King Vidor’s “Hallelujah”

Eighty-five years ago, Memphis’ first major Hollywood production came to town.

All photographs are courtesy of the Hallelujah Collection, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of the historical sources quoted in this article have references to African Americans that are obviously offensive, but we reprint them here “as is” to convey the sense of the times when these remarks were made.  

Six decades before Memphis became popular with movie-makers, thanks to films like Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, and The Firm, Hollywood came knocking on our door with a high-profile, big-budget production. The film titled Hallelujah was shot in Memphis and the Mid-South over several months, beginning in 1928, and when it was released in 1929, those who saw it had never seen anything quite like it before.

First of all, this movie was a talkie — a film with sound — then a brand-new concept for motion pictures. The first real talkie, The Jazz Singer, had just been released in 1927, astounding audiences and earning millions at the box office. The Jazz Singer starred the famous Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, who appeared in blackface in two scenes, ironically portending the coming of Hallelujah. Hallelujah took things one step further: It featured a cast that was entirely African American.

Hallelujah was the brainchild of one of 1920s Hollywood’s best-known directors, King Vidor. Under contract with the major studio of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Vidor had previously made well-regarded films like The Big Parade in 1925 and the Academy Award-nominated The Crowd in 1928. Not only was Vidor breaking new ground working with an all-black cast; he would set and film his Hallelujah project in and around Memphis, in the very heart of what was then the Jim Crow South.

Hallelujah was ahead of its time in significant ways, but its unique racial and geographical dimensions ultimately limited the film’s commercial and cultural success. It did garner Vidor an Academy Award nomination, but the film was never released in many parts of the country, a casualty of an American culture that was still highly segregated. While Hallelujah is now readily available on DVD from Warner Home Video and on movie streaming websites, and Turner Classic Movies has aired it a few times in recent years, for decades the film was rarely shown in theaters.

Nevertheless, Hallelujah is a major milestone in the history of American cinema, as well as an important early artifact of mainstream African-American culture. And it’s also probably the most historically important film ever shot in the Mid-South. King Vidor even revolutionized the way sound was recorded and edited into this film, establishing a new industry standard.

Hallelujah is well worth seeing, just as it’s well worth understanding how this ambitious and fascinating movie got “made in Memphis,” 85 years ago this fall.

First the story: Hallelujah begins in a cotton field, as black sharecroppers pick cotton and sing songs. The Johnson family comes into relief, and we are introduced to Parson Johnson (played by Harry Gray); his wife, Mammy (Fanny Belle DeKnight); Missy Rose, his adopted daughter (Victoria Spivey); a few younger children (Robert Couch, Milton Dixon, and Walter Tait); and the film’s main character, the Parson’s oldest son, Zeke Johnson (Daniel L. Haynes).

Zeke is charged with taking the cotton the family has picked into town and getting a good return for it, but on his way home, an attractive woman, Chick (Nina Mae McKinney), seduces and convinces him to play craps with her lover, Hot Shot (William Fountaine). Zeke realizes that he has been conned, and, after a fight ensues, accidentally shoots his own brother, Spunk (Everett McGarrity). Zeke grieves and finds God and becomes a preacher, holding revivals to win souls. He encounters Chick again, and she is religiously converted, leaving a jealous Hot Shot. Eventually, though, Chick falls back into her sinful ways and once again entices Zeke, this time to quit preaching and to work at a sawmill.

Once again, Chick double-crosses Zeke and runs off with Hot Shot. Zeke follows them into a swamp, where both Chick and Hot Shot are killed. Zeke is punished by being placed on a chain gang but returns home soon thereafter a reformed man. The film ends as Zeke and Missy Rose are about to embark on a romantic life together, with the blessing of Parson Johnson, the family, and, one can surmise, God.

Hallelujah was the product of the imagination of a group of 1920s white Hollywood filmmakers, including director, producer, and co-writer King Vidor and writers Wanda Tuchock, Richard Schayer, and Ransom Rideout. The stars in the all-black cast were experienced actors: Daniel Haynes, who plays the male lead, was a commanding figure who had served as understudy to Paul Robeson in the musical Show Boat, while his female counterpart, the charismatic Nina Mae McKinney, referred to as the “Black Greta Garbo” because of her beauty, was featured in the chorus of Broadway’s Blackbirds.

But Hallelujah was made virtually in a vacuum, as far as how typical Hollywood productions are measured, because there were so few black actors for Vidor to draw upon and no audiences accustomed to African-American films for studio executives to target with their marketing.

In the early years of cinema, when black actors did appear in films, they were typically cast in small, demeaning parts. Because Hollywood offered so few black roles in films, there simply was not a large pool of African-American performers to be drawn from to make an all-black film. In fact, the Central Casting Bureau did not begin recruiting black extras until 1927. Before then, there simply was no need for them.

Though there weren’t many black actors, black characters were often portrayed in mainstream films, albeit by white performers wearing black makeup. White actors appearing in blackface were commonplace in entertainment and dated back to slave-era minstrel shows and up through vaudeville. The practice continued in film, most notably in The Jazz Singer, Jolson’s American cultural landmark.

Blackface was so common in Memphis that it was routinely used without comment. There were not many black figures in mainstream culture, but when black subjects did show up, they were portrayed stereotypically. Almost every day from 1916 to 1968, for example, the front page of The Commercial Appeal featured J.P. Alley’s comic cartoon, Hambone’s Meditations, starring an uneducated black character dispensing folksy advice and pithy one-liners. Through Alley’s pencil line, Hambone was disheveled in appearance, wide-eyed, and frowning. The character had exaggeratedly large lips and looked every bit as unrealistic compared to an actual black person as a white actor did in blackface. In Memphis, Hambone was the common representation of African Americans as seen by their white peers.

In Hollywood, the parts for black actors got incrementally larger over time, but it wasn’t until The Jazz Singer and the lucrative advent of sound that black actors could make their real breakthrough. Movie musicals favored the performance elements of rhythm, dance, and singing, and, in the American cultural consciousness, black people exhibited these musical abilities more than white performers. The rise of talkies thus saw a commensurate rise in the number of African-American roles. In a very real way, The Jazz Singer had made Hallelujah possible.

Hallelujah was a pet project for King Vidor. For years, the director had nurtured “a secret hope,” as he says in his autobiography, to make a film about and exclusively starring African Americans. Vidor himself had grown up in east Texas, where his father owned sawmills and where the future filmmaker grew up observing African-American life firsthand. He witnessed black employees of his father’s mills and was influenced by the Negro spirituals that put his sister to bed nightly.

The African-American religious experience drew the lion’s share of Vidor’s attention, and this fascination weaves its way into the plot and themes of Hallelujah. Specifically, Vidor made a connection between “the sincerity and fervor of [African Americans’] religious expression” and “the honest simplicity of their sexual drives.” In Hallelujah, the similarity between the twin ecstasies of salvation and sex are embodied by Chick, at turns a voraciously carnal and an ineffably spiritual being.

Regardless of his desire to make a film such as Hallelujah, Vidor had struggled for years to receive funding for the project. Studio executives balked at financing his film, citing the specter of Southern white theater owners who would refuse to show a picture like Hallelujah. To get the film financed, Vidor made an unusual proposal to the studio: He would forgo his guaranteed salary from M-G-M, investing that money into the film. The notion was palatable to Nicholas Schenck, board chair of the parent company of M-G-M. As Vidor recalled in his book, “I shall never forget [Schenck’s] immediate reply: ‘If that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll let you make a picture about whores.’”

The featured cast of Hallelujah was largely drawn from the African-American communities in Chicago and New York. There was a glut of contentious auditions for parts, from actors and nightclub entertainers on down to non-professionals attracted by Vidor’s help-wanted notices where he presented himself as a “sympathetic Southern observer” who would depict black life fairly. Casting director Charles Butler oversaw African-American placement; to fill the massive request for 340 extras for Hallelujah’s production, Butler pulled actors in from many Memphis churches.

