8/6/07

MOVIES 'TIL DAWN--ELLINGTON EDITION

Cabin Image

In the same year that "Stormy Weather" was made at Fox, another musical featuring a plethora of great black jazz entertainers was being shot over at MGM in Culver City. This was "Cabin In The Sky", which was, I believe, the film directorial debut of the great Vincent Minnelli--now, alas, remembered primarily as David Gest's posthumous ex-father-in-law. (Minnelli is credited the same year with directing a Red Skelton vehicle, "I Dood It", but I'm not sure which was shot first.)

"Cabin In The Sky" was another middle-of-the-night discovery in my television watching youth--I wonder if there was a reason that these mostly all-black films weren't being aired during daylight or prime-time hours? In any event, this one was a real find for me because it was the first footage I ever saw of Duke Ellington and his orchestra. In addition to Ellington, Lena Horne, the great (and mysteriously forgotten) Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong all turn up in the film. The male lead is Eddie "Rochester" Andersen--very funny, for years, as Jack Benny's valet Rochester. A few years after I first saw "Cabin In the Sky" and "Stormy Weather" on local LA television, both became staples of LA revival house double bills. I rarely, if ever, missed them.

The filmmaking in the clip below is pure Minnelli--he's already in love with the expressive possibilities of the crane as well as feeling much more liberated in use of the dolly (often used laterally--against the movement of the dancers) in conjunction with dance. You can see this camera style brought to perfection in later Minnelli sequences-- "An American In Paris" and my favorite Minnelli muscial, "The Bandwagon" in particular. But even this early, the stage-trained Minnelli has developed the knack for finding a way for the camera angles to somehow swoon with the music.

I urge you to see both of these films on DVD--and to SKIP THE COMMENTARY, which is narrated by a pompous professor of African-American studies whose only purpose appears to be to drain the joy and accomplishments out of the work of a past generations artists and instead focus exclusively on "racial stereotypes"--at one low point he criticizes the dancers for "smiling too much."

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