Cabin in the Sky (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Feb 12, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Cabin in the Sky (Blu-ray Review)


Vincente Minnelli/Busby Berkeley

Release Date(s)

1943 (January 30, 2024)


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B+

Cabin in the Sky (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 debut feature Cabin in the Sky is a fascinating study in contradictions. It’s a priceless collection of genuinely priceless African-American actors and performers from the era, all of whom were given the opportunity to shine in leading roles during a time when they were usually relegated to supporting parts. It’s the rare Hollywood golden age production that allowed the lives of black individuals to be foregrounded rather than subsumed under stories involving white ones. In fact, there aren’t any white characters at all in Cabin in the Sky. Yet many of the African-American characters in the film are overtly stereotypical, and there’s some insidious racial coding going on as well. Cabin in the Sky may be an unusual film for its time, but it’s still a product of its time. In the long, slow timeline of progress, the bad usually comes along with the good.

Cabin in the Sky is an adaption of the successful 1940 Broadway musical of the same name by Vernon Duke, Lynn Root, and John Latouche. MGM producer Arthur Freed acquired the rights to the play and encouraged Minnelli to direct it, but many changes would occur before the film reached the screen in 1943. Most of the original Vernon Duke songs were jettisoned in favor of new material by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg, although Cabin in the Sky and Taking a Chance on Love survived intact. Still, they ended up being overshadowed by Arlen’s Academy Award nominated Happiness is a Thing Called Joe, sung by original cast member Ethel Waters. Waters and Rex Ingram would both end up reprising their roles from the play, but the rest of the remarkable cast was new to the film version.

The screenplay by Joseph Schrank and an uncredited Marc Connelly does follow the basic contours of the original story, and as was typical for black-themed material at that time, it centers around religion and spirituality. When the well-intentioned but weak-willed Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) is mortally wounded during a gambling dispute, his wife Petunia (Waters) offers a prayer for his return: “Little Joe ain’t wicked. He’s just weak. And if he dies now, the devil’s going to get him sure.” The Lord works in mysterious ways, so Joe is returned to life, but with a catch. God’s representative The General (Kenneth Spencer) will be standing over Joe’s shoulder to protect him, but Satan’s son Lucifer Jr. (Ingram) will be at the other side trying to lead Joe astray. Joe’s not the only gambler here; God and Satan have a wager of their own going on, with Joe’s soul as the prize. While this spiritual warfare remains unseen by everyone else, Petunia still does her best to help Joe stay on the straight and narrow. Yet the Devil has a few tricks up his sleeve, including the seductive Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Joe has just six months to choose the stairway to heaven or the highway to hell.

Freed and Minnelli assembled an astonishing collection of performers for Cabin in the Sky, with the talented leads being joined by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, John W. “Bubbles” Sublett, Bill Bailey, and Duke Ellington, who brought along his orchestra and a song from his son Mercer (Things Ain’t What They Used to Be). The music and the performances are all a wonder to behold, and they’re staged inventively by Minnelli. Minnelli didn’t like the arbitrary and artificial way that musical numbers were usually incorporated into the drama, so he did his best to weave them into the fabric of the narrative, and he also tried to blur the lines between the two. Cabin in the Sky blends good with evil, fantasy with reality, music with drama, and style with substance, and it manages to combine all of them into a relatively coherent whole.

On the other hand, there’s no getting around the fact that Cabin in the Sky also blends the positive with the negative in terms of racial representation on screen. It’s a definite improvement over previous black-themed musicals like The Green Pastures (which also happened to feature Anderson, Ingram, and Polk). Yet the stereotypes on display are still broad ones, and the fact that the Lord’s workers all speak in carefully enunciated English while the Devil’s minions use black dialect and slang clearly codes the one as morally superior to the other. It’s also significant that the one female character who is presented as being sexually attractive is the light-skinned Lena Horne. Still, however stereotypical that their characters may be, Anderson and Waters are both wonderful as Joe and Petunia, and their relationship is a genuinely affecting one. Yes, they have their conflicts, but they still love each other and will fight together until the end (despite any bumps that happen along the way). The characters are stereotypes, but their relationship is far from stereotypical. Petunia may represent the nobility that Joe lacks, but she’s fully aware of the compromises that sometimes need to be made in order to survive:

“Oh, Lord! Please forgive me for backsliding, but sometimes when you fight the Devil you’ve got to jab him with his own pitchfork!”

That’s a good description of Cabin in the Sky as a whole. It was a jab at the lack of African-American representation in film during that era, but it can still be forgiven for the fact that it backslid a bit while fighting this particular Devil. Progress takes time, and Cabin in the Sky was a one of many small steps along that journey.

