The Classic Musical You May Not Know

Cabin in the SkyIf you look at the Knickerbocker Theatre lineup for classic musicals, don’t be alarmed if one of them does not ring a bell.  Sure, we’ve got Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, the big musical, Sound of Music, and even something fairly recent, Grease (“fairly recent” is defined as anything that I actually saw in the movie theatre). But, Cabin in the Sky?

Chances are, you’ve never seen Cabin in the Sky. But if you do go to the July 29 performance you’ll see why we picked a film that includes music performances by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Even Louis Armstrong is in it, but he only plays that trumpet for around 10 seconds — the rest of the time he is a junior devil. (He did play a solo version of “Ain’t it the Truth,” but the number was cut from the final production!)

Main Cast for Cabin in the Sky
Main Cast

The film was released in 1943, but because of its all black cast, the film was not shown in parts of the country. Then the movie disappeared from rotation and it wasn’t until 2006 that Warner Home Video and Turner Entertainment finally released it on DVD. The film was recently highlighted on Turner Classic Movies when guest host, director  Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) selected it as an “essential” film.

I’ve now seen the film several times and can list it among my favorites (which, admittedly, is a long list). Waters is incredible and her rendition of “Happiness is a Thing Called Joy” (which was nominated for an Academy Award) is how a love song should be sung. Horne is a temptress who uses her beauty and voice to go after Joe. But not too much of her beauty since a scene featuring her in a bubble bath was cut from the film because, according to Horne, a black woman singing in the bath was not morally acceptable in 1943.

And then there is the dancing. One amazing scene shows people entering a nightclub, but they do not just walk in — they dance in and every one of them is great. Inside, the dancing is no less amazing and John Bubbles, the “father of rhythm tap” tears up the number “Shine.”

Bill Bailey doing the "back slide"
Bill Bailey doing the “back slide”

And, just in case you think Michael Jackson invented the moonwalk, watch closely when Waters sings “Taking A Chance on Love” and you’ll see Bill Bailey do a short “slide back” in what is considered the first recording of what is later called the Moonwalk.

If you want a fuller version, click here to see Bailey at the Apollo Theatre in 1955. [Even more trivia — Bill Bailey’s sister is the singer/actress Pearl Bailey.]

So, we have a musical with great singing, great dancing, and great songs. What more could you want? How about Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, best know as Jack Benny’s sidekick (“Oh, Rochester”) and a great actor in his own right. He even belts out a song (and I mean belts out!) with that gravelly voice and shows off some subtle dance moves.

The film is based on a hit 1940 Broadway play. Anderson plays Little Joe Jackson, a gambler who tries to reform for his incredibly patient and loving wife, Petunia (Waters). But when he is shot over a gambling death and is near death, Petunia prays for him to get to heaven. An angel appears as devils are ready to take him to hell and they make a deal — if Joe can live a good life for six months, he goes to heaven. The catch is that Joe does not know about the deal. While the angel counts on Petunia’s faith to save Joe, the devils use Sweet Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to draw Joe back to his evil ways. It is a classic morality tale which does not veer away from Christian themes.

Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Vincente Minnelli
Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Vincente Minnelli

Cabin in the Sky was the first movie directed by the legendary Vincente Minnelli who went on to direct hits such as “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Gigi,” “Brigadoon,” “Father of the Bride,” and “An American in Paris.” He married Judy Garland after “Meet Me in St. Louis” and is the father of Liza Minnelli. He was concerned enough about being a white man directing a black film that he submitted the script to the NAACP prior to its release to make sure he was avoiding stereotypes. A letter from the NAACP sent a note to the writers  “congratulating [them] on the treatment of this black fable, which avoided cliches and racial stereotypes.”

So, come and see the classic film you’ve probably never seen. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Derek Emerson
Director of Public Affairs and Events
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The 2019 One Night Only Classic Musical Film Lineup
July 22 — Jailhouse Rock
July 29 — Cabin in the Sky
August 5 — The Sound of Music
August 12 — Grease

All shows begin at 7:30 p.m and tickets are $5 for everyone at the door.

 

“One Night Only” Series Features Four Iconic Brando Films

Marlon Brando pictureIn an era where we watch stars self-destruct on too regular of a basis, the career of Marlon Brando can offer these people both lessons and hope. After bursting onto the scene in the 1950s (and our series focuses on four films released between 1952-1954), Brando’s personal life and career went off the track in the 1960s. He went ten years without making a successful film and it looked like his legacy would rest on his solid early work. Then came his second Academy Award for The Godfather in 1972 followed by another nomination for his work in the controversial Last Tango in Paris. My introduction to Brando was at the Holland Theatre (now the Knickerbocker) in 1979 when my oldest brother took me to see Apocalypse Now since he felt all 15-year-olds should see that film. It was a memorable experience as Brando slowly leans forward in the light, rubbing that bald head and mumbling.

A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire

Little did I know that the mumbling was a Brando trademark. After his explosive performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando was nicknamed “the mumbler” by some in Hollywood. His body language in the movie matches his speech, as he moves from slouch to taut, from mumble to rapid-fire shouting in a heartbeat. It was just his second movie appearance and he had played Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway version just prior to the movie. He understood his character and it is seen in nuances of the film. Brando is the perfect match for all the subtexts found in all of Tennessee Williams’ work because you can see the internal conflicts in his every gesture.

Brando in Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

While Streetcar brought him fame, Brando wanted to show he could do more than just mumble so he took on the Mark Antony role in a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar so he could show his acting skills up against the likes of John Gielgud, James Mason, Deborah Kerr, and Greer Garson. The critics agreed that he could more than hold his own, so he then went back to mumbling.

He went from Julius Caesar to The Wild One where we get the iconic Brando on the motorcycle photo. The film has great lines and Lee Marvin is good, as always, but the motorcycle gang that orders cups of coffee appears a little dated. Still, it is Brando in rare form showing a man conflicted between emotions. The tough guy falling for the nice girl, a man who wants to be more than he is but is not sure how to get there.

On the Waterfront
ON THE WATERFRONT

In our final film, On the Waterfront, Brando plays another tough guy struggling with where to go in life. If I was forced to choose a favorite film, this is easily my all-time favorite. Eva Marie Saint, who took home the Academy Award for her debut performance here, matches Brando’s intensity. Brando is the punk who could have been a great boxer (think “I coulda been a contender”) but takes a dive for his brother and his Mafia-like union group. Now he has the chance to do something right and you see the conflict in his face and body — he wants to better than he is but he lacks the courage. And then you have Karl Malden pulling off the role of a priest that is the anti-Bing Crosby version. He is pushed out from his safe church to bring Christ to the docks and his speech over the dead body of a dock worker in the belly of a ship may be the best sermon ever preached, on or off stage. The fact that his character is based on a real-life priest may have helped cement his character. The film was a huge success, winning eight Academy awards including Brando and Marie Saint for their acting, Eli Kazan for his directing, and the film itself won the best picture award.

Looking at these four films together, it is incredible what he put together in such a short time. Although he derailed his own career, nearly 20 years after these films he was back and still amazing people with his skills. As another great actor, Paul Newman, said: “I’m angry at Marlon because he does everything so easily. I have to break my [fill in the blank] to do what he can do with eyes closed.”

Make sure to catch all the films:

April 16 — A Streetcar Named Desire
April 23 — Julius Caesar
April 30 — The Wild One
May 7 — On the Waterfront

–Derek Emerson
Hope College Director of Public Affairs and Events