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CABIN(S) IN THE SKY

RESEARCHING SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY, I came upon an interpretation of African American life with an all-black cast, but composed, directed, and set by three Russian guys. This Cabin in the Sky was a 1940 Broadway musical and then transformed into a 1943 Hollywood film, the latter selected in 2020 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” 

Here are tidbits on these two Cabin(s) in the Sky suggesting that the “or” in this Library of Congress citation can readily be replaced by an “and.”

A Broadway Troika. George Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, was co-founder of the School of American Ballet in 1934. As described in Wikipedia, “Lynn Root wrote the libretto [as the story Little Joe] and brought it to George Balanchine, who was anxious to do it as his first assignment as director of an entire Broadway production.’ ”

Balanchine, in turn, persuaded Russian-Empire-born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky (better known by then as Vernon Duke) to compose the score for this musical. In charge of the production’s set design was yet another Russian-American, Boris Aronson..

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson, by Frank Rich with Lisa Aronson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Frank Rich writes, “Cabin in the Sky was the kind of bizarre collaboration that could happen only on Broadway (or in Hollywood). Three Russian émigrés—George Balanchine, Vernon Duke, and Aronson—created a musical set in a milieu that none of them had ever seen firsthand: the black American South. Such is the peculiar alchemy of show business that Cabin was a hit.” 

A Classic Confrontation, an African-American Milieu. Rich describes, “The story dealt with Little Joe, a poor, morally ambivalent black man whose wife’s prayers bring him a six-month reprieve from hell—and who finally gets to heaven after God’s and Lucifer’s henchmen battle for his everlasting soul.”

Above, an Aronson sketch of Little Joe’s backyard. Below, Lucifer Junior, Little Joe, Petunia, and Lawd’s General in the Broadway production. Images from The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson.

Broadway Collaboration, 1940. Wikipedia notes, “In his book Passport to Paris, Duke quotes George Ross’ description from the Telegram: “Pit a threesome of turbulent Russians against a tempestuous cast of Negro players from Harlem and what have you got? Well, in this instance the result is a lingual ruckus approaching bedlam.”

“At least half a dozen times at the rehearsal of Cabin in the Sky, Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, J. Rosamond Johnson, Katherine Durham and her dancers have paused in puzzlement while the argumentative trio of Muscovites disputed a difference of opinion in their native tongue. The Russian vowels and consonants fly as thick as borsht.”

“After ten minutes of such alien harangue and retort, Miss Waters asks what it is all about. ‘George,’ Duke generally interprets, ‘just said the answer is yes!’ and then rehearsals are resumed under the flag of truce until the next vocal flare-up.”

The Broadway Cast. Little Joe was portrayed by Dooley Wilson (who, two years later, would be Rick’s piano-playing pal Sam in Casablanca). Ethel Waters was Petunia, Little Joe’s wife. (A year before this, Waters was the first African American to star in her own television show, on NBC June 14, 1939.) Rex Ingram was Lucifer Junior (and, curiously, had also played De Lawd in the 1936 film The Green Pastures). Katherine Dunham, choreography polymath and innovator in African-American dance, portrayed Georgia Brown, Little Joe’s former lover who ultimately finds God as well.

Cabin in the Sky, the 1943 Movie. Director Vincente Minnelli’s first movie was Cabin in the Sky. He was later to direct, among others, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), and Gigi (1958).

The Hollywood version was star-studded: Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram reprised their roles as Petunia and Lucifer Junior. Little Joe was portrayed by Eddie Anderson, also known as comedian Jack Benny’s valet Rochester van Jones. Anderson was the first African American to have a regular role in nationwide radio; he also had a custom car featured in an early R&T.

Lena Horne portrayed Georgia Brown. In 1943, Horne was already a decade into her 70-year career as singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist: She had joined the chorus line of New York’s Cotton Club in 1933; in 1940, she sang at Café Society, New York City’s first integrated venue; 20 years later she took part in the 1963 March on Washington.

Horne’s reprise of “Ain’t It the Truth,” sung in a bubble bath, was cut from the film, deemed beyond the bounds of moral decency in 1943. 

Wikipedia notes, “A second (non-bubble bath) performance of this song by Louis Armstrong was also cut from the final print, resulting in the famous trumpeter having no solo musical number in the film.” Logically enough, Louis Armstrong’s role in Cabin in the Sky was as The Trumpeter. 

Evidently no Russian translation was needed during the movie’s production. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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