Vidor filmed the exterior shots for Hallelujah all around the Mid-South — in downtown Memphis, in South Memphis near LeMoyne Gardens, and at Mississippi and Arkansas plantations such as Dabbs Brothers, Ten Mile Bayou, Bass, F.R. Wright, and Wilson. During production, The Commercial Appeal reported that the film shoot was “snapping the Southern negroes at their work in the cotton fields and the gins and at play” and that the Hallelujah project would give audiences “a true idea of the darkey in the south, their songs, and their talk.” From the beginning, Vidor’s mission with Hallelujah was to chronicle faithfully his vision of what real rural Southern black life was like, making a film that today would be called a docu-drama.

The filmmakers helped Hallelujah maintain a degree of vérité with the inclusion of several Memphians, notably among them Georgia Rodgers Woodruff and Robert Couch, in key parts. Woodruff sang as the lead soprano in the Dixie Jubilee Singers, under the leadership of the black composer Eva Jessye, and Couch danced as Half-Pint.
The choral leader of the Dixie Jubilee Singers as well, Jessye took the train to Memphis for the production of Hallelujah and found herself in need of a lead soprano. She asked the porter for recommendations for a singer in Memphis and was told of Georgia Rodgers Woodruff, who sang in the choir at Central Baptist Church. Woodruff auditioned for Jessye at the Travelers’ Hotel in downtown Memphis and got the part.

When Robert Couch died in 1977, the Memphis Press-Scimitar published an obituary focusing on the time he spent filming Hallelujah. The Memphian first garnered the attention of Hallelujah’s assistant director, Robert Golden, while “he was dancing in the Hotel Peabody lobby for pennies.” Couch recalled being paid $35 a week — a huge sum in the 1920s — for his work in the film, and, like Georgia Woodruff, fellow child dancer Milton Dixon, and other essential Memphians, he traveled to Hollywood for further filming and post-production work. The producers of Our Gang Comedies even courted Couch while he was in Los Angeles, but the young man’s guardian squelched the idea. Couch enjoyed modest fame later in life, when he partnered with black entertainer Rufus Thomas.

There was a great deal of interracial collaboration on Vidor’s set. Vidor deferred to the advice of others for good reason, too. As historian Thomas Cripps explains in his 1993 book, Slow Fade to Black, “Vidor brought yet another quality to his project: He knew enough of Southern black life to realize his ignorance.” Eva Jessye, writing later in Baltimore’s black newspaper, The Afro-American, recounted times when Vidor struggled to come up with the proper lines for the characters but was rescued by his actors, who “put in little touches, Negro mannerisms, phrases that could be written by no white man,” further evidence that he was interested chiefly in authentic depictions of African Americans.

Foremost among Vidor’s African-American colleagues was his assistant director, Harold Garrison. Together, they would make an effort to create authentic portrayals of African-Americans rather than one filtered through white perspectives. When staging Hallelujah’s vivid river baptism scene, employing 200 extras, Vidor recruited a number of Memphis-area black Baptist clergymen and churchgoers to get the particulars correct. With Garrison and other experts on hand to protect the film from Vidor’s biases and limitations, Hallelujah was more successful at appropriately representing black life than nearly all of its contemporary pop-cultural counterparts.

During production, Hallelujah occasionally ran up against tradition in the Jim Crow South, where racial segregation was the law and etiquette was ruled by strict unwritten codes of conduct. Vidor recalled an incident where he publicly referred to his black cast member, Fanny Belle DeKnight, with the title “Madame.” It caused a scene among Memphis onlookers, and Vidor was momentarily confused before he recalled where he was: “I was once again down South, and to address a colored person as ‘Madame,’ no matter how much of an artist she happened to be, just wasn’t done.”

