- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vincente Minnelli’s durably endearing movie version of the musical comedy “Cabin in the Sky,” released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the spring of 1943, ends with a celestial ascent. Freshly garbed in angel wings, the hapless small-town gambler called Little Joe Jackson, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, is accompanied heavenward by his steadfast spouse Petunia, a conjugal-melodic tower of strength in the person of Ethel Waters.

Petunia’s faith has redeemed husband and wife, but there’s a playful hint that Joe, an incorrigible backslider on Earth, might not place complete trust in what awaits him at the summit. “A long climb,” he observes, looking dubious enough to suggest that he’ll probably need Petunia at his side for the balance of eternity.

“Cabin in the Sky” was nominated for only one Academy Award: It contended for best song with “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe.” An enhancement to the original John Latouche-Vernon Duke song score, “Joe” had been commissioned from the team of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, winners of the category a few years earlier with “Over the Rainbow.”

Some categories were more abundant at that time. There were 10 best-song nominees in 1943, and the Oscar went to Harry Warren and Mack Gordon for “You’ll Never Know,” the Alice Faye torch song in “Hello, Frisco, Hello.” In retrospect, it seems strange that “Cabin in the Sky” was missing from certain secondary categories, notably scoring of a musical picture, and a pity that room couldn’t be found among the acting finalists for such remarkable performers as Miss Waters and Rex Ingram (as Lucifer Jr., Satan’s overcompensating son).

Given the oversights and missed bets that tend to accumulate with Oscar history, now nearing 80 years, it’s been a very long climb to the destination that could be attained during this year’s Academy Award ceremony. Handicapping prior to Tuesday’s announcement of the nominations for 2006 suggested that a trio of black actors would emerge as Oscar favorites: Forest Whitaker as a lead in “The Last King of Scotland” and both Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson as supporting players in “Dreamgirls.”

Presumably, Helen Mirren will enjoy a royal and mortal lock on best actress for her performance as Elizabeth II in “The Queen.”

At the time “Cabin in the Sky” was made, only Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar, for immortalizing Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” Subsequently, black performers broke through in all four categories — Sidney Poitier as best actor, Louis Gosset Jr. as supporting actor, Whoopi Goldberg as supporting actress, Denzel Washington in both categories, Halle Berry as best actress, Morgan Freeman as supporting actor, and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles two years ago.

Mr. Foxx provided an echoing breakthrough for actors cast as authentic musical stars, a tough barrier to cross. James Cagney was the first to do it — as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” You might say Bing Crosby did it as himself while playing Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” two years later.

Frank Sinatra finessed the Oscars in a non-singing role. So did Shirley Jones and Cher. Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison and Barbra Streisand recreated Broadway triumphs, Miss Streisand as musical comedy star Fannie Brice.

Sissy Spacek back in 1980 and Reese Witherspoon a year ago won awards playing famous country singers, Loretta Lynn and Ruth Carter, respectively. Robert Duvall was supposed to be a country vocalist in “Tender Mercies” and Catherine Zeta-Jones a vaudeville star in “Chicago.”

There were probably close calls. Dorothy Dandridge and Diana Ross made the finals in widely scattered years; the latter might have won in 1972 if Liza Minnelli hadn’t been the front-runner for “Cabaret.” It seemed a major lost opportunity to deny Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in 1993. Their realization of the Ike & Tina Turner mismatch in “What’s Love Got To Do With It” remains the model for updated, unflinching musical biography.

Despite the fact that so much song and dance have passed through projection machines since talkies began, only about 15 Oscars have gone to singing or dancing performances. If things are sitting pretty for Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, the results will defy a heritage that is more likely to be neglectful.

Under the auspicious circumstances, I wish I had found “Dreamgirls” more accomplished and satisfying. Couldn’t someone have whipped the plot into shape after 25 years of reflection? Or simulated a song score that might have flattered an honest-to-goodness pop trio of the 1960s? I think Curtis Mayfield gave the forgotten “Sparkle” a more evocative sound in 1976, on a sparse budget. The movie also introduced the dishiest newcomer of the year, Lonette McKee, who never got a proper Hollywood follow-through.

“Dreamgirls” will owe a considerable debt to predecessors shortchanged in one respect or another by poor timing, socially and cinematically. A good place to start if you’re time-traveling is 1943, when MGM’s decision to go ahead with “Cabin in the Sky,” on the shelf for several years, prompted 20th Century-Fox to respond with a Bill Robinson chronicle, “Stormy Weather.”

It’s difficult to rival the vintage all-star casts in these movies. Lena Horne and Eddie Anderson were in both. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and John “Bubbles” Sublett joined the group in “Cabin,” along with Butterfly McQueen, Mantan Moreland, Ruby Dandridge and Willie Best. Two cast members from the theatrical version of “Cabin,” Dooley Wilson and Katherine Dunham, were recruited for “Stormy Weather,” along with Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers. That’s a lot of reflected glory backlighting performers in the present.

I was appalled to discover a printed disclaimer on the new “Cabin in the Sky” DVD; it apologizes at length for the movie’s dated racial conventions, which are rebuked as “wrong then and wrong today.” According to whom? And “wrong” in what respect? Is the bureaucracy at Warner Home Video getting PC with the shades of Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli and Harold Arlen? On what moral authority and with what plausible justification?

It’s not as if this right-thinking management had anything to do with getting the movie made almost 65 years ago — and made as fondly and artfully as circumstances permitted. Whoever dreamed up this form of groveling faces a long climb out of infamy.

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