Contact: Levente Smith
SMU News and Communications

Feb. 22, 2006


DALLAS (SMU) – In her part-time job archiving theater artifacts at SMU’s Hamon Arts Library, sophomore Emily George found an unexpected treasure: original sketches by director Vincente Minnelli from the 1943 movie “Cabin in the Sky,” one of the first Hollywood-produced films with an entire black cast.

“I knew I had found something important because the sketches were accompanied by a script, production stills and a newspaper article from the movie’s premiere in Dallas,” said George.

She took her discovery to her supervisors, who immediately alerted film historians at the university’s Meadows School of the Arts.

“Minnelli is possibly the highest regarded director of musicals in Hollywood, and the sketches provide a unique insight into his vision for his first film,” said Sean Griffin, a professor of cinema-television in the Meadows School of the Arts. “They also show the limits of white liberal thought at the time with their stereotypes of blacks.”

“Cabin in the Sky” premiered in Dallas in 1943 to segregated audiences. Whites saw it at the Majestic Theater and blacks at the Melba Theater. Movie advertisements for the Majestic ran a quarter of a page, while the traditionally black Melba Theater ads were less than half that size. Even though the movie featured black stars, such as Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong, the film was still made for white America and by white Hollywood.  

Scholars say the film not only brings black history to the forefront, but it also lays the groundwork for research. Neither the newspapers nor the Meadows faculty know why the film premiered in Dallas. Even though streets were filled with both whites and blacks waiting for the opening, none of the stars of the movie or Minnelli came to Dallas for the premiere.

Beyond the mysteries, the film will be beneficial for academics to compare and contrast it with another important collection at SMU, the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, which includes race films from the 1930s and 1940s that used black screenwriters, directors, actors and actresses. 

“Usually films by blacks during this era were on a tight budget,” said Tinsley Silcox, director of SMU’s Hamon Arts Library, who oversees the Black Film Collection. “‘Cabin in the Sky,’ however, was a Hollywood film with the full support of the studio. This find allows us to compare and contrast it to films in the other collection.”

The sketches are going to Austin temporarily where they will be inspected for damage and preserved by Carraba Conservation.

The “Cabin in the Sky” materials are part of the McCord/Renshaw Collection in SMU’s Jerry Bywaters Special Collections wing at the Hamon Arts Library.

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