The white crew, including Vidor, stayed at the Peabody Hotel while filming in Memphis, but the black members of the cast and crew, of course, had to stay elsewhere. Honey Brown, one of the film’s black actresses, was forced to ride the freight elevator when visiting the Peabody rather than the passenger elevators reserved for whites. In one instance, though, Brown and one of Hallelujah’s white film writers, Wanda Tuchock, bucked Jim Crow conventions when they visited a department store together and tried on clothes, causing a scene.

Getting the film made was hard enough for Vidor, but getting it screened in theaters would prove to be even more difficult. Hallelujah debuted in New York City with an unprecedented pair of concurrent screenings in Times Square and Harlem. The Hollywood newspaper Variety speculated that it was Eva Jessye’s idea to debut the film at Harlem’s famous Lafayette Theatre in addition to the Embassy on Broadway; the paper argued that showing it there did “something for the Race that none of the other directors or producers had ever done.” Harlem was abuzz over the film’s world premiere, a party that featured the cast mainstays along with dignitaries such as Oscar DePriest, an Illinois congressman and the first African American elected to the House of Representatives in the twentieth century.

Many critics immediately acknowledged that Hallelujah was a success. In fact, the National Board of Review named it their Best Picture of 1929, the film was included in lists of the 10 best of the year by The New York Times and Film Daily, and King Vidor garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 1930.

Vidor was appreciative of the critical acclaim and the New York debuts, but, as he notes in his autobiography, “After that we ran into trouble.” Trouble came in places like Chicago, where the major theaters refused to show Hallelujah because they were afraid it would draw too many black filmgoers to their film houses. In response, Vidor took the unusual step of screening Hallelujah for Chicago film critics even though it had not been booked in any theaters in the region. The move caught the attention of an independent theater owner, who made a big production out of opening the film in his modest venue. Hallelujah proved to be a smash success at this off-the-beaten-path location — so much so that the major theaters that shunned Hallelujah at first were now forced to book it.

After Chicago, Vidor was asked by M-G-M executives to work to get screenings in the South. In one instance, Vidor again put his own money on the line for the film. He made a $1,000 gamble with the owner of the largest theater chain in Florida, saying Hallelujah would out-perform whatever else he had playing in Jacksonville. Vidor won the bet, and, once again, Hallelujah proved to be a success — when audiences actually saw it.

The film could not ultimately beat the system, however. The Southern Theatre Federation banned Hallelujah, and there was one Production Code Administration member who personally admired the film but felt that it would not play well in front of white audiences. While Chicago theaters were fearful of a large crowd of black attendees, the Southern fear was of white audiences who would not want to see black people portrayed showing strong emotions. This scenario played out in places like Raleigh, North Carolina, where theater owners refused to screen Hallelujah until white audiences voted that it could be shown.

Hallelujah screened in Baltimore in 1930, and it was billed with a large advertisement in that city’s black newspaper, The Afro-American. The promotion proclaimed the film as a “Daring Drama of Negro Life!” that “catches the rhapsody and religion of the colored race” with “earthy and true” dialogue. Appearing in a black newspaper rather than one with a white readership, the marketing for Hallelujah did not have to hide what it was: a film about and starring African Americans.

For all Vidor’s efforts, however, Hallelujah simply did not pick up enough bookings in the South to make money. Vidor chalked it up to “exhibitor prejudice” and suggested that might be “an impenetrable barrier” to films like Hallelujah. His film was forced to test boundaries that had not been pushed before. Hallelujah was not ultimately commercially successful, failing to overcome the deep-seated obstacles of contemporary racial mores. Nevertheless, Vidor later concluded, “I was happy to make Hallelujah as my first sound film. It is still talked about today and I am very proud that I made it.”

