Is the First Important Black Musical Film

King Vidor sacrificed salary to direct the first serious all-black musical motion picture, successfully blending music and drama to depict southern farm life and its tragedies.

Summary of Event

When Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer in 1927, the era of silent films came to an end, but some studio heads believed sound to be a fad. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM) did not release a sound film until 1928; its first musical was 1929’s The Broadway Melody, a backstage story full of young women in abbreviated costumes. The studio intended to follow this film with similar moneymakers, and it turned down King Vidor’s proposal of an all-black musical tragedy set among impoverished farmers. [kw]Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical Film (1929)
[kw]First Important Black Musical Film, Hallelujah Is the (1929)
[kw]Black Musical Film, Hallelujah Is the First Important (1929)
[kw]Musical Film, Hallelujah Is the First Important Black (1929)
[kw]Film, Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical (1929)
Special effects, motion pictures
Hallelujah (film)
Motion pictures;Hallelujah
African Americans;motion pictures
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];King Vidor[Vidor]
Musical motion pictures;Hallelujah
[g]United States;1929: Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical Film[07140]
[c]Motion pictures;1929: Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical Film[07140]
Vidor, King
Haynes, Daniel L.
McKinney, Nina Mae

By then, however, Vidor had achieved a considerable reputation. A Galveston, Texas, native who as a boy had taught himself film techniques by watching silents, Vidor had come to California in 1915 and had taken every studio job he could get in order to learn his profession. He made his reputation with The Turn in the Road (1919); Turn in the Road, The (film) it was characteristic of Vidor that he convinced a group of physicians to back the film, which had a Christian Science theme. The Turn in the Road depicted a man’s search for his personal truths, a theme that was to dominate Vidor’s films.

D. W. Griffith’s films taught Vidor the relationship of films to musical forms, and from Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) he learned the dramatic value of everyday experience. His two most important silent films foreshadowed Hallelujah in evidencing both interests. In The Big Parade (1925), Big Parade, The (film) starring John Gilbert, he showed a common soldier, neither a hero nor a coward. In The Crowd (1928), Crowd, The (film) Vidor showed a common office worker whose struggles were everyman’s: marriage, parenthood, dead-end work, unemployment, the loss of a child, alcoholism, and periods of happiness.

Vidor used music to spectacular effect in the background for The Big Parade. He conceptualized the film in terms of musical movements, pacing off the troops’ steps with a metronome and speeding up the beat as tension mounted. As troops marched toward the battlefront and death, the musical score ceased, and the soldiers moved only to the cadence of an ominous bass drum. Although critics attacked Vidor’s use of music in Hallelujah as a racist depiction of black music and attacked the hero’s sordid story and emotionalism, these themes were in fact set in Vidor’s work before he came to Hallelujah. The film’s hero, Zeke, is searching for his true life. He is caught between two women who represent the extremes of his own psychological needs. Music represents this conflict. Gospel songs and traditional spirituals are associated with the order and family harmony of Zeke’s family’s farm, whereas syncopated jazz represents the world that tempts him. (Until the end of his life, Vidor was disturbed by the studio’s insistence on adding such elements as two Irving Berlin songs, “At the End of the Road” and “Swanee Shuffle,” that gave the film a Tin Pan Alley air he wanted to avoid.)

Vidor’s was not the first all-black musical. Earlier in 1929, Fox (later Twentieth Century-Fox) released Hearts in Dixie, Hearts in Dixie (film) which featured the talented actor Clarence Muse and provided the first major role for comedian Stepin Fetchit. Hearts in Dixie, however, focused on the happy-go-lucky life of a fictional plantation. Later in 1929, St. Louis Blues, St. Louis Blues (film)[Saint Louis Blues] released by Warner Bros., provided singer Bessie Smith Smith, Bessie her only film role, but it was not a full-length feature; it ran only seventeen minutes.

