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Obstacle after obstacle was what director King Vidor encountered while filming Hallelujah (1929), an all-black, major studio musical and the first of its kind in Hollywood history. As a director with a keen interest in social issues, Vidor thought the time was right to test the waters of racial tolerance with a tale of sex, murder, religion, and music enacted by a black cast. He also wanted to take advantage of the emerging sound technology that was revolutionizing the film industry.
At first Nicholas Schenck, the board chairman of Loews Inc. (the owners of MGM) responded negatively to Vidor's movie suggestion because he felt white theatre owners in the South would not exhibit the film. After Vidor agreed to invest his guaranteed salary, dollar for dollar, with the investment of the company, Schenck approved the project with this inappropriate remark, "If that's the way you feel about it, I'll let you make a picture about whores." Schenck was referring to the storyline of Hallelujah, a story about a sharecropper in a juke joint, Zeke, who falls for Chick, a beautiful dancer. But Chick is only setting Zeke up for a rigged craps game. His brother, Spunk, is mortally wounded in the shoot-out that follows and Zeke leaves the community. He later returns as Brother Zekiel the preacher and his forceful preaching draws the faithful in such large numbers that even Chick wants to be saved by him.
Hallelujah was filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas without sound; the dialogue and sound effects were added later in Hollywood. As cost was a crucial issue, Vidor looked to unknown talent to tell his story although he originally wanted Ethel Waters for the female lead. Most of the cast members for the film were from the "Negro" districts of Chicago and New York. Nina (pronounced Nine-ah) Mae McKinney, who plays Chick, had never been in front of a camera before but had performed in the chorus line of the musical show, Blackbirds, on Broadway. Although MGM signed her to a five-year contract, she did not receive any more starring roles and eventually made her way to Europe where she became a cabaret star billed as "The Black Garbo." Vidor also used extras from a local Tennessee Baptist Church and an authority on baptism ritual to add authenticity to the production. Still, the filming of Hallelujah was a nightmare with numerous equipment problems, chaotic production crew conditions, and the daily anxiety of transitioning from silent to sound film.
All the trouble was worth the effort in the end because Hallelujah was a critical success and won Vidor an Oscar nomination for Best Director. It subsequently went on to play most theatres just shy of the Mason-Dixon Line. Vidor triumphed like a champ offering big promises like refund checks to theatre owners if the picture did not do well. He never did have to eat his words and there were often encore engagements of the film in certain markets. As expected, Hallelujah was banned by the Southern Theatre Federation but there were a few exceptions including one in Jacksonville, Florida. Seen today, Hallelujah invites criticism for its stereotypes; blacks are depicted as either naive idealists or individuals ruled by their emotions. Despite this drawback, the film set a high standard for all subsequent all-black musicals and still stands as an excellent showcase for the talents of Ms. McKinney and company.
Director/Producer: King Vidor
Screenplay: Marian Ainslee (titles), Ransom Rideout (dialogue), Richard Schayer (treatment), Wanda Tuchock (scenario), King Vidor (story)
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Music: Irving Berlin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Daniel L. Haynes (Zekial 'Zeke' Johnson), Nina Mae McKinney (Chick), William Fountaine (Hot Shot), Harry Gray (Pappy Parson Johnson), Fanny Belle DeKnight (Mammy Johnson), Everett McGarrity (Spunk Johnson)
by Kerryn Sherrod & Jeff Stafford