Friday 6 March 2009

Hallelujah! (1929)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Daniel L Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney

Here's an oddity. It's a film from MGM, the largest of the studios, from way back in the day (you can tell because Cedric Gibbons is the only credited name as Art Director), directed by no less a name than King Vidor, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. It was his first sound film. Yet it opens with a whole host of black characters actually played by black actors. There's nobody white in sight and nobody in blackface. What's even more bizarre, but very welcome, is that they seem to be treated in a pretty fair light. Sure, these are poor black sharecroppers and there's no attempt made to make them saints, but there isn't a single talented actor pretending to be a lazy and retarded porter and that's always refreshing.

It's a human story, one set in a different world. Sure, we open in a cotton field and the first word spoken is 'Mammy', but these are good people working hard for their living. They're the Johnsons and they're picking the last of the cotton crop for the year, which Zeke takes into Greenville to sell. They're good Christian folk, in fact Pappy Johnson is a parson so he gets to marry a couple who already have eleven kids but thought it was about time they got around to it. They're all also musical,from Mammy singing her little ones to sleep to the kids tap dancing on carts and everyone either singing or playing an instrument.

Unfortunately with a hundred dollars in his pocket, Zeke gets trapped by a hoochie mama dancer who pretends to be his baby while happily suckering him into a crooked game of dice. With all his money gone, which of course isn't his to begin with, Zeke is in big trouble and as he tries to get it back from the hustler, ends up shooting his younger brother. He comes home, full of remorse, and his father helps him to see the light. Eventually he becomes a preacher himself and we find ourselves in the second half of the film for revival meetings and large scale baptisms.

The music is the main reason I fell into this one: it's everywhere and done very nicely indeed. I remember watching the James Whale version of Show Boat and finding that the black singers, Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, were hugely enjoyable while the white singers were annoying as all get out. There was simply no comparison. Here, we have a whole film full of black singers and musicians but without any of the distracting white folk. This is what thirties musicals should have been full of: I don't even know if this could count as a musical, because of how it's constructed, but it has more music than most musicals I've seen. The instruments come out early: banjo, organ, kazoo, whatever they can find, and there are lots of wonderful voices being used at what seems like every opportune moment.

The downside, of course, is that if you take the music away, there's not a heck of a lot left. The story is a pretty simple one but it develops well and the world it's set in is refreshing to see. There are no white actors in the entire film, so it's a completely self contained world, something reasonably easy to do because of segregation. Zeke's wild ride is a fascinating one to watch, though it's not consistently believable throughout.

These actors, from the leads on down, are far better singers and dancers than they are actors. Daniel Haynes has a great deep voice but he's no great actor. He's better on that front during the second half than the first, but it's not surprising that this film was nominated for King Vidor's direction not for his acting. Better as an actor, though she often overdoes it, is Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the hoochie mama, Chick. She's better in the second half too, but she moves really well in the first as the enticing temptress. She continues that tempting through the film too, in different ways, and she's good at it.

There's even an actor here that I know, though I don't know her as an actor. Missy Rose, the young lady that has Zeke's heart whenever Chick isn't stealing it away, is played by a young Victoria Spivey. I know her as a blues musician, often singing the sort of blues that are obviously all about sex but don't actually mention it once. She'd already recorded Black Snake Blues by the time she made this film. She's no worse than the rest of the cast as an actor but no better either. It's a shame she didn't get more opportunity to sing.

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