Vidor took a bigger risk. He wanted to treat his black hero as seriously as he had treated the white soldier in The Big Parade and the white office worker in The Crowd. Vidor’s operational problems were staggering, with sound techniques still in their infancy, and MGM refused to make the film until Vidor donated the money due him under his MGM contract to the production.

For his cast, Vidor went to Chicago, New York, and Memphis, visiting black churches to hire his singers. For Zeke, he first wanted Paul Robeson, who was unavailable. Instead, he hired Daniel L. Haynes, the understudy for Jules Bledsoe, who sang “Ol’ Man River” in the 1927 Broadway production of Show Boat. Nina Mae McKinney was hired from the chorus of a Broadway show. Three child musicians were hired when Vidor saw them dancing for quarters in a Memphis hotel. Vidor approached Harry Gray, Gray, Harry who had been born into slavery, to play the father of the family. Musician Victoria Spivey Spivey, Victoria played Missy Rose, William Fountaine Fountaine, William played the gambler Hot Shot, and Fannie Bell McKnight McKnight, Fannie Bell was cast as the mother. All were relatively unknown.

The mood of Hallelujah was as somber as that of The Crowd. Zeke, the eldest son of a hardworking farm family, goes to town with his brother and is fascinated by Chick (McKinney), who plays a tempting Eve. He is cheated by Hot Shot; in a brawl, he accidentally shoots his brother. In atonement, he becomes a preacher, but, still fascinated by Chick, he leaves the ministry. Vidor explicitly shows Zeke’s religious fervor to be an unsuccessful attempt to sublimate a sexual drive that finally conquers him. Zeke and Chick flee. Zeke ultimately kills Chick’s lover, Hot Shot, and Chick dies in a symbolic fall. Zeke serves time in prison, then returns to the order and stability of his father’s farm, where Missy Rose, the good girl, waits for him. They return to harvesting the earth and to the cycles of the seasons.


By the end of Vidor’s long life, the significance of Hallelujah was recognized, but its immediate reception was mixed. As Vidor recalled, the film may never have shown a profit. For the actors in the film, it was virtually a dead end, and no one at the time understood that Vidor had created a new film genre. His technical accomplishment, however, was immediately apparent.

Vidor shot the film on location near Memphis, Tennessee, and in Arkansas. Sound equipment, large and difficult to move, did not arrive, so much of the film was shot as a silent and then matched with sound tracks recorded in Hollywood, a feat so difficult that it literally drove one film cutter to a nervous breakdown.

For the scenes shot as silents, Vidor used impressionistic special effects. Perhaps the most dramatic scene shows Zeke chasing Hot Shot through a swamp. In his autobiographical A Tree Is a Tree (1953), Vidor recalled that “when someone stepped on a broken branch, we made it sound as if bones were breaking,” and that when Hot Shot drew his foot from the sticky mud, “we made the vacuum sound strong enough to pull him down into hell.” Recording a group of dock workers, Vidor for the first time used synchronous sound recording in the studio. The final print had flaws, but remarkable effects were readily evident.

Controversy, however, arose about the film’s content. Although accused of racism, Vidor was unquestionably sincere; he had not intended to portray the black race as a whole but simply to show the harsh lives of the black people he had known in Galveston, where his father’s lumber company had employed mostly black men and where he was taken to witness river baptisms. Although reviews in the white East Coast press were generally favorable, the black press reacted against the gambling and emotionalism of the black characters depicted in the film.

