'Cabin in the Sky' revival at Facets

This Sunday at noon, Facets Cinematheque and Chicago Opera Theater will host a Facets screening of the 1943 MGM musical "Cabin in the Sky," which marked the feature directorial debut of a master, Vincente Minnelli.

Among the all-black screen entertainments of the early sound era, beginning with "Hallelujah!" in 1929 — some of them pretty awful and patently racist — this is the one that transcends and endures. The stereotypes — shiftless, no-account Little Joe; the devil's vamp Georgia Brown; and on and on — are handled with such panache and taste, they become archetypes, more about folklore than cliche. Based on a Broadway property and the Faust legend, "Cabin" tells a story of Lucifer and the Lord Almighty and their respective minions (Louis Armstrong in wee devil horns!) battling for the soul and the better instincts of Little Joe, portrayed by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Ethel Waters, top-billed and the holdover from the original Broadway company, plays Petunia, his stalwart wife; Lena Horne is the temptress, treated to Minnelli's most loving close-ups.

In a rich supporting roster of talents, the Duke Ellington Orchestra makes an appearance in one of the great sequences of the picture, set in the nightclub Jim Henry's Paradise. Minnelli's camera work astonishes even today; in this, his debut film effort, he proven himself a master of fluid, dynamic movement, introducing first one set of dancers, then another, outside the club. Then we're inside, and the scene gets better and better. Ellington's band was in prime form in the early '40s. They don't get to play nearly long enough, but "Cabin in the Sky" is worth seeing just for Ellington alone (the orchestra's tunes include "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Going Up").

This is Ellington's month in Chicago. The jazz legend's "Queenie Pie," his long-gestating and never completed comic opera, makes a rare appearance in a revival co-produced by Chicago Opera Theater and the Long Beach Opera, in collaboration with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Jeff Lindberg is the orchestra's artistic director and a key musical overseer of "Queenie Pie," preparing for its Feb. 15-March 5 run at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St.

Ellington, says Lindberg, "raised the level of jazz composition to such a high level of artistry, he created his own American art form." The film "Cabin in the Sky" may capture Ellington and his band only fleetingly, but the art is there, just as it's there in the way Minnelli honors the talent of his cast without pushing them into dehumanizing comic or melodramatic extremes.

If you've never seen it, here's your chance. Go to facets.org for more information about the Sunday "Cabin in the Sky" screening at Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.

On the radio: Along with his fellow St. Catherine High School alum and Violent Femmes legend Victor DeLorenzo, Michael is a guest this week on Michael Feldman's long-running "Whad'Ya Know?" radio show, broadcast live Saturday from the University of Wisconsin at Parkside campus. Go to notmuch.com for more information.


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