Cabin in the Sky at the Brooks 

From his office at the top of the sparkling new Lincoln American Tower, Lloyd T. Binford must have felt like a god, looking down on all the little people so far down below him, judging their puny weaknesses. Although he had little formal education and no special affinity for the arts, in 1921 Binford, an insurance-industry millionaire, was tapped by Mayor E.H. Crump to lead the newly formed Memphis Censor Board, which was created to "supervise, regulate, or prohibit any entertainment of immoral, lewd, or lascivious character, as well as performances inimical to the public safety, health, morals, or welfare."

click to enlarge “Banned in Memphis” at the Brooks Museum
  • “Banned in Memphis” at the Brooks Museum

In Binford's case, that meant everything from films by the "London guttersnipe" Charlie Chaplin to anything depicting a train robbery because they triggered bad memories of his own brief service in the railroad industry. Anything too sexy, too violent, too train-robby, or too liberal in its depiction of Jesus was destined to be "Binfordized." Lloyd T. was also highly suspicious of any film threatening contemporary racial paradigms. That's what got Vincente Minnelli's lush film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky, a musical starring Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, and an all-African-American cast, banned in Memphis.

Cabin in the Sky, screening at the Brooks Museum this week as part of its ongoing "Banned in Memphis" series, tells the story of Joe, a compulsive gambler who dies young, is prayed back from the brink of Hell by his wife, and is sorely tested by temptress supreme, Georgia Brown. Though progressive in the 1940s, Minnelli's Hollywood debut is a little paternalistic. It's also an antecedent of the popular gospel musical genre and an extraordinary artifact for fans of the featured performers, particularly Duke Ellington's orchestra and Waters, who laid down definitive renditions of "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe."

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