Before “Cabin in the Sky” – Early Black Films of the 1920’s

 

Believe it or not, I appreciate being corrected and kept on my toes about the facts and details of film history.

Thanks to the observant eye of one of my fabulous readers, I’m making a correction to a previous post about “Cabin in the Sky”. I labeled it as the first all black cast and musical which it was not.

 

 

To make sure of my facts, I did some digging and discovered that the first all black sound film was The Melancholy Dame (1929). An early two-reeler, it starred Evelyn Preer (known for her 1920 role of Sylvia Landry in Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates”), Roberta Hyson, Edward Thompson, and Spencer Williams.

Spencer Williams was an American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or “race” films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951). (IMDb)

Directed by Arvid E. Gillstrom, the plot of “The Melancholy Dame” involves a nightclub owner’s wife (Evelyn Preer), jealous of his attentions to his star singer, scheming to get her fired. The look on the wife’s face from the opening frame says it all!

 

I can’t believe I found a copy of the film (20 min.) on YouTube.

The first two full-length films with all black casts were “Hearts in Dixie” (1929) starring Daniel Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, and Victoria Spivey and “Hallelujah” (1929) which starred Clarence Muse, Stepin’ Fetchit, and Mildred Washington. “Hearts in Dixie” was also the first all black-oriented all-talking film from a major company. (The Chronical History of the Negro in America)

 

“Hearts in Dixie” celebrates African-American music and dance and was released by Fox Film Corporation just months before Hallelujah, produced by competitor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The director of Hearts in Dixie was Paul Sloane. Walter Weems wrote the screenplay, and William Fox was the producer. (Wikipedia)

“Hearts in Dixie” unfolds as a series of sketches of life among American blacks. It featured characters with dignity, who took action on their own, and who were not slaves. The plot focuses on Grandfather Nappus (Clarence Muse), his daughter, Chloe (Bernice Pilot), her young son, Chinaquapin (Eugene Jackson), and her husband, Gummy (Stepin Fetchit).

To make certain his grandson Chinaquapin does not end up like his father or become tainted by the superstitions that dominate the community, the grandfather decides to send the boy away.

 

“Hallelujah”(1929), was the first all black musical and was directed by King Vidor and produced by MGM studios. It was intended for a general audience and was considered so risky a venture by MGM that they required King Vidor to invest his own salary in the production.

Vidor expressed an interest in “showing the Southern Negro as he is”(whatever that means) and attempted to present a relatively non-stereotyped view of African-American life.

“Hallelujah!” was King Vidor’s first sound film, and combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. King Vidor was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film.

It was the first major studio musical and the first of its kind in Hollywood history. In 2008, “Hallelujah!” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

 

Vidor thought the time was right to test the waters of racial tolerance with a tale of sex, murder, religion, and music enacted by a black cast. He also wanted to take advantage of the emerging sound technology that was revolutionizing the film industry.

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These 3 films were some of the first race talkies ever and despite the stereotypes, these films are important as they were made with black actors for black audiences (thus ‘race films’).

African Americans produced films for black audiences as early as 1905, but most race films were produced after 1915. As many as 500 race films were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952. As happened later with the early black sitcoms on television, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Leo Popkin, and scripted and directed by whites, although one producer, Alfred N. Sack, made some films written and directed by black talent such as Spencer Williams (actor).

 

Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry such as Million Dollar Productions in the 1930s and Toddy Pictures in the 1940s. One of the earliest surviving examples of a black cast film aimed at a black audience is A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French emigree Alice Guy for the Solax Film Company. The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.

Some black-owned studios existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (19161921), and most notably Oscar Micheaux‘s Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 19181940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised that his films were scripted and produced exclusively by African Americans. Astor Pictures also released several race films and produced Beware with Louis Jordan.

 

 

Race films vanished during the early 1950s after African-American participation in World War II contributed to black actors in leading roles in several Hollywood major productions, which focussed on the serious problems of integration and racism, such as Pinky with Ethel WatersHome of the Brave with James Edwards; and Intruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier. The last known race film appears to have been an obscure adventure film of 1954 called Carib Gold. (Wikipedia)

Thanks to my original error, I ended up learning so much more about the history of black ‘race’ films and the long, rich history of African American artists.