Controversy even surrounded the film’s showing. In New York, the film was given dual premieres, one at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem and one downtown. Black journalists were indignant, assuming this meant that white audiences were willing to see blacks on film but were unwilling to sit next to them in audiences. In Chicago, two major theaters, the Balaban and Katz, refused to book the film for fear the black audiences would drive off white patrons. Vidor had to visit Chicago, show the film to critics, and wait for the positive reviews. Once these appeared, it was possible to convince a small independent theater to book the film. Its success at that theater forced major Chicago theaters to show it. In an attempt to get southern bookings, Vidor talked a Jacksonville, Florida, theater owner into booking the film by promising him a personal check for one thousand dollars if Hallelujah did not bring in more profit than whatever was currently showing. It did, and the man booked it into his theaters, but there were few other southern showings. Even in Paris, where black entertainers had received a warmer welcome than in the United States, the film’s showings were restricted. In a 1932 essay in Le Crapouillot, Pierre Bost recalled, perhaps with some exaggeration, that he could see the film only in the early hours of the morning and in a cellar, although it was the talk of the city.

The minor actors of Hallelujah are virtually lost to time. Of the stars, McKinney was signed to an MGM contract, but few roles were available for black women. Her portrait of Chick, however, is said to have created the figure of the feisty vamp later acted by such stars as Dorothy Dandridge and Jean Harlow. McKinney is said to have dubbed Harlow’s songs in Reckless (1935). She appeared in a number of major studio films and in films made by independent black companies; in England, she appeared opposite Paul Robeson in Alexander Korda’s Sanders of the River (1935). Her final film appearance was in Pinky (1949). There were also few roles for black men in American films after Hallelujah. Haynes played in Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1930) for five years on Broadway and for almost two thousand performances on tour; he played the major figure of De Lawd in a later revival. Haynes also played secondary roles in a number of films and achieved a distinguished career as pastor of New York churches.

Vidor went on to make a series of distinguished films. Street Scene (1931) and Our Daily Bread (1934) were in many ways reminiscent of his earlier films, with their emphasis on the overlooked dramas of everyday life. Other Vidor films included Billy the Kid (1930), Stella Dallas (1937), The Citadel (1938), Northwest Passage (1940), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949), Ruby Gentry (1952), and the Italian-American production of War and Peace (1956). He directed the “Over the Rainbow” scene and other Kansas scenes for The Wizard of Oz (1939) when director Victor Fleming was called away.

In 1979, Vidor received a special Academy Award for career achievement. By that time, he was, among other things, recognized to have been the originator of the American folk musical film, a genre in which stories tend to be set in a mythic American past and tend to focus on domestic and traditional values. The genre’s peculiar synthesis of these elements can be traced to the stage performance of Show Boat, which opened on Broadway in 1927, but it was in Hallelujah that it came to first fruition in film. After Hallelujah were to come such folk musicals as Cabin in the Sky (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and The Harvey Girls (1946) as well as the film versions of Oklahoma! (1955) and Carousel (1956), but Vidor’s seriousness of tone and fervor of purpose in Hallelujah were to distinguish it from all the rest. Special effects, motion pictures
Hallelujah (film)
Motion pictures;Hallelujah
African Americans;motion pictures
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];King Vidor[Vidor]
Musical motion pictures;Hallelujah

Further Reading

  • Altman, Rick. “The Folk Musical.” In The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Provides an analysis of Hallelujah that is essential reading for anyone interested in the folk musical form and its development.
  • Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2001. Extremely important book on black films and stereotypes contains a lengthy and moderately sympathetic analysis of Hallelujah as well as a discussion of McKinney’s influence on the figure of the vamp in film.
  • Dowd, Nancy, and David Shepard. King Vidor. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988. Lengthy interview is essential reading not only for anyone interested in Vidor and Hallelujah but also for students of silent and early sound films.
  • Knight, Arthur. Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Scholarly study examines the history of film musical representations of African Americans, focusing on early musicals with all-black casts. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Readable, witty, and opinionated book contains several pages about Hallelujah. An excellent starting place for students of film musicals.
  • Vidor, King. A Tree Is a Tree. 1953. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1977. Autobiography offers fascinating insights into how the founders of film learned their trade by trial and error. Focuses on Vidor’s professional life rather than his personal life, and includes much information about the direction of silent films. Features filmography from 1918 to 1952.

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