Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
King Vidor was a genuine cinema artist, and in this all-black movie about southern sharecroppers we're inclined to give him every benefit of the doubt for both his intentions and the sincerity of the film that resulted. Hallelujah is a tough show to criticize. Its image of the black experience is emotionally honest. That it now comes off as an odd curio of (benevolent) white attitudes toward blacks is not a damning observation, for before it there was no mainstream film fare about African Americans, who appeared only as servants cooking meals and opening doors. Way into the 1920s they were routinely played by white actors in blackface; in 1929 the most potent image of blacks in American films was still the shiftless, corrupt sexual predators of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
Savant saw Hallelujah several times when preparing old MGM promotional reels, and can't say that at that time I understood what it was about. Warners' new DVD has great extras that give us a full understanding of this early-talkie 'artistic' studio film.
The sharecropper Johnson family picks cotton and lives as peace-loving, God-fearing simple country folk. Then the eldest son Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) falls for conniving town temptress Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) when he sells his cotton at the gin mill. An argument with her sharpie gambler partner Hot Shot (William Fontaine) ends up with the seed money gone and Zeke's younger brother Spunk (Everett McGarrity) dead. The remorseful Zeke then starts a successful revival career as "Zeke the Prophet," baptizing sinners and holding his congregation spellbound with his powerful sermons and deep-voiced gospel singing. Zeke makes plans to marry the innocent girl who loves him, Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey) but Chick returns. Zeke washes her soul in the river but he can't help but go where she leads, and he throws everything away over a woman his mother calls a "yellow hussy."
King Vidor gets the ethnographic setting right, at least; there are handsome shots of cotton being picked and taken in mule wagons to the Gin to be baled. But the drama of Hallelujah is compromised by omissions and prejudicial ideas. No whites are shown, divorcing the docile black sharecroppers from their proper context. The status quo is accepted as immutable. The blacks live in rags and work for pennies, which seems just fine with them because they have the blessings of "The Lord." They're illiterate and unambitious, and idealized almost to the point of resembling innocent animals.
Unfortunately, the blacks are further characterized in other ways even less flattering. A family with eleven kids shows up at Zeke's pappy's house, asking for a marriage ceremony, as it's finally time to start thinking "permanently." Zeke is pictured as being unable to control his base emotions and desires; he's a pow'ful preacher but tries to maul the protesting Missy Rose. When the flirtatious schemer Chick comes along he's putty in her hands. The blacks in Hallelujah want to be virtuous but are easily thrown by temptation. Zeke is easy prey for the big-town swindler Hot Shot.
Vidor was clearly drawn to the dramatic purity of the material, but made the same assumption that many artists make about 'native' populations. As with the frequent dramatic interpretation of South Sea islanders, the blacks in Vidor's south are blessed innocents living simple lives closer to nature and God. But idealizing them as noble savages robs them of part of their identity as humans. They seem to come with the land, like another kind of wildlife. I can see this show being alternately depressing and infuriating to African-Americans: These are better roles than 99% of black actor ever get a chance to play, and they're still dehumanizing.
Shooting much of the film in Mississippi with unlimited numbers of extras, Vidor manages many impressive scenes, especially the baptism at the river and several gospel services. Daniel L. Haynes' striking voice does not seem to match Zeke's simple-mindedness; Vidor found the actor on Broadway understudying for Showboat. Several of his lead perfomers came from New York stages and nightclubs.
Chick is played by Nina Mae McKinney, a vivacious actress who dances some mean steps. She's less dark and has finer features than her hopelessly outclassed rival Missy Rose; it's obvious that she came from some upscale Manhattan cabaret. The 'authentic' music combines tunes by Stephen Foster and W.C. Handy with a couple of numbers squeezed in from none other than Irving Berlin.
Warners' DVD of Hallelujah is a good transfer of slightly worn elements. The film was released in silent and talkie versions, perhaps accounting for the differential in running times. The surviving 100 minute version appears to have been re-engineered for Academy aperture in the middle thirties, as it carries a "Lion" title card background from around 1936 or so. Also, the framing is unusually tight, especially at the left side, indicating a possible formatting chop-job between silent and sound apertures.
What makes Hallelujah a particularly satisfying experience is a thoughtful, fact-filled commentary mostly featuring author Donald Bogle supported by Avery Clayton. They explain that Vidor couldn't record sound on location. The entire Alabama track was post-dubbed back in Culver City, a pretty slick technical feat for 1929 -- I'm not sure if Moviolas existed with sound readers yet. These two commentators know all the players and the stories behind the film's actors; the biographical trail of leading man Haynes ended abruptly in 1936 and Nina Mae McKinney died in obscurity in 1957. The authors mention two musical shorts starring McKinney, which turn out to be included on this disc : Pie, Pie Blackbird and The Black Network. Both pair her with then-child dancers The Nicholas Brothers and the first short also features Eubie Blake's orchestra. Nina Mae's "Cotton Club" hot-cha delivery of one of the songs is really terrific.
A theatrical trailer is also included - it's a reissue trailer indicating that the show was good enough to be rerun. The striking cover art is, I presume, from an original poster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary, two short subjects, trailer (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 8, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson