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.

 

Sidney Poitier Films featured at the Knick

If Sidney Poitier was a wine, 1967 would be his best vintage.

He was already a household name and had broken many “firsts,” but in 1967 he starred in three major films and was the top movie star of the year. To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are all classic films in their own right. When you realize this is one year’s work, well, it was clearly an incredible feat.

Poitier in Blackboard Jungle

Not bad for an actor who was at first rejected because he couldn’t sing, only learned to read well when he was in his late teens, and worked at erasing his Bahamian accent so he could land acting roles (his parents were from the Bahamas but were visiting in Miami when he was born prematurely). He was on Broadway early and at age 22 was already showing up in films. His 1955 appearance in Blackboard Jungle caught people’s attention, and his Academy-nominated performance in The Defiant Ones, with Tony Curtis, put him in the spotlight. He returned to Broadway to star in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959 and reprised his role in the 1961 film version. Then he became the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963,’s Lilies of the Field.

At the 1963 March on Washington

Being a black actor in the 1960s meant that whatever Poitier did was interpreted through the civil rights lens. While he used his prominence to further the civil rights movement, he resisted some activism, which angered some of his friends. As his biographer, Aram Goudsouzian says, “Poitier’s rhetoric balanced between progressive politics and public appeal. He recognized his position as a spokesman and fundraiser, which suited his philosophical, nonconfrontational nature. He thus typically refrained from overt activism.”

 But Poitier was aware that every role he chose would be interpreted through a racial lens, and many of his roles address racial issues head on. While he received some criticism for being “too acceptable” in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his role in In the Heat of the Night shows him facing down overt racism while struggling with his own sense of self. The film’s simple story exposes the complexity of racism.

Poitier featured in the Broadway premiere of A Raisin in the Sun

As always, when we select these films, we struggle over which ones to select. It was a struggle to pass on The Defiant Ones, while it seems like we had to choose Lilies of the Field since he won the Oscar for that performance. We open with A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s incredible play that Poitier starred in both on stage and film. Personally, In the Heat of the Night is one of my all-time favorite films, so I was fighting for that one at the outset. And while it is starting to feel dated, it is hard to pass up Poitier, Hepburn, and Tracy (all Oscar winners) together in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Having conquered the acting world, he became a successful director (Stir Crazy) and continues to receive honors. He was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, and President Obama presented him with the highest civilian award in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Most recently, in 2016, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).

We hope you join us as these classics return to the big screen as part of our One Night Only series. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and cost just $5.

November 20
Nov. 27
December 4
December 11

Cary Grant Focus for the One Night Only Series

He was once told by an interviewer  “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant.” He replied, “So would I.”

cary grantAnd such is the quandary for an actor who becomes larger than himself. Grant is the classic leading man, yet difficult to pin down. His comic timing is impeccable (see His Girl Friday), yet Hitchcock finds the man beyond the handsome face (see North by Northwest). A British-born actor who became an American citizen and had an accent that was a conglomeration of influences. His career in movies expanded over three decades and the American Film Institute named him the second greatest male star of the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet he never won an Academy award.

So what makes him different from so many other leading men? New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael thinks it has to do with that hesitant nature.  She notes that “in His Girl Friday, he’s unabashed about everything in the world except why he doesn’t want Rosalind Russell to go off with Ralph Bellamy. He isn’t weak, yet something in him makes him hold back—and that something…makes him more exciting.”

Apparently, a lot of people found him exciting. He was married five times and with Dyan Cannon he had his only child, a daughter. He was 62 at the time and retired from filmmaking in 1966 to focus on his daughter. Maybe family was so important to him since he lost a number of relatives in the bombing of Bristol by the Nazis. Or maybe he did not want to be a fading star, choosing to leave films when he was still in demand. Either way, he left behind an incredible list of films.

So, how did we choose which ones to show?

