Already one of Hollywood's most successful directors, with such hits as The Big Parade, The Crowd and Show People to his credit, King Vidor chose a decidedly off-beat and risky project for his first sound film, a musical based on an idea he had been trying to get off the ground for most of a decade, the story of the African-American experience in the deep South using an all-black cast.
MGM was wary of the project, believing white audiences would resist a film using blacks in leading roles, but Vidor believed so strongly in the project that he offered to work without salary and finally the studio relented. The resulting film, Hallelujah!, premiered in August 1929.
The story itself is pretty standard fare for a musical—a weak man (Daniel L. Haynes) is torn between the good girl who loves him and the jazz singing vamp (Nina Mae McKinney) who only wants to use him—set in the farmland outside Memphis, Tennessee, where the movie was filmed. After accidentally killing his own brother in a bar room brawl, Haynes's Zeke becomes an itinerant preacher only to be drawn back into McKinney's web when he runs into her at a tent revival meeting.
The music alternates between spirituals and jazz numbers, and while Mc- Kinney turns in a performance of Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle" that audiences at the time found electrifying, it's the spirituals—"Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," and many others—Vidor is most interested in. He was determined to show the role religion and music played in the South he grew up in and, as a Tennessee boy myself, I think it's one of the few movies to come out of Hollywood that captures something of this aspect of Southern life without condescending to it, or worse.
Hallelujah! was also notable for its early success at combining sound recorded on location with sound recorded in the studio, a feat which was considered a great technical achievement at the time.
Hallelujah! is not a perfect movie and despite three Katie nominations, I don't want to oversell it. The plot is a stock Hollywood musical contrivance, the acting is amateurish (not surprising since Vidor mostly used amateurs) and the characters are often stock racial stereotypes, such as the sex-crazy black man or the wise "Mammy." Vidor himself later admitted that despite his best efforts, the story was at times condescending to the African-American experience.
And yet I have to say that while the black farmers, preachers and jazz singers of Vidor's Hallelujah! sometimes lack nuance, so too did Hollywood's portraits of flappers, gangsters, Broadway producers, newspapermen, housewives, politicians and pretty much anything else it set its sights on. Films of the Early Sound Era still had one foot firmly in the Silent Era when exposition was difficult and subtle characterizations nearly impossible. Filmmakers served up characters in a sort of visual shorthand—this is the good guy, this is the bad guy—for the quick understanding of the audience, and while modern audiences may find some of the portrayals in Hallelujah! startling, they aren't much different from the characters played in the all-white musical The Broadway Melody which won the Oscar for best picture the year before.
What distinguishes Hallelujah! from, say, The Birth Of A Nation, which is also filled with stock racial stereotypes, is that the characters and story are based on Vidor's actual, if flawed, observations of African-American life rather than D.W. Griffith's thoughtless regurgitation of racist stereotypes. Vidor was deeply sympathetic to and interested in the lives of black Americans (as, indeed, I get the impression he was of most people). I think the only regret Griffith felt about putting racial stereotypes on the screen was that he wasn't allowed to hit those who criticized him for it with a hammer.
Commercially, Hallelujah! was the flop MGM feared it would be, although certainly the studio's unwillingness to distribute the film to entire sections of the country for fear of a racist backlash was a major contributor to its failure. Critically, the reception has been a bit friendlier. The Academy recognized Vidor with an Oscar nomination for best director at the 1930 ceremony and in 2008, the National Film Preservation Board included Hallelujah! in the National Film Registry. That same year, in honor of Vintage Black Cinema, the U.S. Postal Service pictured an advertizing poster for Hallelujah! on a 42¢ stamp.
Nina Mae McKinney was just sixteen years old at the time of filming, but she made such an impression that MGM signed her to a five year contract. Unfortunately for McKinney, however, MGM was reluctant to cast a black actress in a significant role and most of her work was done on loan to other studios. She soon left Hollywood for Europe where she worked mostly in cabaret shows until World War II broke out. She made twenty movies altogether and died in 1967 at the age of fifty-four. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.
As for the film's other stars, Daniel L. Haynes appeared in a handful of movies, mostly uncredited bit parts, and also worked on the Broadway stage. Child actor Matthew "Stymie" Beard played in thirty-seven Our Gang comedies, usually wearing an oversized bowler hat (he was later replaced by Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas). Sam McDaniel, brother of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, appeared in over two hundred movies, usually in an uncredited role as a waiter, janitor or porter, including one role I remember, "Charlie the garage attendant" who provides Fred MacMurray with a critical alibi in Double Indemnity. Likewise, Blue Washington, one of the few veteran actors in the cast, continued playing bit parts until his final movie in 1957.
The rest of the cast quickly faded from view.
Despite the commercial failure of Hallelujah!, Vidor remained one of Hollywood's most sought-after directors, working on such films as The Champ, Stella Dallas and War and Peace. In 1939, when director Victor Fleming left the set of The Wizard of Oz to take over the troubled production of Gone With The Wind, Vidor stepped in and although he did not receive a screen credit, directed the film's Kansas scenes, including Judy Garland's beloved performance of "Over the Rainbow."
Vidor received three more nominations for direction and in 1979 was awarded an honorary Oscar "[f]or his incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator." He died in 1982 at the age of eighty-eight.
Trivia: While Hal- lelujah! is often remem- bered as the first movie with an all-black cast, a much lesser known musical, Hearts in Dixie, also starring an all-black cast, predated it by five months. Hearts in Dixie starred Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry), whose stage name has become synonymous with the negative stereotyping of African-Americans in film. Some revisionist historians consider him a trailblazer who paved the way for later African-American performers. Others point out that white audiences of the time often swallowed the characterization whole and used it as justification for racist policies. In any event, Perry became a millionaire playing the role in more than fifty movies (later blowing it all and declaring bankruptcy).
The NAACP presented him with a Special Image Award in 1976 and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inducted him as a member in 1978. He died in 1985.
If you're interested, two biographies with very different takes on Lincoln Perry have been published within the last five years, Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry and Shuffling To Ignominy: The Tragedy Of Stepin Fetchit, both available in paperback.