 

 

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First All Black Film – Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Cabin in the Sky

Produced in 1943 at MGM by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincent Minnelli, “Cabin in the Sky” is the 1st all Black film produced by a major studio in Hollywood. “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and sung by the film’s star, Ethel Waters.

This musical take on Faust pits Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) against Luther Jr. (Lucifer’s baby boy). Enter temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Does Little Joe’s wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters) even stand a chance or will Joe be condemned to Hell?

 

 

“Cabin in the Sky” in featuring an all-African American cast was an unusual production for its time. In the 1940s, movie theaters in many cities, particularly in the southern United States, refused to show films with prominent black performers, so MGM took a considerable financial risk by approving the film. (Wikipedia)

Some remember “Cabin in the Sky” for its intelligent and witty script, which some claimed treated its characters and their race with a dignity rare in American films of the time. Others described Cabin in the Sky’s racial politics as the same “old stereotypes of Negro caricatures”.

Cabin in the Sky

Ethel Waters, Kenneth Spencer, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram

According to liner notes in the CD reissue of the film’s soundtrack, Freed and Minnelli sought input from black leaders before production began on the film.

When I first saw this film as a kid in the 60’s I was absolutely floored. This was during the civil rights era and I had no idea that in the 1940’s a major production company had taken on the issue of the lack of black representation in film. I understand the point about the stereotypical characterizations – Lena Horne, the aggressive, hypersexual black woman. Ethel Waters, the dutiful, prayerful housewife and “Rochester”, the buffoonish and no account lazy black man.

My feelings of the film are mixed because to some extent, it feeds into the political narrative that some black folks aren’t worthy of equality because they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it. But on the other hand, there was finally a film with all black faces, the most gifted entertainers of all-time – Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and their stories. These characters weren’t just sprinkled in, they were integral to the plot and couldn’t be cut out in racist southern theaters.

As a black woman, it both breaks my heart and angers me that we even needed to have this conversation, not only in the ’40’s but as an ongoing fight for all aspects of African-American representation on-screen.

 

 

After years of unavailability, Warner Home Video and Turner Entertainment released “Cabin in the Sky” on DVD on January 10, 2006. I recommend checking it out with this backstory in mind. These legendary artists deserved to have worldwide exposure the same as their white counterparts of the day.

 

We’ve come along way, but the truth is we still have a long way to go.

 

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Busby Berkeley (“Shine” sequence, uncredited)
Produced by Arthur Freed
Albert Lewis
Written by Marc Connelly(uncredited)
Lynn Root (play)
Joseph Schrank
Based on Cabin in the Sky (play)
Starring Ethel Waters
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson
Lena Horne
Louis Armstrong
Music by Harold Arlen
Vernon Duke
George Bassman
Roger Edens
Cinematography Sidney Wagner
Editing by Harold F. Kress
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • April 9, 1943
Running time 98 minutes

 

 

Long Live Rock Movies! 😎🎸

“School of Rock” (2003)

school of rock

Let’s start with our substitute teacher, Mr. Schneebly – what kid hasn’t wished for a sub like him?  No grades, being part of a kick butt rock band, defying parents, breaking the rules.  Good, right?

Jack Black’s character Dewey Finn is the forever loser and quintessential wanna be rock star, but when he steals his roommate’s identity as a substitute teacher, (Mr, Schneebly) he discovers he has a  class of very musically talented 5th-grade students. So, Dewey decides to turn his class into a rock band to potentially win the Battle of the Bands and $20,000.  I won’t spoil whether the kids win or don’t win the battle but as a result of the contest they gain self-confidence and continue to play rock in an after school program coached by Dewey.  Long live Rock!

This film totally tapped into my inner rocker!

 

“The Commitments” (1991)

commitments

What happens when a group of white working class Dubliners forms a soul band?  A rousing film with some great music inspired by legendary artists, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.

