Musical Monday: Hallelujah (1929)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Hallelujah (1929) – Musical #600

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: King Vidor

Starring: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William Fountaine, Harry Gray, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Everett McGarrity, Victoria Spivey, Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard (uncredited), Sam McDaniel (uncredited), Clarence Muse (uncredited), Blue Washington (uncredited), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (uncredited)
Themselves: Dixie Jubilee Singers

Zeke (Haynes) and Spunk (McGarrity) Johnson are cotton sharecroppers and go to town to sell their family’s portion of the season’s crop. While celebrating, Zeke meets Chick (McKinney) who sweet talks Zeke and woos him by dancing with him at a club. Chick is in cahoots with her boyfriend Hot Shot (Fountaine), and she causes Zeke to lose his money gambling. When a gun is pulled in an argument after losing his money, Zeke’s brother Spunk is killed. Fearful, Zeke runs away and turns around his life by becoming a pastor. Despite his new life, Zeke is still tempted by Chick.

• Hallelujah (1929) one of the first films released by a major Hollywood studio with an all-black cast.
• The film was banned by the banned by the Southern Theatre Federation, though some theaters did show it.
• King Vidor originally wanted Ethel Waters in the film
• Nina Mae McKinney’s first movie
• Paul Robeson was offered a role in the film but he turned it down. After it was released, Robeson said he “loathed” the film, according to America’s Film Legacy by Daniel Eagan
• Filmed in Tennessee and Arkansas. Vidor used extras from a local Baptist Church
• King Vidor’s first sound “talkie” film
• The film was re-released in 1939

Nina Mae McKinney in “Hallelujah.”

Notable Songs:
• “Waiting at the End of the Road” performed by Daniel L. Haynes and the Dixie Jubilee Singers
• “Swanee Shuffle” performed by Nina Mae McKinney
• “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” performed by Daniel L. Haynes
• “St. Louis Blues” performed by Nina Mae McKinney
• “Goin’ Home” performed by Daniel L. Haynes

Daniel L. Hayes in “Hallelujah.”

Awards and Nominations:
• King Vidor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director

My review:
Director King Vidor wanted to make a film with an all-black cast. He felt that if all-black Broadway plays could succeed, why couldn’t a film? Vidor pitched the idea several towns but the studios kept turning him down. When talking pictures hit the scene, Vidor felt this was his chance – to make a musical with a cast singing religious spirituals and hymns.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer president Nicholas Schenck relented and King Vidor set out to make “Hallelujah.”

“Hallelujah” (1929) is often called the first film with an all-black cast released by a major film studio (MGM). However, there is some discrepancy here. “Hallelujah” (1929) was released in August 1929, while “Hearts of Dixie” (1929), another all-black musical, was released by Fox Studio in March 1929.

But it would be fair to say it was “one of the first.”

Because of this, “Hallelujah” is important. It showed audiences talents they may not have seen before. Daniel L. Haynes has a rich singing voice (his version of Goin’ Home was the highlight of the film) and Nina Mae McKinney, in her first film, is a vibrant force.

Unfortunately, the big chance for exposure basically ended with “Hallelujah.”

“But McKinney discovered that Hollywood had next to nothing for her,” wrote Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle.

While the film was a commercial success, it was also met with criticism.

“Hallelujah” is not without fault – far from it. While exhibiting these talents, it also is riddled with racial stereotypes. In fact, Paul Robeson was offered a role in the film, refused it and later said he hated the film after seeing it.

“Hallelujah” depicts the black characters as violent, over-sexualized and as gamblers. Haynes’s character has to force himself past a game of craps, and McKinney even has a dice design on her dress. Haynes’s character Zeke is weak when it comes to sexual temptation whenever Chick, played by McKinney, is near him. He even leaves his career as a pastor to follow Chick and marry her. But then Chick leaves Zeke to be with her further gambling boyfriend. Despite the religious angle, some African Americans are also seen as immoral.

On the plus side, this musical is different than most early sound musicals or talkies. It is not a straight play adaptation being filmed, like some early talkies were, and the music flows better with the storyline. Also, I watched this streaming on YouTube and the sound and picture looked amazing, particularly for a 1929 film.

“Hallelujah” is an interesting film for its historical aspect. But unfortunately, I can’t say I really cared for it. I appreciate it for what it is, but aside from the stereotypes, I also felt it was 20 minutes too long and a bit boring in spots. Some of the rival scenes could have been shorter.

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