A [Third-Class] Cabin in the Sky


by Harry Heuser


Like so many Hollywood films produced during the Second World War, Vincente Minelli’s musical A Cabin in the Sky (1943) bears little resemblance to real life.  It is fantasy, and that is just what makes it so disconcerting.  After all, whose fantasy is this? Featuring an all black cast—a provocative anomaly in Hollywood film—it makes an effort to avoid being contentious.  Pressing social issues such as poverty and illiteracy among African Americans are comically exploited in a story concerning a notorious player in pursuit of the American dream who cannot even decipher the letter that notifies him as a Sweepstakes winner.  It is faux folklore in which black folks perform their parts according to a set of white stereotypes.  Through its primal plot of good versus evil, this other Cabin not merely proposes a moral code for black Americans but endorses their subservient role in society.


A Cabin in the Sky conveys its moral through several interconnected sets of binaries: life and death, reality and dream, heaven and hell.  Meanwhile, the binary that is operative here—the social divide between black and white—is never acknowledged in the make-believe set-up of a homogeneously black community that is meant to pass for real.  “Good” and “evil” are clearly defined and visualised.  A cheerful church meeting is juxtaposed with the sordid Paradise saloon.  The latter is introduced as a deserted crime scene.  The film’s central character, Little Joe (Eddie Anderson) has been severely wounded here in a shooting; now, having to learn his lesson, he must face a severe case of psychomachia.  Standing at the crossroads between life and death, he has to stand a rather cruel test to prove his worth, a test that is administered by representatives from the two prominent extra-terrestrial headquarters for “good” and “evil.”  As the film’s action unfolds in the world of dream and desire, the church disappears from view and the abandoned Paradise once again turns into a lively meeting place.


The earthy representatives of “good and “evil” in Joe’s life are his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) and her gorgeous rival Georgia Brown (Lena Horne), whose body is the devil’s main instrument in the corruption of Joe. Although the body is not evil in itself, it stands in clear opposition to the soul and is presented as an obstacle on Joe’s way to an afterlife in heaven.  In this near Manichean struggle, though, Joe does not emerge as a man capable of choice.  His moniker, Little Joe, spells out his immaturity and inconsequentiality.  Influenced by his wife, manipulated by Georgia Brown, and controlled by the devil, Joe’s decision-making is terminated by divine intervention, the deus ex machina of a stock footage tornado. 


Rather more forceful and active is Petunia, who sets out to save Joe by imitating the vices of his corrupters.  She gambles, dresses as a temptress, and dances seductively with Domino, a gambler and criminal. Yet even though she is stronger than Joe, Petunia suppresses her lust for life, governed as she is by the promise of an afterlife.  When the couple are dancing in their kitchen, Joe is amazed at his wife’s vitality; suddenly, she stops, as if ashamed, and assumes a presumably more becoming posture.  Eventually, though, Petunia’s altruistic plan turns into an id-driven act of vengeance.  She even threatens to kill Joe and Georgia, and is then shot herself by Domino during the film’s surreal climax.  Again, only a higher force can punish or redeem the sinners, and even the obedient, modest Petunia cannot be trusted as a responsible citizen.


Although it is apparent that the film had been produced with black audiences in mind, it offers no positive role models for the minority to which it purports to cater.  It provides leads for players who would otherwise be stuck with minor roles, mainly as domestics, but only to have them play their assigned parts in what critic Manny Farber has called “well turned decorations on something which is a stale insult.”  The film does not purport to be a gritty, wartime drama with self-actualized heroes and heroines; but neither does it present a surreal utopia. To call such a product escapist would mean missing the point: A Cabin in the Sky was designed to put African-Americans in what white dominated society declared to be their place.