The band nails the soul of the greats by immersing themselves 24/7 in classic soul standards:

  •     “In the Midnight Hour” – Wilson Pickett
  • “Try a Little Tenderness” – Otis Redding
  • “I Never Loved a Man” – Aretha Franklin

Whether on buses, hanging up laundry or in music store windows, they were feeling the soul.  In the words of  Félim Gormley (Dean Fay- Saxophone), “I’m black and I’m proud!”

I’m so glad the movie was authentic with the cast singing on the soundtrack.  (The actors were cast  for their musical abilities.) Lead singer (Andrew Strong “Deco”) was nuts but the standout talent of the band.

The Commitments was voted best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey and launched a generation of Irish musicians and actors.

 

 

 “This is Spinal Tap” (1984)

 

This is spinal tap poster

 OMG, the funniest, dead on satire of a rock metal band ever!

Classic in every sense of the word, Director/Writer Rob Reiner’s masterpiece was also written and scored by the stars:

Rob Reiner – (Marty D. Bergi) – Mokumentarian

Spinal Tap

Christopher Guest – (Nigel Tufnel)

Michael McKean- (David St. Hubbins)

Harry Shearer – (Derek Smalls)

This mockumentary feels so real that some moviegoers thought they were an actual group!

The “Stonehenge” number during the Smell the Glove tour is priceless.  Due to a mix up with size dimensions, the Stonehenge replica for their epic song is 18 inches instead of 18 feet tall.  The little people performers in the number were taller. And Derek Smalls getting stuck in the stage prop egg is hilarious!

 In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

 

 

These are 3 of my favorite Rock Movies – Let me know yours in the comments!

 

 

 

Stepping into the Light – 20 Feet From Stardom!✨

(Prince and Judith Hill. CreditPhotographs by Karrah Kobus/NPG Records, via Getty Images)

Mourning the 1 year passing of music legend Prince, I was amazed to learn about his relationship with the powerhouse singer-songwriter Judith Hill as her confidant and musical collaborator.

Ms. Hill was a contestant on the 2013 season of “The Voice” (the TV singing competition) and later that same year appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom” earning a Grammy for her performance.

Judith Hill

(“I was with Prince the last two years of my life,” Judith Hill said. “Now he’s gone, and I realize I was leaning on him a lot,” she said. “And that’s what’s scary. I’m on my own.” Credit: Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times)

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I cheered for Ms. Hill on “The Voice” and was shocked when she didn’t make the cut. Her voice is phenomenal and once before she had been so close to blowing up as a recording star when she was paired as a featured vocalist with Michael Jackson on his ill-fated tour “This is It”. On “The Voice” I thought, maybe this time she’ll get her shot.

 

And now, with the passing of Prince, Judith would once again be denied the major exposure that could have skyrocketed her to the top of the musical ladder instead of her forever feeling – “20 feet from stardom”.

 

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Judith Hill, Michael Jackson

 

Here’s a look at the Oscar-winning documentary about the incredible backup singers and the travesty of how their careers have always been “20 Feet From Stardom”.

 

20 feet from stardom

 

2014 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Feature,  “20 Feet From Stardom” is directed by Morgan Neville and inspired by producer Gil Friesen’s quest to reveal the untold stories of the phenomenal voices behind some of the greatest artists in American music.

 

 

The film takes a backstage look at the lives and experiences of backup singers Darlene Love ( Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), Judith Hill (The Voice), Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Jo Lawry among others.

 

 

The Ladies Speak:  Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Judith Hill

 

Merry Clayton performed that killer background vocal on The Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter”

Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names. I was thrilled when this film was released to showcase these gifted women that for whatever reason remain in the shadows. It’s a sad fact but, nevertheless, they stayed in the game and they are legends!

 

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In Celebration Of Our Inner Jedi!

Star Wars Celebration!

The Last Jedi Postere

 

Palpable heartbeats, breath quickening, anticipation almost unbearable; these are just a few of the emotions I recall standing in line awaiting the darkened theater, warm buttery popcorn in hand, and the unforgettable opening credits of the film that changed the Hollywood landscape, “Star Wars.”

