-Video: HALLELUJAH, CABIN IN THE SKY, STORMY WEATHER
-Books with photographs of McKinney
(“Black Hollywood 1900 to 1970”, and “Brown Sugar”)
In this lesson plan we will also look at film clips of Lena Horn, comparing her exotic sirens to McKinney’s Chick. We will look at some of her scenes from two all-black spectacles: CABIN IN THE SKY and STORMY WEATHER.
1. The baptism scene is perfect for group improvisation. The exuberance and religious fervor is palpable in this scene. Many of the actors have first hand knowledge of this type of experience and they enjoy drawing on their real life participation in church services.
Ethel Waters was born in abject proverty in 1900 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She moved from there when she was 17 and began her singing career in vaudeville and nightclubs billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”. On stage she was in successful productions of AFRICANA, BLACKBIRD OF 1930, RHAPSODY IN BLACK, AS THOUSANDS CHEER, AT HOME ABROAD, MAMBA’S DAUGHTERS, and CABIN IN THE SKY. She was popular in films in the 1940s with CAIRO (1942), TALES OF MANHATTAN, CABIN IN THE SKY, STAGE DOOR CANTEEN (1943), and PINKY (1949). PINKY was one of the “message movies” of the post war period that preached against racism. As significant as her career was in the 1940s, it was her portrayal of Berenice Sadie Brown in the 1952 film version of Carson McCullers’ play THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING that established her reputation. She created the role on Broadway with Julie Harris as Frankie Adams, the motherless 12 year old girl she raises, and Brandon De Wilde as John Henry, Frankie’s young cousin. The film featured the same actors, but as Donald Bogle says, Ethel Waters “scored her greatest screen triumph and an overwhelming personal victory.”
“THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING was more than simply a movie. It was in two very important repects a motion-picture event. Foremost, it marked the first time a black actress was used to carry a major-studio white production. Secondly, the movie was another comeback for Ethel Waters. Her autobiography, HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, had recently been published and was a best seller. In it, she told all the lurid details of her life . . . the fights, the lovers, the marriages, the career troubles. Curiously, instead of alienating her audience, the turbulent events in the autobiography convinced patrons that Ethel Waters, who had always portrayed long-suffering women, was indeed the characters she played. Moreover, audiences knew Ethel Waters had truly suffered. Now patrons rooted for her to succeed . . . to triumph. When THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING finally opened, audiences got just that.” (5)