African-American to star in her own television show, something called The Ethel Waters Show on NBC.  It was a short - 15 minutes - variety special.  Also popping up in Cabin in the Sky is Louis Armstrong, as a demon no less, and there is a climactic big musical number led by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.

I wouldn't say Cabin in the Sky has a great story.  In folk tale like fashion, it concerns the fight for the soul of a man named Little Joe (Eddie Anderson).  Shot and near death, almost claimed by Lucifer for Hell, Little Joe gets a reprieve and has six months to amend his ways.  A kind of good angel called "The General" tries to guide him one way while Lucifer Jr., Satan's son, tries to guide him the other.  In terms of women, of course, there is one good influence on him and one bad. On the good side is his ever loving wife (Waters) and on the other side is a temptress (Horne).  Anyway, the plot is not the point here, not watching the film nowadays. And as Ava DuVerney says, though the film is well-meaning and put together in superb MGM style, it does present some representations of African-Americans that are, well, "challenging" (her word).  So why watch it?  Here's a film that may have been somewhat progressive in its day in that it had an all-black cast (meaning certain US theaters would not even show it), but it's a film that was made entirely by white filmmakers with their own particular conceptions about black people.

DuVerney gives a few reasons to sit down and watch it, and I couldn't agree with her more.

For one thing, it's fascinating to see actors who appeared all too little on screen during their careers have major roles.  Where else are you going to see Ethel Waters sing on screen and in such a prominent role?  Or Lena Horne in a leading role?  Cabin in the Sky is like documentary evidence of what these two and others could do. It reminds us of what they could have done if they'd gotten the chance in film, during their careers, to do more.

As well, the film deals in broad types just short of caricature - an early version of what DuVerney points out someone such as Tyler Perry would do years later.  It's an interesting film from that historical perspective, to compare representation then to now, and by whom, along a kind of continuum. 

And most of all, besides even the film's leads, there is the large cast of talented black actors and dancers who fill the film.  Again to cite DuVerney, one wonders, as one watches that big club scene at the end and the remarkable dance number in it, whatever happened to all the marvelous people who bring that scene to life. There's such energy and joy and skill to behold.  And here in Cabin in the Sky was a chance for all those artists to show themselves doing their thing at their best.  Where did they all go afterward and what did they do?  You assume they danced and acted elsewhere, but did any of them ever get a stage to play on as bright and large as the one Cabin in the Sky afforded?  Probably not.  To watch the movie is to pay a bit of homage to all those people. 

I happened to be flipping through the channels this past Saturday night when I caught the TCM promo saying that Cabin in the Sky was coming on with Ava DuVerney introducing it, and I'm happy I stopped my flipping there.  For all the challenges it presents, the movie is pretty fascinating.

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