Hallelujah!

We take sound for granted in cinema today. While it’s true people often spend outrageous amounts on home theater system to experience the emerging technologies, we frequently forget just how big of a different medium film is with sound. In that respect, the late ‘20s and early ‘30s may be the most interesting time in the history of cinema. Not necessarily the best, or the period that produced the most masterpieces, but the most interesting precisely because of that monumental paradigm shift from silent to sound. The trepidation, excitement, and struggle of filmmakers leaving silents behind to embrace the possibilities of sound is often palpable in the films themselves and, certainly some are more successful than others. But when you toss in the socio-political issue of making an all-black film in an era of still-pervasive racism and inequality, it adds a whole new layer of fascination.

The film in question is Hallelujah!, a fable-like morality tale with a tonal quality that shifts between documentarian realism to silent film histrionics with a mind-boggling ease. It stars Daniel L. Haynes as Zeke, a poor sharecropper living with his large family including his “Mammy” (Fanny Belle DeKnight), “Pappy” (Harry Gray), several brothers including Spunk (Everett McGarrity) and adopted sister Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey). After getting paid for his work, Zeke runs across the sex-kitten bombshell Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) who entices him into gambling his money away to Hot Shot (William Fountaine). In the ensuing struggle between Zeke and Hot Shot, his brother is accidentally killed, which leads Zeke to reform his ways, and become a preacher. But he may find that Chick is too much of a wild mare for him to save.

Hallelujah! was originally advertized as a musical, and while the film is quite heavy on music, it probably doesn’t resemble what we’d normally term as a musical. There are few grand, song-and-dance numbers where we become consciously aware of a break in the narrative for such a break. Really, only the Swanee Shuffle—one of the two songs written by Irving Berlin, with the other being the more essential “Waiting at the End of the Road—qualifies in the traditional sense, as it has Chick in a bar singing and performing the song. But the vast majority of the music is woven inextricably into the narrative itself, especially in the context of the church services and the recreational moments the family spends together. This gives the film what is quite an original tonal quality in which music is an essential element but is nearly inseparable from the narrative.

By ’29, Vidor was one of the undisputed master directors of Hollywood who was both critically and commercially successful. Hallelujah! was his concept from beginning to end, that was initially passed over by the studios because they felt it had no audience. But after the success of The Jazz Singer, MGM reconsidered and allowed Vidor to go ahead with the project. While there were other all-black films at the time, none had the auteuristic integrity of a director like Vidor behind, and Hallelujah! stands out in its era for its attempt at an un-stereotypical portrait of African-American life at the time. However, Vidor chose to keep any controversial socio-political context out of the film itself by featuring a world in which there are no (or, at least, we see no) Caucasians. He also doesn’t depict the Johnson family as suffering under any kind of oppression, slavery, or even servitude, but instead being quite happy with their work and domestic life.

But while the film is a genuine attempt at an un-stereotypical African-American life, it isn’t always a successful attempt. There’s a bit of blame to go around, and it’s difficult to know how to disperse it fairly. Some of the fault can be laid on the transitional period itself as it finds Vidor both embracing sound technology, but not taking into account the differences in approach that such an invention would require; Hallelujah! still very much looks like a silent film, and is acted like one as well with its expressionistic gestures and overly theatrical facial contortions that exist to make sure the audience understands the emotions behind what’s happening. This seems to conflict with the intention to make the film a rather naturalistic depiction with down-to-earth, idiomatic language and characters that are distinct, even if they are playing up to certain classic archetypes.

We might compare Hallelujah! to the notorious Birth of a Nation and the comparisons are apt on a number of levels, including the fact that both ushered in a new era of filmmaking (though Birth did so much more directly). Both have moments that are incredibly impressive, and others that are quite offensive. The biggest difference, though, is the intention behind them, and the fact that Birth was much more offensive by intent (which shouldn’t be confused with intentionally offensive; Griffith likely didn’t realize just how controversial his perspective was). But, by that same token, Birth was also a much more impressive film, with unforgettable images, some of the finest, most dramatic editing in film history, all wrapped up in a sprawling narrative that seemed like an epic novel come to life.

In comparison, Hallelujah! is a much more humble film. It’s scope, ambitions, and technical aspects aren’t nearly as ambitious or as grandly executed. But the film’s biggest problem is that it frequently falls on the bad side of the line that separates dramatic melodrama from laughable melodrama. In today’s largely secular society, it’s hard not to giggle at the scenes of people getting so hysterical at a church meeting that they pass out and writhe on the ground. It’s hard not to chuckle at the combination of Chick being “saved” by baptism but still being sexually alluring to Zeke (as the commentary notes, “Freud would’ve had a field day with all of the sex and religion”). Even the death scenes verge on the overly-theatrical.

But if it’s hard not to deride these elements, there’s just as much to praise. The cast is particularly outstanding, if only because of their embodiment of the characters more so than the acting itself. Nina Mae McKinney is, especially, a revelation and could be said to have been the first African-American sex symbol in film. Sadly, though, she came to the industry to early when, afterwards, there were very few parts for her and her career fizzled before it began. But her Chick is likely the most complex character of the film precisely because of her moral ambiguity. Once she is “saved”, much of the rest of the film is taken up with her struggle not to go back to her old ways, and we’re never sure if she’s sincere or if it’s all a ploy to lure Zeke away from his faith to her.

Vidor’s images are also superb and, at times, stunningly powerful. The film can certainly be placed in the an era of film that so uniquely knew how to communicate the ineffable through images, and Vidor delivers such moments in spades. True to his reputation, the large crowd scenes are the best, especially those at the religious gatherings and those after deaths where the lighting and angles take on a magisterial and almost transcendent quality. One particularly great one is one of the last scenes in the church which vividly juxtaposes the congregation celebrating in song, with the stark close-ups of Zeke and Chick as they exchange pregnant, desirous glances at each other until she finally leads him out. Zeke’s stalking of Hot Shot through a swamp is another outstanding highlight.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s not surprising that the film works best when it’s in silent-film mode. Yet, as I say that I realize the irony of how good the film is in the context of the music. So perhaps it’s not the images or the music but the dialogue that’s to blame. Afterall, the acting would work if silent, the depictions work better if silent, and even the music could accompany the images without any other sound and still work wonderfully. But it’s the sound of dialogue and loaded expectations it brings with it to a modern audience. Hallelujah! certainly presents a film in an era where such adjustments hadn’t yet been made, but if it’s not an entirely successful voyage it is, nonetheless, an important, daring, and fascinating one that has to be applauded more for its intent—and certain aspects of its execution—rather than for the product as a whole.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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