 

Star Wars 1977

Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung

 

“Star Wars” (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) is a 1977 American epic space opera film written and directed by George Lucas. The first installment in the Star Wars film series, it stars Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Peter Cushing, and Alec Guinness  (Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi), David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew co-star in supporting roles. (Wikipedia)

 

This weekend, excited fans decked out as their favorite Star Wars character are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the vision changing film “Star Wars” in Orlando, Florida. The life-long aficionados were treated to a panel discussion featuring Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and the late Carrie Fisher’s daughter Lourd who spoke the line which made her mom famous, “Help me Obi-wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” To further amplify the day, followers were treated to the yet to be seen anticipated trailer for the new Star Wars film opening on December 15th, “The Last Jedi.”

 

 

Wow, what an experience the convention goers must be having! I wish I could be there sharing my precious memories and love for this film of the ages. In my mind’s eye, I see fellow fans geeked like I was, sharing their anticipation of this remarkable saga. It’d be great if I had a photo marking the day that I could share on Facebook, however, back in 1977 the cell phone, as well as Facebook, did not yet exist.😊

 

 

May the Force Be With You!

 

🎶 Sing!🎶

“All creatures great and small, Welcome.”  Buster Moon

I just finished watching the outstanding Illumination Entertainment hit “Sing” (2016) for the 3rd time and cried again for the 3rd time. I always seek to understand my emotions and the source of my feelings, with “Sing” it was all about the exhilaration of doing what you love and the boundless joy that comes with honoring your spirit.

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I shed tears of joy during and after the movie for having the opportunity to share my passion for singing and performing, honoring my spirit. I shed tears of joy for Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) who despite the 25 or if you count her husband Norman, 26 obstacles before her that she would not let deter her, coming up with the most creative plan to make sure she could take her shot.

And then, tears of joy for both Ash (Scarlet Johannson who was incredible!) and Johnny (Taron Egerton-fabulous voice!) for refusing to give up on their dreams despite dealing with disappointment and heartbreak.

 

Sing is a 2016 American 3D computer-animated musical comedy film produced by Illumination Entertainment. It was directed and written by Garth Jennings and co-directed by Christophe Lourdelet, and stars the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton and Tori Kelly. The plot involves a group of animals that enter a singing competition, hosted by a koala hoping to save his theater. (Wikipedia)

 

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I absolutely love Gunter and his infectious exuberance and living out loud attitude on life.  Some may see him as self-absorbed but he was compassionate enough to want to help Rosita fulfill her dreams and showcase her true talents.

Gunter

Talk about self-absorbed, Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is his own biggest fan! Even though most of the time you want to choke him, his smooth, docile toned voice wraps you up in his effortless performance which you have to give him credit for.

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Mike

At one point in the film, the performers are waiting to go on stage and theater owner and entrepreneur Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) gives them a pep talk telling them it’s a small audience but that’s okay, go out there and perform for yourself. His words so reminded me of my days on the stage and directors imparting the same edict. Have fun, share your passion, and be present in the moment!

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My favorite performer is Meena, that’s why I saved her for last. She touches my heart the most and moves me with the powerfulness of her voice. In the final scene, she literally brings down the house.

sing movie cast

Tori Kelly as Meena

First of all, Tori Kelly’s voice is out of this world!! Her final number showcases the power of joy; how it feels to release and give your all and see how that is received. Secondly, witnessing the sheer magic of Meena truly being in the moment and finally coming into her own.

 

 

I didn’t include that lovable Koala, Buster Moon with the performers although he too realized his dream of being successful; like his motto says, “When you reach rock bottom there’s no place to go but up.” Buster was finally able to pay respect to his dad and their mutual love of the Moon Theater.

Even Miss Crawly and Buster’s best friend Eddie got to be a part of the rebirth of the Moon Theater. And, of course, I can’t leave out Nana who is a serious diva and former star of the Moon Theater. In their totality, Rosita, Ash, Johnny, Mike, Gunter, and Meena all moved her heart and brought back warm memories of her glory days.

 

One of the more impressive features of this film is that the cast did all their own singing. I’m of the mind that if an actor can’t both sing and act, don’t hire them for a musical role. I own the soundtrack which is both upbeat and heart-pumping.