Cinematographer Sidney Wagner shot Cabin in the Sky on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the full Academy aperture of 1.37:1. Warner Archive describes this as a “new 4k restoration from preservation elements,” without any more information regarding exactly what was used. In any event, it’s the usual stellar work from Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI). The image is virtually spotless, with no obvious damage or density issues remaining. There are a few optical effects in the film like dissolves and double exposures, and those do appear a bit softer than the surrounding material. Fortunately, the transitions are cut in, so they don’t affect the leading and trailing shots. The grayscale, contrast, and black levels are all nearly flawless. This new restoration is simply gorgeous, and a vast improvement over the previous DVD.

Now, there is one major caveat to all of that. Cabin in the Sky was shot on black-and-white stock and was originally intended to be shown that way, but Vincent Minnelli decided at the last minute to release it in sepia tones on color stock instead. While the film has been screened theatrically in sepia since then, both the old DVD and this new 4K restoration present it in pure black-and-white. Cabin in the Sky is beautiful in black-and-white, but your own mileage may vary.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The overall frequency response is naturally a bit limited, but everything sounds clean with little to no distortion, even during the loudest peaks of the music. There’s just a touch of background noise noticeable during the dialogue scenes, but it never interferes with the songs. The actors were all singing to playback, and the prerecorded voices don’t integrate well into the soundstage, but that’s typical for musicals of the era. The audio for Cabin in the Sky was given the same level of attention as the video, and the results speak for themselves.

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray release of Cabin in the Sky opens with the following disclaimer:

“The program you are about to see is a product of its time. It portrays ethnic, racial, gender, and other stereotypes and biases that existed in our society at the time that this program was made. While such portrayals do not represent the values of Warner Bros. Discovery and its affiliates, this program is being presented in its original form in order to reflect the existence and history of these stereotypes and biases.”

The presence of disclaimers like this seem to upset some people these days, but it shouldn’t. This one is just 73 words, and it’s hard to argue with any one of them. It’s something that needs to be said, and it’s hardly an inconvenience. Problematic films from earlier eras should still be allowed in the marketplace of ideas, but there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the fact that they’re problematic.

The extras are all ported over from the previous Warner Archive DVD:

  • Audio Commentary with Todd Boyd and Drew Caspar (SD – 98:38)
  • Studio Visit (HD – 9:41)
  • Ain’t It the Truth Outtake (HD – 5:41)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:54)

While there are two different audio tracks on the main feature, they appear to be identical. The commentary track plays separately with SD video instead, likely because it wouldn’t line up correctly with this new restoration—the run time is now 99:04, while the old version ran 98:38. In any event, it pairs Todd Boyd with Drew Caspar, both of whom were with the USC School of Cinematic Arts at the time. (Boyd is still there as of this writing.) Caspar is the author of Vincente Minnelli and the Film Musical, while Boyd has written various books on race, hip hop, and culture, and sometimes goes by the moniker “Notorious Ph.D.” That sums up their points of view in the commentary, with Caspar focusing on Vincent Minnelli while Boyd addresses the problematic racial representation. Both of them were recorded separately and edited together, interspersed with comments by Eddie Anderson’s wife Evangela and his daughter Eva, as well as Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers and Lena Horne.

It’s an interesting blend, with Boyd and Caspar providing a yin and a yang about Cabin in the Sky not unlike that of the forces of good and evil that pull Little Joe one way or the other. Caspar’s feelings toward Minnelli are abundantly clear, and he sounds almost reverential throughout. Boyd is a bit more clinical about Cabin in the Sky, appreciating it mostly as a document of the top African-American artists at the time, while still showing discomfort at the stereotypical elements on display. It’s a fascinating commentary that won’t be for all tastes, but there’s a lot of thoughtful material here.

Studio Visit is a 1946 installment of the long-running Pete Smith Specialties series of comic shorts that Pete Smith produced and narrated for MGM during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. This one involves a purported visit to the MGM lot, and it’s included here because it offers a glimpse of a scene deleted from Cabin in the Sky with Lena Horne singing Ain’t It the Truth while in a bubble bath. The studio felt that the scene might have made the alluring African-American temptress Georgia Brown a bit too tempting for mainstream white audiences, so it ended up hitting the cutting room floor. Pete Smith had no such qualms, however. Finally, the Ain’t it the Truth Outtake features an alternate unused version of the song performed by Louis Armstrong instead. Any film footage is long gone at this point, so the audio recording is accompanied by stills and clips from the film.

There aren’t any new extras, but that’s not unusual for the Warner Archive Collection. Fortunately, all of the old ones have been carried forward, and they’re well worth your time. Still, even if there weren’t any extras here at all, this new restoration of Cabin in the Sky stands on its own. It’s a huge upgrade over the DVD version. While it would have been nice if Warner Bros. had included the sepia toned version as well so that viewers to choose for themselves, this is an undeniably beautiful black-and-white presentation of the film. Again, your mileage may vary, but I’m content.

- Stephen Bjork

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