(director/writer: King Vidor; screenwriters: Wanda Tuchock/Wanda Tuchock/Ransom Rideout/Richard Schayer/Marian Ainslee; cinematographer: Gordon Avil; editors: Hugh Wynn/Anton Stevenson; music: Irving Berlin; cast: Daniel L. Haynes (Zekial ‘Zeke’ Johnson), Nina Mae McKinney (Chick), William Fountaine (Hot Shot), Harry Gray (Pappy ‘Parson’ Johnson), Fanny Belle DeKnight (Mammy Johnson), Everett McGarrity (Spunk Johnson), Victoria Spivey (Missy Rose), Milton Dickerson (Johnson child), Robert Couch (Johnson child), Walter Tait (Johnson child), Dixie Jubilee Singers (Group performers); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: King Vidor/Irving Thalberg; Warner Video; 1929)
“It’s best looked at as an historical curiosity that gives one an idea of the African-Americans beginnings in the Hollywood movie before even the race films.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An old-time religious morality tale set in the Old South featuring an all-black cast. The first such film was Hearts in Dixie, also released some three months earlier in 1929 by Fox and starring Stepin Fetchit in his only straight role. Hallelujah has the honor of being the first talkie with an all-black cast to be produced by a major studio (MGM). Billed as a musical, but with plenty of melodrama.
It was filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas, to give it authenticity (such as the cotton fields and riverfront baptism scenes with the hysterical blacks seeking salvation and chanting hallelujah in unison). White Texas-born director King Vidor (“The Big Parade”/”War and Peace”) put in an honest effort to make it work even getting African-American advisers (MGM thought it had no audience and refused to make it until Vidor worked without a salary looking at it as a personal project he felt he had to do–a labor of love).
But the film didn’t catch on with the white audience and bombed commercially despite receiving favorable reviews. But it excited blacks as a chance to do Hollywood. Though unique and daring for its time and hitting a certain truth in presenting the Negro folk songs, spirituals and way of life, nowadays the film looks stilted and the blacks unfortunately stereotyped in the worst possible way as shiftless, irresponsible and sex crazy or by the common stereotype of the Mammy character. It’s best looked at as an historical curiosity that gives one an idea of the African-Americans beginnings in the Hollywood movie before even the race films.
Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
Daniel Hayes does a fine job playing Zeke Johnson, a poor young southern sharecropper who takes his large family’s cotton crop to market in Greenville and gets one hundred dollars. He will also effectively sing Irving Berlin’s song, “Waiting at the End of the Road.” Chick is played by Nina Mae McKinney, who was 16 at the time and was a discovery of Vidor’s; she steals the pic with her sexy energetic performance and lively singing and great dance routine during the Swanee Shuffle–she received a 5-year contract from MGM as a reward but the studio found no parts for her and she had to go abroad to find work. She’s a sexy dance hall temptress who uses her street sense wiles to lure country bumpkin Zeke into a crap game with her silky smooth city boy lover, Hot Shot (William Fountaine), who uses loaded dice to win Zeke’s hard-earned money. When Zeke tries to get back his money Hot Shot pulls a gun, but Zeke pulls it away in a scuffle and in a fit of anger just starts firing into the crowd. He accidentally kills his younger brother, Spunk (Everett McGarrity), and he becomes so guilt-ridden at the funeral that he becomes a traveling preacher with a gift for being a spellbinding speaker.
Later on he meets the vivacious Chick again in another town, and after she gives up taunting him at his frantic old-fashioned revival meeting she gets baptized and throws herself at him. Warned by his Mammy (Fanny Belle DeKnight) that she’s no good, Zeke can’t help lusting after her as she wins him over when his Mammy is not there. The fickle Chick then ditches Hot Shot, but not without putting up some fight. Zeke jilts the dark-skinned nice family girl Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey) to be with the light-skinned irresistible hottie, as they live together and Zeke turns from preaching to be a sawmill laborer (Vidor’s father owned a lumber mill). When Hot Shot returns, he easily convinces Chick (who has already tired of domestic life) to return to the underworld scene. Zeke chases their buggy and Chick is killed when it overturns. Zeke then gets his revenge by murdering Hot Shot in a chase through the swamp. After serving his time on the chain gang, Zeke returns home a new man and is welcomed back by the ever loyal Missy Rose.
The Dixie Jubilee Singers sing several bouncy Negro spirituals such as, “Let My People Go”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and “Gimme Dat Old Time Religion.”
REVIEWED ON 5/5/2006 GRADE: B- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/