Friday, November 27, 2020

Thankful for “Cabin in the Sky”

Thanksgiving is a good time for nostalgia. This year I find myself nostalgic about my late parents, whose tastes in movies (and so much else) undoubtedly shaped mine. They loved musicals, and one of their very favorite, released well before I was born, has become special to me as well. I’ve seen it countless times on TV’s late-late show, and some of its best gags (like a young demon bragging about his prowess as an evil-doer by proudly announcing, “I invented flies”) were catchphrases in my family for years.

 Cabin in the Sky (1943) is a fantasy, based on a popular Broadway show in the same vein as Green Pastures, which means it boasts an all-Black cast, drawn from the ranks of the era’s most popular entertainers. The central female role, Petunia Jackson, is played by the great Ethel Waters, who similarly graced the stage version. Also featured are many of Hollywood’s favorite performers: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Petunia’s erring husband; Lena Horne as a devilish femme fatale; Louis Armstrong in a comic role, Duke Ellington’s band tooting away in a big nightclub scene. The songs are instant classics: “Taking a Chance on Love,” “They Say That Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” The film is directed with a light and loving touch by Vincente Minnelli, at the very start of his legendary film career. (The word is that he accepted this directing assignment when more experienced white directors wouldn’t touch it.)

 So what’s it about?  We start in a cozy all-Black community that’s full of pious folk (a rollicking gossip hymn, “Little Black Sheep,” kicks off the film) but also some serious temptations like crap games. Petunia is saintly, but her beloved husband, Little Joe, can’t stay away from the dice. We segue to the realm of Lucifer Jr. and his demons, who are always trying to stir up trouble among earthly sinners. They tempt Little Joe with a winning lottery ticket, then send the gorgeous Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to seal the deal. The climax, at Jim Henry’s jazz joint, seems to promise eternal damnation for several of the characters, but (surprise!) goodness wins out in the end.

 There was a time when Cabin in the Sky was chased out of Southern movie houses because many white patrons were offended that so-called “sable” performers were onscreen playing something other than maids and shoeshine boys. Today, it’s easy to see how the film might offend African-Americans who consider its portrayal of Black life condescending. I put the question to my friend Clifford Mason, the playwright and theatre historian who takes seriously indeed the portrayal of Blacks on movie screens. As always, he was candid, speaking about this show as what he calls “race neutral,” this being “the popular method by which America allows Black Americans to participate in the cultural life of the country through the clever method of NOT talking about race.”  He insists, with obvious sarcasm, that Cabin in the Sky is “just a nice, pleasant entertainment with nice pleasant neegrows doing what America loves to see them do: sing and dance.” In pretty much the same category, Cliff puts everything from Porgy and Bess to The Equalizer to Madea, projects in which Blackness is decorative rather than something to be seriously explored. 

 I can’t really argue. (I suspect that arguing with Cliff Mason would put me at a grave disadvantage.) Still, for my money Cabin in the Sky is a film in which good performers play good (and deliciously bad) people, and no one can convince me not to love it.

Update: on December 14, 2020, Cabin in the Sky was announced as one of the 25 additions to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry for its contribution to American art and culture. Hooray!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

From Buckingham Palace to Schitt’s Creek

Call me quirky . . . I’ve been watching season four of The Crown, the starry Netflix series that delves into the public and private lives of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Once I’m done with each episode, I’ve been flipping to the amiable Canadian Schitt’s Creek, which swept up all the sitcom prizes at the recent Emmy celebration. The two series have not much in common, you say? True enough: one is a serious take on recent royal history, and the other is a comedic look at some fish-out-of-water Hollywood types who—having lost all their money—are forced to settle in a humble little burg full of outlandish characters. Different, right? And yet. . .

What The Crown teaches us about British royals is that they value the institution of monarchy above all. Love and family feelings are constantly being sacrificed to what’s seen as the good of the nation. This is particularly true in season four in which the Prince of Wales, deeply in love with the married Camilla Parker Bowles, is inexorably led into a marriage with the very young, very naive Diana Spencer. Still, the Windsors are none of them heartless, and they do feel concern about the personal happiness of family members. Moreover, no matter how much they disagree on matters great and small, they still feel a strong bond of kinship. This really shines forth in the “Fairytale” episode, in which both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and (separately) Diana try to negotiate the tight family circle that gathers at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle to stalk elk and play silly parlor games. Whatever these royal folks think of one another, they’re kin, and always will be. And outsiders are not exactly welcome.

