Director: King Vidor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm, sound and silent versions; running time: about 100 minutes, some sources list 107 minutes; length: 6579 feet (silent), 9711 feet (sound). Released 20 August 1929. Filmed 1929 in MGM Studios in Culver City, California and on location in and around Memphis, Tennessee.
Producer: King Vidor; scenario: Wanda Tuchock; treatment: Richard Schayer; dialogue: Ranson Rideout, from an original story by King Vidor; titles for silent version: Marian Ainslee; photography: Gordon Avil; editors: Anson Stephenson (silent), Hugh Wynn (sound); sound recordist: Douglas Shearer; art director: Cedric Gibbons; music: traditional with 2 songs by Irving Berlin; costume designer: Henrietta Frazer.
Cast: Daniel Haynes ( Zeke ); Nina Mae McKinney ( Chick ); William Fountaine ( Hot Shot ); Harry Gray ( Parson ); Fannie B. DeKnight ( Mammy ); Everett McGarrity ( Spunk ); Victoria Spivey ( Missy Rose ); Milton Dickerson ( One of the Johnson kids ); Robert Couch ( One of the Johnson kids ); Walter Tait ( One of the Johnson kids ); Dixie Jubilee Singers.
Noble, Peter, The Negro in Films , London, 1950.
Vidor, King, A Tree Is a Tree , New York, 1953.
Rotha, Paul, and Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now , New York, 1960.
Jacobs, Lewis, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History , New York, 1968.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films , New York, 1973.
Murray, James, To Find an Image , Indianapolis, 1973.
Maynard, Richard A., The Black Man on Film: Racial Stereotyping , Rochelle Park, New Jersey, 1974.
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* * *
Hallelujah has fair claim to being the first masterpiece of the sound era. Certainly King Vidor could have realized his frequentlyproposed all-black film only at a moment when the Broadway success of Rouben Mamoulian's Porgy , rumors of a similar project at Fox ( Hearts of Dixie ), and Vidor's own willingness to gamble his salary all combined with corporate confusion at MGM—the last major studio to equip for sound. Ultimately, however, Hallelujah 's accompanying music couldn't quite make it a musical, nor defuse its savagery; and it had as much trouble with bookings in the North as in the South.
The film tends to be remembered now under a Birth of a Nation stigma common to "Southerns"—admired technically while damned for its racism. It is true that the contented matriarchal family of cotton-pickin' blacks, singing while they work their patch of land, can seem an image of slave-based Southern prosperity, and the violence of the melodramatic plot can seem straight out of Mrs. Stowe. But the characters are Uncle Tom-ish only outside the context of Vidor's other work: the same documentary of an agrarian lifestyle is at the root of his idealized white cooperative in Our Daily Bread ; emotional intensity is everywhere a Vidorian trademark; and an identical ferocity characterizes Northwest Passage and Duel in the Sun . Ruby Gentry , with another murder-in-the-swampwater finale, comes closest to being his whitefolks version of Hallelujah . One needs to recall that Vidor was working at a time when respectable British critic James Agate could dismiss the film with: "Personally, I don't care if it took Mr. Vidor ten years to train these niggers; all I know is that ten minutes is all I can stand of nigger ecstasy." If the film is flawed from the standpoint of social morality, it's for the complete exclusion of whites, which renders imprecise the family's relationship to the land they apparently sharecrop. Additionally, the four brief shots which make an ellipsis of Zeke's prison term for murdering his rival "Hot Shot" deny the experience of punishment—he's soon strummin' on the ol' banjo riding home to Mammy.
Whatever Vidor may have said in interviews about the film's "good vs. evil" structure, its tension comes from pitting against each other two mutually exclusive "goods": family-as-religion vs. passionate sexuality. And the temptress Chick, whose dance-hall sensuality elevates easily into religious fervor, isn't inauthentic in either incarnation. She tempts Zeke from his revivalist preaching, but considering Vidor's very consistent repudiation of narrow religion, from The Sky Pilot (1921) right through Solomon and Sheba (1959), that too might be for the best. The surrealist Ado Kyrou is close to the mark in reading Hallelujah as a celebration of desire.
Early sound equipment limits the musical numbers to relatively static takes, but by any criterion Hallelujah is technically remarkable— the ironic result of Vidor's having had to shoot location sequences silent and post-synch the often expressionistic sound effects of ecstatic wails or physical violence (a procedure which, so Vidor claims, drove his sound editor to a nervous breakdown). The aural expressionism might be written off as circumstantially unavoidable if it hadn't its visual equivalent in such shots as the featureless black half-screen into which Zeke futilely shouts for aid for his dying brother. But to stress expressionism is to ignore the ways Hallelujah anticipates the early-Visconti variety of neorealism, with its authentic dialects, its quirky, slack dialogue, its inexperienced actors, its documentary tracing of rural life, and its relentless analysis of the crime passionel .