The movie includes more than 60 songs from various artists and also has an original song by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande called “Faith“, which was nominated for a Golden Globe. I can’t get it out of my head and danced my way out the theater!

 

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I’m a big fan of Illumination Entertainment best known for the Despicable Me franchise and the films The Secret Life of Pets and Sing. The Minions, characters from the Despicable Me films, are the studio’s official mascots and my favorite buddies.

 

 

The studio’s highest-grossing films are Minions (2015), which has grossed $1.159 billion worldwide; Despicable Me 2 (2013), which has grossed $970.8 million worldwide; and The Secret Life of Pets (2016), which grossed $875.5 million worldwide. (Wikipedia)

 

Illumination knocked it out of the park with this production. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, animated films these days have come a long way since Bambi and aren’t just for kids. The plots, characterizations, and execution are outstanding!

 

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Hopefuls seeking their place in the limelight.

 

Voice Cast

  • Matthew McConaughey as Buster Moon, an optimistic koala who plans to save his theater from closure by holding a singing competition.

  • Reese Witherspoon as Rosita, a pig who gave up her teenage music dreams to become a devoted wife to Norman, and mother to their 25 piglets.

  • Seth MacFarlane as Mike, a white mouse “with a big Frank Sinatra-esque voice and an arrogant attitude.”

  • Scarlett Johansson as Ash, a teenage porcupine and punk rocker who takes part in an alternative-rock music duo with her boyfriend Lance.

  • John C. Reilly as Eddie, a sheep and Buster’s friend who doubts the future of the theater.

  • Tori Kelly as Meena, a teenage elephant with an exquisite voice and severe stage fright.

  • Taron Egerton as Johnny, a teenage gorilla who wants to sing, though his father wants him to follow his criminal footsteps.

  • Jennifer Saunders as Nana Noodleman, a sheep and Eddie’s grandmother who was a singer in her glory days.

  • Jennifer Hudson as Young Nana

  • Garth Jennings as Miss Crawly, an elderly iguana with a glass eye who is Buster’s administrative assistant.

  • Nick Kroll as Gunter, a dancing pig partner to Rosita.

 

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All in all, my two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

Dirty Dancing 30th Anniversary Event!

 

fathom events

Sunday, January 29 and Wednesday, February 1  

Fathom Events and Lionsgate present a special two-day event, Dirty Dancing 30th Anniversary, in select cinemas nationwide.

Click here for tickets.

 

I still remember sitting in the theater with my heart beating with anticipation as I reminisced about a time and music that is a flashback to my childhood memories. From the first beat, I knew I was in for a rockin’ good time.

Choreographed by Kenny Ortega“Dirty Dancing”(1987) is a soulful coming of age tale of star-crossed lovers Baby (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny (Patrick Swayze). The film showcases an award-winning dance soundtrack that genuinely represents the spirit of the early 1960’s.

 

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Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze

Written by Eleanor Bergstein, and directed by Emile Ardolino, “Dirty Dancing” was originally a low-budget film by a new studio, Great American Films Limited Partnership, and with no major stars (except Broadway legend Jerry Orbach in a supporting role), “Dirty Dancing” became a massive box office hit. As of 2009, it has earned over $214 million worldwide. (Wikipedia)

 

Dirty Dancing is based in large part on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s own childhood: she is the younger daughter of a Jewish doctor from New York, spent summers with her family in the Catskills, participated in “Dirty Dancing” competitions, and was herself nicknamed “Baby” as a girl. (Wikipedia)

 

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Bergstein constructed the character of Johnny based on the stories of Michael Terrace, a dance instructor whom Bergstein met in the Catskills in 1985 while she was researching the story.

Dirty Dancing

Jack Weston (L) Patrick Swayze (R)

“Dirty Dancing” was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video, and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack created by Jimmy Ienner generated two multi-platinum albums and multiple singles, including (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, which won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song, and a Grammy Award for best duet (Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes) . (Wikipedia)

 

 

So, whether it’s your first time or you’re enjoying it all over again, make sure to make plans to see “Dirty Dancing” on the big screen and, have the time of your life!

 

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