An early talkie like few others

Released 20 August 1929, King Vidor’s Hallelujah! is a triumph of early talkies. Unlike almost all others from this creaky era, Hallelujah! has very fluid camera work. It’s also notable for being the first all-Black film by a major studio. Prior, such films only came from “race studios” and were largely ignored.

Hallelujah! was considered so risky and unprofitable, King Vidor was forced to finance it with his own salary. TPTB were convinced white Americans would have no interest, though many plays with all-African-American casts had been very successful.

Unfortunately, owing to the racist climate of the times, King Vidor had to play it up as a film about sexual deviance to get MGM president Nicholas Schenck to accept it. Schenck responded, “Well, if you think like that, I’ll let you make a picture about whores.”

Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) is a Southern cotton sharecropper who’s poor but happy. His entire family lives together in a cramped one-room house, but they’re very close. Harvesting their cotton crop is their only income for the entire year, so it’s a cause for celebration.

During the festivities, neighbors Adam and Eve, who have eleven children, show up and ask Zeke’s parson father, Pappy, to marry them. Pappy is initially hesitant because they’re all but legally married, but ultimately agrees, since “It’s never too late to do the Lord’s work.”

Zeke goes inside during the wedding and makes advances on his foster sister Missy Rose (blues singer Victoria Spivey), who’s playing the piano. She rebuffs him at first, then relents and professes affection.

In the morning, Zeke and his brother Spunk sell their harvest for $200. Instead of immediately going home with Spunk, Zeke heads off to the pier and meets singer-dancer Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). And thus all Zeke’s troubles begin.

Zeke follows Chick to a juke joint, where Chick and her partner Hot Shot swindle him out of all his money. Zeke is no dummy, and realises he’s been tricked and cheated. During the ensuing fight, Spunk shows up looking for Zeke.

Things go from bad to worse, and tragedy strikes, shaking Zeke to his very core.

Mammy knows something isn’t right when her oldest sons’ bed is still empty in the middle of the night. Her cries are a chain reaction, and soon the entire family is praying for their safe return and imagining the worst.

Zeke returns with nothing but bad news and heartache, and blames himself for the tragedy. While lamenting what happened, his train of thought becomes increasingly spiritual and eventually becomes a spirited sermon. Everyone is drawn to his comforting words.

Zeke is moved to become a preacher, and goes on the road with revival meetings. His new career brings financial prosperity to his family, much better than their income from cotton sharecropping.

Who should appear at a revival meeting but Chick! As Zeke preaches, Chick is moved to religious fervor and gets baptised in the river, much to the family’s displeasure. She’s so overcome with ecstasy, Zeke has carry her into a tent.

Temptation strikes, but is nipped in the bud by Mammy. That night, Zeke confesses to Missy Rose he’s at war with the Devil. Missy Rose finds it hard to believe a big, strong man like Zeke could be afraid of the Devil. Zeke says he doesn’t want the Devil to win, but temptation is so strong.

Zeke then thinks of a solution, marrying Missy Rose. If he has a wife, he can’t possibly be tempted by another woman.

Zeke’s commitment to defeating temptation doesn’t last long, and neither does Chick’s religious conversion. Hot Shot is convinced this isn’t the real her, and that she’s a natural sinner. The next time Zeke sees Chick, he abandons his ministry and family to run away with her.

Who will triumph in this age-old battle between good and evil, and will Zeke be able to find his way back to righteousness before any further tragedy and turmoil erupt?

I absolutely loved this film. The fluidity of the camera is amazing for 1929. The editing and mixing are also lightyears ahead of other early talkies. Hallelujah! was a huge success, startling considering none of the players were professional actors.

Though some criticise the film as racist, and Paul Robeson (one of my heroes) turned down the role of Zeke for that very reason, one must consider context and intent. Outside of race films like Oscar Micheaux’s, how many other films of this era dared to have an all-Black cast and depict them as fully-rounded people with a story that could, with a few alterations, just as easily be about white people?

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