 The newly impoverished members of the Rose family, trying to carve out their own niche in Schitt’s Creek, are hardly royals, whatever they may think of themselves. But like the  British royal family, these former-zillionaires-in-exile are  usually oblivious to the wants and needs of the downhome folks around them. An air of condescension comes to them naturally, particularly in the case of family matriarch Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara), a faded soap opera star still convinced of her own grandeur. For me Moira bears comparison to the hyper-snooty Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), in that she dislikes pretty much everything in her new home. By contrast, Moira’s husband Johnny (Eugene Levy, he of the highly expressive eyebrows) reminds me of the Queen herself. Like Elizabeth, he’s the glue that holds the family together, trying desperately to turn chaos into order and reassure the others of his love.  

 One of my favorite recent Crown episodes is “Fagan,” covering the real-life episode in which a troubled man broke into the Queen’s Buckingham Palace bedchamber for a heart-to-heart chat about the state of the nation. We don’t know what was actually said, but writer Peter Morgan  has given Olivia Colman, as Elizabeth, a marvelous degree of composure as she contends, from her bed, with the late-night intrusion of  unemployed house painter Michael Fagan, who uses her bathroom and asks for a cigarette. (“Filthy habit,” she mutters.) The episode is played off against Thatcher sending British troops off to war in the Falkland Islands. But I can imagine a similarly weird intrusion occurring on Schitt’s Creek, with some local Canadian derelict breaking into the shabby motel room that’s become home to the Rose family. Moira, I’m certain, would succumb to hysteria. Offspring David and Alexis would fight over who gets to sleep with the newcomer. And poor Johnny would just try to keep the peace. 



Friday, November 20, 2020

Banned in Bangkok: Thai-ing One On at the Movies

Thailand had always seemed to me a nice, quiet, faraway place. But no more. American newspapers are reporting on massive street protests against the ruling military junta and the monarchy it props up. When, decades ago, I stayed for a week with a Bangkok family, everyone seemed deeply religious and deeply in love with their king and queen. The top royal, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a cultivated man who loved photography and jazz, and had a passion for playing the saxophone. (I don’t hold that against him). He and his elegant queen, Sirikit, seemed to live a harmonious life, and before he died in 2016 at age 88 he was honored as the world’s longest reigning head of state.

 Today, though, things are a wee bit different, with King Blumibol’s only son (age 68) sitting on the throne. He sits on it, that is, when he isn’t spending the bulk of his days at his palatial home in Bavaria. Known as a playboy, he’s divorced three wives, and his fourth stays in the background whenever the glamorous recently-named “royal noble consort” is photographed oozing coy sex appeal. It’s something of a throwback to the Siam we encountered on movie screens, in which a silk-clad despot lounged around the palace with his harem of concubines.

 The 1870 memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who described her stint as the teacher of the Siamese king’s many offspring, became the basis for a best-selling 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. Not many moviegoers today remember there was a non-musical film version of this novel, starring Irene Dunne as the sensible Englishwoman, Rex Harrison (!) as the king, and Linda Darnell, who often projected exoticism in her film roles, as the tragic Tuptim. Released in 1946, it appealed to audiences primed to explore far-off cultures they could regard as charming. But this black-and-white movie paled when compared to the lush Cinemascope version of The King and I, with its rich Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The latter film won 5 Oscars and was nominated for 4 more, including Best Picture. There was a wonderful chemistry between the leads, Deborah Kerr (who didn’t quite admit in 1956 that her soprano voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Yul Brynner, who walked off with an Oscar to go with his Tony awards for his indelible portrayal of the king. No one in the cast, as far as I know, was actually Thai, though Brynner’s Slavic looks and shaved head made him seem suitably foreign. Curiously, the role of Tuptim, the delicate Burmese woman gifted to the king by a foreign leader seeking to impress, was filled by none other than the very Puerto Rican Rita Moreno, who years later was finally able to return to her own roots in West Side Story.    

 Anyone who loves The King and I , as I do, remembers “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the bravura Jerome Robbins dance number that freely adapts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as seen through the eyes of  a Southeast Asian concubine. It seems Tuptim, who has been introduced to the book by Mrs. Anna, stages it (using traditional Thai music and dance styling) to quietly comment on her own situation as a slave. The number has covert social resonance as well as charm, but today’s self-righteous audiences might well accuse it of cultural appropriation. Ah, well. It’s not easy to portray a foreign culture fairly and with respect. 

 When I visited Thailand, The King and I was considered insulting to the Thai royalty. Yes, both film and soundtrack album were banned in Bangkok.