1929/30 / Best Director

Film #613: Hallelujah (1929)

As this is a section of the blog dedicated to looking at individual directors, I felt I neglected to include any background detail about King Vidor when talking about his adaptation of War and Peace in the last post. As I eluded to, Vidor started directing in the silent era with his first film being 1913’s The Grand Military Era whilst he later helmed The Big Parade which was heralded as one of the best war films of the period. Furthermore, he still holds the record of the longest span of time as a film director as he directed his last piece in 1980 making his total time in the profession as sixty-seven years. Most of this period also saw him make some bold decisions as a director such as with his find sound film Hallelujah, which is the subject of this post, which attempted to paint an authentic portrait of black culture in the 1920s.

Vidor had wanted to make a film employing an all-black cast partly as he spent his Southern childhood observing black people and several of the events he saw influenced parts of Hallelujah. After witnessing the advent of talking pictures, Vidor decided that he wanted Hallelujah to be his first sound film in order to hear the characters singing traditional songs. However, this was still a risky venture and was rejected several times until Vidor pitched it to the head of MGM as a film about the lead character’s sexual deviance. Even then, MGM wanted the director to put his money where his mouth was and Vidor ultimately invested his own cash into the production of Hallelujah. This investment paid off as Hallelujah became a critical and commercial hit although historically it doesn’t work as well as it did back in 1929. This is because the lead character of share-cropper Zeke is presented as a bit of a fool who’s motivated by the flirtatious Chick who in turn is interested in him only because of his money. Hallelujah is split into three sections which sees Zeke cheated out of one-hundred dollars by Chick and her lover Hot Shot as they leave him in the dust. The second segment sees Zeke find God and become a preacher, getting engaged to the virtuous Missy however it’s not long before Chick appears wanting to be forgiven. Zeke then throws away his new life in favour of Chick leading up to a conclusion where she and Hot Shot both die with our protagonist jailed for shooting the latter. Thankfully, Hallelujah ends on a high with Zeke returning to his family, singing as he comes back to the fields where he started the movie.

Although I found watching Hallelujah to be a bit of a slog; primarily thanks to the poor sound quality which made it hard to hear what the characters were saying, overall I enjoyed it more than War and Peace. Part of that enjoyment came from the performances from a cast who had no acting experience which added realism to Vidor’s film. I was particularly impressed with Daniel L Haynes who, as Zeke, was on screen for the majority of the movie and made his character into a sympathetic protagonist. However, it was Nina Mae McKinney who really stole the show as the flirtatious Chick as she really made you believe why Zeke was so eager to fall under her spell on two separate occasions. Despite some of the sound recordings being slightly dodgy, the film’s use of music was one of its better elements as the songs heard on screen became characters in their own right. From the tunes hollered by Zeke’s family, to the religious hymns recited by him later on in the film; the music played a big part in Hallelujah as Vidor exploited the fact that the audience could hear what was going on during the movie. I was incredibly impressed with Vidor’s direction which I found to be subtle and focused on the characters; with several reaction shots being incredibly effective. Although the final chase between Zeke and Hot Shot felt a little basic, I found that Vidor had done an excellent job at creating a believable and realistic portrait of black people living in the South. Furthermore, it’s hard to believe that Hallelujah and War and Peace were directed by the same man as this film was so much more intimate that Vidor’s bombastic Tolstoy’s adaptation.

As Hallelujah featured at one of the earliest Oscar ceremonies, the Best Director line-up was a little different with six films being nominated in total. I think that Hallelujah could’ve replaced either Disraeli or The Big House in the Best Picture category that year as both failed to net a Best Director nomination. However it was Maurice Chevalier’s The Love Parade that was arguably the weakest of that year’s Best Picture line-up and feels very slight when compared to the important historical document that is Hallelujah. Whilst I can see why some would see it as regressive by today’s standards, I think Hallelujah is still an interesting, compelling piece of cinema with some fantastic music and great performances from its non-professional cast.

Next time we go even further back in time to the first Oscars ceremony to watch the movie that most consider to be Vidor’s silent-era masterpiece.

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