THE DVD SHELF: "Cabin in the Sky," "The Green Pastures" and Wallace and Gromit

News   THE DVD SHELF: "Cabin in the Sky," "The Green Pastures" and Wallace and Gromit This month’s column discusses new releases of stage-to-screen hits "Cabin in the Sky" and "The Green Pastures"; the marvelous screen version of Kipling’s "Captains Courageous" and Wallace and Gromit’s wryly droll "Curse of the Were-Rabbit."
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DVDs of interest are spilling over just now. Some of the films are especially good, some perhaps not. But they pretty much all hold interest. Among the recent crop are two fascinating and somewhat inter-related pictures. Cabin in the Sky is the more familiar of the pair. Vernon Duke and John Latouche’s hit 1940 Broadway musical made it to Hollywood in 1943, where it was given the M-G-M treatment. Broadway’s own Vincente Minnelli made his cinema bow, seeing fit to retain original star Ethel Waters (and “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Honey in the Honeycomb” and the title song). Added to the mix were Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. One wishes that they had retained Todd Duncan, Gershwin’s original Porgy; we do, however, get to see the dance team of Buck and Bubbles, the latter of whom – eight years prior to this film – had created the role of Sportin’ Life.

Repeating his stage role in "Cabin in the Sky," and delectably so, is Rex Ingram, who also stars in the newly released The Green Pastures. This was the 1936 film adaptation of Marc Connelly’s jubilant 1930 Pulitzer Prize winner. The Green Pastures ran 640 performances, an impressive tally for early Depression days. Connelly’s fable recast the Old Testament as a Sunday School tale in the deep South, as told by De Lawd (Ingram). I suppose you would have to say that the film – and the play – have darted way beyond the bounds of political correctness, but the thing is fascinating, historical and memorable. The extras include two musical shorts that, similarly, are difficult but hard to ignore. One is entitled "An All-Colored Vaudeville Show," featuring Adelaide Hall (of The Cotton Club and Arlen’s Jamaica) and the Nicholas Brothers, at a time when 21-year-old Fayard stood head-and-shoulders above the 14-year-old Harold. The other short, from 1933, is quite something: "Rufus Jones for President," it’s called, starring Ethel Waters. Waters is sexy and slinkier than we’ve seen elsewhere; you can understand why they called her Sweet Mama Stringbean. Playing the title role is a seven-year-old dynamo named Sammy Davis (billed without the Jr.). Young Sam makes his entrance with a cream pie slathered on his face; he goes on to tap up a storm, with his cap falling off and a pork chop in his hand. This lad is something, and the combination of Ethel and Sammy is historic, in retrospect anyway.

Warner Home Video has also brought us a clutch of DVDs featuring Oscar-winning performances of the past, the better to celebrate this year’s Academy Awards celebration. At least, it’s a suitable excuse. This year’s crop of old winners includes Ginger Rogers in "Kitty Foyle," Anthony Quinn in "Lust for Life," Luise Rainer in "The Good Earth" and Jane Wyman in "Johnny Belinda." Two films are of special note. "The Champ," starring Wallace Beery and young Jackie Cooper, is old-fashioned but nevertheless effective. Captains Courageous, on the other hand, is simply wonderful. Spencer Tracy won his first Oscar, playing opposite young Freddie Bartholomew. A grand, sweeping adventure that will leave all but the most cynical misty eyed, and not from the seafoam on the screen.

Broadway fans in the mood for droll yet caustic comedy, layered with nuance but slathered with the obvious, might not naturally look to contemporary animated films to fulfill their needs. Not to worry, here come the phenomenal Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. If you don’t know Wallace and Gromit, you should; Gromit, anyway. (Wallace is a bit stodgy, but where would Gromit be without him?) Gromit is a canine, I suppose, but he is more than that; kind of like Snoopy for grownups. He is one of the most expressive actors this side of Charlie Chaplin, even if he is in actuality a lump of clay. Unlike all those other characters who inhabit today’s pop-culture animated films, Gromit does not have a celebrity voice behind him. No voice at all; he is such a fine actor — or stop-action clay figure, if you must be technical about it — that he doesn’t need dialogue. It’s all in the expression, and Gromit’s expression is priceless. —Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.