Adapted from the play by Lynn Root, both the play and film were directed by Vincente Minnelli. A husband, tempted by gambling and a pretty woman, struggles between heaven and hell in this musical with an all-black cast.
Petunia Jackson (Ethel Waters) tells Rev. Greene (Kenneth Spencer) that Joe Jackson (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) is giving up gambling because she prayed he'd have bad luck. At church blacks sing hymns. Jim Henry (Ernest Whitman) and two men tell Joe to pay them what he owes, and they make him gamble. Petunia looks for Joe and hears shots. She prays for wounded Joe to live. Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) tells Joe that he is dead and must come with them. The General (Kenneth Spencer) appears to investigate for the Lord. Petunia sees Joe is dead and grieves. Joe learns he gets six months more because of her prayers. The General tells Joe he won't remember this, but they will guide him. Petunia finds Joe alive and sings "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe."
A month later Petunia uses Jim Henry's crooked dice against him to wipe out Joe's debts. Petunia and Joe sing "Cabin in the Sky." In Hotel Hades, Lucifer asks for ideas to win over Joe, and they plan to give him money and use Georgia Brown. Lucifer gives Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) suggestions to see Joe. Joe gives Petunia a washing machine on her birthday, and she sings "Taking a Chance on Love." After work Joe gets a cablegram and throws it away. Georgia finds it and calls on Joe. She embraces Joe, and he sings "Life's Full of Consequence" with her. Georgia tells Joe that he won $50,000. He wants to buy things for Petunia and Georgia, but Petunia sees him embracing Georgia, becomes jealous, and cries.
Duke Ellington plays piano and leads his band as people dance at Jim Henry's Paradise. Domino Johnson (John W. Sublett) is out of jail and wants to see Georgia; he sings "Shine" and dances. Rich Joe arrives with Georgia dressed up. She sings "Honey in the Honeycomb." Petunia arrives dressed up too and tells Joe she gets half his money. Petunia sings and dances with Domino. Lucifer says that Joe is taking Petunia down with him. Petunia calls to Joe, who fights Domino during a storm. Domino shoots Petunia and Joe. They wake in white robes, and Joe says they are ghosts. Joe calls for the General, who forgives Petunia; but Joe spent the money on Georgia and Jim Henry's place. Lucifer learns that Georgia has repented, and he is demoted. Petunia prays to stay with Joe, and they ascend stairs into the clouds. Joe asks if he can make it and wakes in bed. The doctor says he will recover. Joe tells Petunia to burn his sweepstakes ticket and dice, and she sings an encore.
This moral fable is a comic and musical delight, giving
talented African-Americans a rare opportunity to shine.