With its all-black cast, MGM’s 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky provided a rare and invaluable showcase for some of the era’s most legendary African American performers. Director Vincente Minnelli’s (An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon) first feature, this Faustian fantasy stars Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne in her first and only leading role in an MGM musical; with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing alongside.
Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, it follows compulsive gambler Little Joe Jackson (Anderson) as he dies in a drunken fight. Upon awakening in purgatory, he learns he will be sent back to Earth for six months to prove he deserves to be in heaven, while an angel, The General (Kenneth Spencer) and the devil’s son Lucifer Jr (Rex Ingram) fight for his soul.
With its dreamlike sets and then cutting-edge production design, knockout dance numbers and lively songs (including the Academy Award nominated ‘Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe’, beautifully performed by Ethel Waters), it is a parable of salvation and an elaborate fantasy of African American life, showcasing a debut director exploring his craft and a truly fantastic cast of under-seen performers.
Screening from a 35mm print.
Screening as part of BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery, BFI Film Audience Network and ICO.