When Galveston-born King Vidor, one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, went to MGM just after the dawn of sound with the idea of making an all-black musical, he was immediately shot down. He went back to Nicholas Schenck, Chairman of the Board of MGM’s parent company, with several different approaches, and the answer was always no. It was a matter of economics: southern exhibitors would never open the film, which meant that it could never make a profit. Vidor followed Schenck’s logic and told him that he would contribute his $100,000 salary to the cost of production. Schenck took him up on his offer. Vidor cast the principal roles in Chicago. Daniel Haynes, who played the sharecropper-turned Baptist minister Zeke, was a theatre actor and, at the time, Jules Bledsoe’s understudy in Show Boat (speaking of Show Boat, Vidor had wanted Paul Robeson for the role but he was unavailable). Nina Mae McKinney, who Vidor spotted in the Broadway show Blackbirds, was cast as Zeke’s “seductress,” Chick. The great blues singer Victoria Spivey, in her one film role, played Zeke’s devoted wife Missy Rose. (Side note: that’s Spivey sitting next to a very young Bob Dylan on the back cover of New Morning.) Another important collaborator was Eva Jessye, a choral conductor who would later work with George Gershwin as musical director on Porgy and Bess. Jessye, who curated, arranged, rehearsed, directed and conducted the spirituals and traditional songs for the film, later wrote a three-part piece for the Baltimore Afro American called “The Truth about Hallelujah.” The piece went into considerable detail about the film’s production and delved into the issues that are front and center today, and that too many current writers mistakenly think they’re the first to discover. On the matter of Vidor’s representation of Black American life in the south, there’s as little doubt about the film’s paternalism as there is about the film’s vibrant energy and beauty (not to mention its technical ingenuity: the sound trucks Vidor had planned to use for his location shooting never showed up, so he had to work rhythmically, using a metronome to time his shots as he had for the advance in The Big Parade). As for paternalism, it was built into the culture, and hence into Hollywood production and its complicated and ever-shifting relationship with American society (at its very worst, it resulted in Louis B. Mayer’s beloved Andy Hardy series). Warner Brothers has included an elaborate disclaimer on its previous DVD edition which, as Kristin Thompson points out, “essentially brands Hallelujah as a racist film.” To say that this oversimplifies matters is to put it way too mildly. Is it possible to think critically about Hallelujah and admire it at the same time? W.E.B. DuBois did exactly that when he reviewed the film in The Crisis: “Hallelujah is a great drama. It touches the religion of a deeply superstitious people who took refuge from physical disaster in spiritual tradition, hope and phantasy…It is the sense of real life without the exaggerated farce and horseplay which most managers regard as inseparable from Negro character, that marks Hallelujah as epoch-making.” Would anyone dream of making the same film today? Of course not, and that includes King Vidor, if he were still with us.

The Library of Congress’ beautiful restoration of Hallelujah, which we touched on this past August, recently opened Film Forum’s tribute to McKinney, programmed by Bruce Goldstein in consultation with Donald Bogle. Bruce’s name has also come up often in these posts, and with good reason. Restorations are meaningless without the curators who program them, and Bruce is a true hero in his field, with the temperament of a true artist. He’s one of the people who keeps film culture as we know it alive and thriving.

- Kent Jones

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HALLELUJAH (1929, d. King Vidor)
Restored by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 


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