Even as the general public was forced to figure out how to assimilate the paradigm shift created by Hallelujah, critics were struggling, too. The film was a battleground for critics from the start, and opinions were split even within the white and black races. At the Harlem premiere, Variety took special note of moments when the black audience responded with laughter rather than silence to certain scenes in Hallelujah, saying they “just won’t take their big dramatic stuff seriously.” The writer was struck by how differently the African-American crowd viewed Hallelujah, wondering if what he deemed as inappropriate laughter might be “just a sincere form of hysterical appreciation, similar to that which has affected the Race for years either in sorrow or joy.” So much blackness all at one time, from the film’s depictions down to the Harlem crowd exhibiting its own cultural response, apparently discomfited Variety’s commentator.

In his review of the film for The New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall called Hallelujah “most impressive” in how it depicted “the peculiarly typical religious hysteria of the darkies and their gullibility.” Even while approving of the film’s realism, Hall patronized African Americans by specifying Hallelujah’s “familiarity with the dusky sons of Ham.” Other white critics favored Hallelujah in more palatable and less florid ways than Hall employed. A 1931 editorial in Cinema deemed it “free from falseness and sentimentality and triviality.”

Vidor’s fellow filmmakers were watching as well. Renowned Russian director Sergei Eisenstein talked of his own attempts to get a film like Hallelujah made, but he was doomed to failure because of the industry perspective on Vidor’s film. Eisenstein said, “King Vidor himself told me how Hallelujah had been artificially cut up by its own distributors. The clause in the Code that governs the problem of race reigns supreme. … A color film — not at all ‘in natural colors’ but dealing with the fate of colored people in America — was one of the first subjects that we suggested to Paramount. Our first creative initiative was paralyzed by the ice-cold fear of the company that Negro films do not pay, ‘given the sad experience of King Vidor’s film.’”

Many black critics were wary of white appropriation of Hallelujah as well. African-American leader W.E.B. Du Bois was in fact one of the few black leaders to publicly praise the film. Du Bois made an interesting observation in the black publication, The Crisis, suggesting that because the film did not contain any white characters, it was rendered in part unbelievable.

Eva Jessye tackled the controversy among African Americans about the realism of Hallelujah’s ecstatic religious scene. She acknowledged that critics considered it hyperbolic but could not agree with them, citing her many first-hand encounters with such spectacles in black churches.

Thus, the quest for understanding Hallelujah is placed into a certain context. White critics approved of many of the most stereotypical elements of the film, while many black critics struggled to embrace them. Hallelujah was caught between two perspectives and failed to garner full appreciation from either.

It was a situation that Hallelujah struggled to overcome for many years. It is possible that the racial burdens placed on the film were too high. The American mainstream cultural landscape was ready for more authentic black entertainment, but only to a certain degree. White audiences and critics did not want immoderately complex portrayals of black life, and black audiences, tired of years of offensive racial tropes, wanted to be depicted in good faith and without disrepute.

Historian Thomas Cripps, with the advantage of hindsight, believed that Hallelujah was “the highest achievement yet in depicting black life within the strictures of the white man’s movie colony.” If one comes down on the side of the good intentions of the filmmakers, Hallelujah can be placed in historical context as the first Hollywood film about black family life and a precursor to later important black-themed films such as The Learning Tree (1969) and Sounder (1972).

If the major flaw of Hallelujah was that its primary makers were not black, it is an industry defect that persists to this day. The debate over Hallelujah signals an early instance of confronting issues of race in cinema, and the conversation continues unabated. In 2013, three high-profile, mainstream films were released about the experiences of African Americans: The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Best Picture-winner 12 Years a Slave. Significantly, each of these was directed and written by a black filmmaker: Lee Daniels, Ryan Coogler, and Steve McQueen, respectively. The fact that this is still a novelty eight decades after Hallelujah broke racial ground speaks volumes.

Today, with so much time passed and with renewed conversation about African-American portrayals and black influence in mainstream Hollywood, Hallelujah may at last be able to be appreciated for what it is and not dismissed for its limitations, or as a mere historic curio. With technology now making it available everywhere at the click of a button, the film may finally be given the shot at an audience that it never really had. Hallelujah is ready for a new generation of viewers.  

All photographs are courtesy of the Hallelujah Collection, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

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