There's something perversely self-defeating about Cabin In The Sky's opening apologetic disclaimer, which essentially says, "The racism in the film you are about to see is morally abhorrent and wholly unforgivable. Enjoy!" As a rare all-black musical from a major studio, 1943's Cabin In The Sky provided an invaluable showcase for some of the era's most legendary black performers. But it's easy to find troubling stereotypes in Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of the hit musical about a gambling, dreaming ne'er-do-well (Jack Benny foil Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) whose soul becomes the subject of a fearsome tug-of-war between the forces of good and evil. Anderson's affable Everyman is an oddly passive protagonist, so the film becomes a vehicle for Ethel Waters, a legendary singer whose unassuming Earth Mother persona belied her offscreen reputation as a cantankerous bisexual hellraiser. Anderson is the benevolent center of Waters' universe, and her performance single-handedly makes his wan character seem worthy of stirring the passions of heaven and hell. And when Waters' good girl goes bad, morphing from saint to tart-tongued ultra-diva, the result is wildly entertaining, though psychologically implausible. Lena Horne is no less a force as Satan's chief temptress: Her tantalizing bare midriff alone threatens to corrupt the morals of the entire audience, Hays Code be damned. Cabin In The Sky can feel a little claustrophobic and stage-bound, but it develops a jazzy, infectious rhythm (especially in its third act), and it's a rare treat to see so many supernovas of the black entertainment universe together in one movie.
A decade later, Minnelli was one of Hollywood's top directors, a prolific craftsman specializing in musicals and melodrama. Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas give Vincent Van Gogh's famously tortured existence the melodramatic treatment in 1956's Lust For Life, and the result falls closer to high camp than high art. Kirk Douglas plays the legendary painter as an almost feral creature of pure animal hunger and want, a revolutionary determined to convey the innate dignity of the common laborer through his work. In one of his most visually sumptuous films, Minnelli strives to recapture the blazingly vivid colors and compositions of Van Gogh's art, while Douglas struggles to articulate Van Gogh's brooding intensity through increasingly egregious overacting. Playing Van Gogh brings out the worst in Douglas, and as the film lurches toward an overheated conclusion, he seems to be channeling Charlton Heston more than Van Gogh. Anthony Quinn adds a welcome element of comedy in his Oscar-winning supporting turn as an earthy, irreverent Paul Gauguin, but thanks to Douglas' overexertion, Lust For Life emits the ripe odor of ham and cheese instead of the intended air of sophistication.
Key features: Audio commentaries, short features.