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Film Festival Features 1943 Musical “Cabin in the Sky” with Lena Horne and Ethel Waters
Location: Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts
CHESTERTOWN, MD—On March 28, retired professor of drama Jason Rubin returns to Washington College to share his love of classic musical theater at the Second Annual Jason Rubin American Musical Theater Film Festival. This year’s featured film, Cabin in the Sky, will be screened at 3:00 p.m. in Tawes Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts, with a reception to follow in the lobby. The event is free and open to the public.
Released in 1943 and directed by Vincente Minnelli, Cabin in the Sky tells the story of a gambler who is given the opportunity to right his wrongs and feels pulled in opposite directions by emissaries from heaven and hell.
The cast is full of stars, from Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to Lena Horne, with on-screen music by Louis Armstrong and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Rubin, who will introduce the film at the Saturday event, says director Minnelli “brought an acute eye for detail and telling cinematography to this fable about good versus evil, right versus wrong, country versus city, all underpinned with a devout religious faith as told through the lives of a black community in the South.” Cabin in the Sky was Minnelli’s first full-length film. He would later direct such popular movies as Meet Me in St. Louis and Gigi.
“And the score has one of the loveliest songs Vernon Duke ever composed, ‘Taking a Chance on Love,’” adds Rubin. Another song from the musical, “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Original Song category.
That Cabin in the Sky has an all-black cast and a white creative staff was not unusual for Hollywood in that era, Rubin explains. Hallelujah had premiered in 1929 with all black performers, and Green Pastures came out in 1936. One impetus for 1943’s Cabin in the Sky may have been that, during World War II, the government encouraged major Hollywood studios to create all-black films to promote patriotism and acknowledge the presence of African Americans in the (segregated) armed services, according to Rubin.
At the time, the film raised concern about stereotyping, especially because it was a film coming from the conservative MGM studio. These concerns may be renewed today if the film is not put into a historical, cultural, social, and theatrical context. At any rate, Rubin says, “Lena Horne became a pin-up girl to rival Betty Grable, and the film does promote an almost surreal vision of rural life in which the main characters have dignity and self-worth.”
Clifton M. Miller Library and Friends of Miller Library conceived and organized the annual film festival last year along with the Washington College Dramalumni and Friends to honor Rubin and to celebrate the Library’s Jason Rubin Musical Theater Collection.
Rubin, a Baltimore resident who began teaching at Washington College in 1986 and retired in 2013, has been a professional set designer since 1970. He is a former artistic director of Children’s Theater Association in Baltimore and a member of Actors’ Equity Association and the Theater Library Association.
The Dramalumni and Friends organization unites Washington College drama alumni, friends, faculty, staff, and students for discussion, events, and networking. The Friends of the Clifton M. Miller Library support and advocate for the Library in order to enrich the intellectual life of Washington College and its surrounding community.