The iconic shot from "North by Northwest"
The iconic shot from “North by Northwest”

I would like to say we poured over hours upon hours of films, consulted a number of leading film critics, and settled on the four essentials. But, actually, we wanted a Christmas movie, but not one we always see on television 24 hours a day (e.g. Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life). The Bishop’s Wife (1947) was suggested, and the Cary Grant series was created.

The Bishop's Wife paper doll set!
The Bishop’s Wife paper doll set!

Personally, I pushed for His Girl Friday (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), two of my favorites. But then we wanted to fit in one of his Hitchcock films and settled on North by Northwest (1959). Then there is the star-filled The Philadelphia Story (1940) with Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart — hard to pass that up. So out went Bringing Up Baby (with Katherine Hepburn) and the lineup was set. Yes, we had to pass up on his first starring role in a film, with Mae West. Or the classic, Arsenic and Old Lace, which he hated and Houseboat with Sophia Loren, whom he loved, but, alas, was not loved back. No on Notorious and To Catch a Thief? Ouch. Still, we think you’ll agree we have four great films to see on the big screen (maybe once again, maybe for the first time — we won’t ask).

North by Northwest (Nov. 21)
His Girl Friday (Nov. 28)
The Philadelphia Story (Dec. 5)

The Bishop’s Wife (Dec. 12)

And, I got to keep His Girl Friday, which has two of my all-time favorite scenes

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday"
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday”( and Russell in his office and then at the prison newsroom — I’m laughing as I write this).( and Russell in his office and then at the prison newsroom — I’m laughing as I write this).

(Grant and Russell in his office and then at the prison newsroom — I’m laughing as I write this).

Tell us what we missed? What we did right? Other ideas for our One Night Only series? But most of all, come and see the films. It is how we know we are on the right track.

Interesting Facts About Cary Grant to Impress Your Film Friends

(from IMDB)

 

Donated his entire salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) ($100,000) to the U.S. War Relief Fund.

He never said “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the movies, which he credits to Larry Storch, but he did say “Susan, Susan, Susan” in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Turned down roles opposite Audrey Hepburn in both Roman Holiday (1953) and Sabrina (1954). He also turned down the role of James Bond, saying he was too old, although the part was partly created with him in mind.

In His Girl Friday (1940), his character remarks, “Archie Leach said that,” a reference to his real name.

He never played a villain.

Always cited his To Catch a Thief (1955) co-star Grace Kelly as his favorite leading lady. He attended her state funeral in 1982 and wept throughout the televised service.

In case you are checking, we also stole some of this information from the ultimate source, Wikipedia.

 Derek Emerson
Director of Public Affairs and Events

Welcome to the Knickerbocker Film Series Blog

130618Knickerbocker009Welcome to the Knickerbocker Film Blog!

We’ve created the blog to give us some space to explore the films we show, hear from other film fans, and, basically, find a new way to celebrate the celluloid film (or digital film — we’ll cover that in a future blog).

If you are not familiar with us, the Knickerbocker Theatre is a historic venue in downtown Holland, Michigan owned and operated by Hope College. In addition to year-round live events, we also do three film series each year (winter, spring, and fall) with four independent or international films. 7:30pm is our usual starting time.

We also have a “One Night Only” series where we focus on one actor, director,150330KnickerbockerSign003 or genre over four weeks. In the past, we’ve looked at Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, and Famous Couples. In the summer we host four free family films on Thursday evenings where we throwback to some classics we all love, such as Indiana Jones, The Princess Bride, and The Goonies.

091013KnickerbockerTheatre007There are many great reasons to spend some time with us. Our ticket prices are reasonable and our concessions are actually delicious and inexpensive. No $40 tab when you have popcorn and soda while watching a movie with us! We have friendly students helping with tickets, concessions, and often running the movies. We also always have one of our Events and Conferences Office staff hanging around (and most of them are friendly). And, we do all this in a historic theatre!

So, this is just our way of saying welcome!

We would love your comments on our blog or our films. Suggestions? We’ll take them.

Derek Emerson
Director of Public Affairs and Events