These notes accompany screenings of King Vidor’s Hallelujah, June 16, 17, and 18 in Theater 2.
1894 was a uniquely auspicious year for the movies. Not only is that when film history as we have come to know it began, but three of the medium’s greatest directors were born: Jean Renoir, John Ford, and Josef von Sternberg. It was also the year of King Vidor’s birth, and, while he may not have achieved quite the unity of vision of the other three, he came close. After The Big Parade (1925) put M-G-M on the map, he made five more silents, including La Boheme (Lillian Gish’s best silent film that didn’t involve D. W. Griffith or Victor Seastrom), two brilliant comedies starring the scintillating Marion Davies (The Patsy and Show People), and The Crowd, one of the crown jewels of the period. The ever-ambitious Vidor was now ready for sound.
Hallelujah (1929) was shot in Tennessee and Arkansas, far from the prying eyes of studio executives and the interference of newly venerated sound engineers. Thus, Vidor was relatively free to experiment with what was essentially a new medium. (Judging by the limitations of the next several films Vidor made back home at M-G-M, it is most likely that much of the adventuresome quality of Hallelujah would have been lost if it was made under the nose of Irving Thalberg.) Visually, it is as striking as any of Vidor’s silent films. Since many sequences were shot silent with sound added afterward, the director was able to retain the fluidity of camera movement so evident in The Crowd. Vidor’s lovely soft-focus images of life in the cotton fields, his spectacular staging of a mass baptism, and the brilliant Expressionism of the church meeting and the climactic chase through the swamp are unparalleled in the early sound film. His imaginative use of sound, ranging from off-screen voices to moving musical numbers, is equally unique. It could be argued that Hallelujah is, in its way, as important to the development of talkies as The Birth of a Nation was to the silent film fifteen years earlier. Unfortunately, the parallel between the two films doesn’t stop there.
Vidor, an unabashed Texan, carried much of the baggage of a Southern upbringing. On one level, Hallelujah clearly reinforces the stereotypes of Blacks as childishly simple, lecherously promiscuous, fanatically superstitious, and shiftless. This was, of course, not unusual in American films; even the great Paul Robeson had to shuffle a bit in James Whale’s Showboat (1936). Chick, the mulatto temptress (or “yellow hussy,” as Zeke’s mother calls her) reappears as the Lena Horne character in Vincente Minnelli’s “sophisticated” Cabin in the Sky (1943). Certainly, Vidor could never be accused of the overt racial venom exhibited by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. Yet the benefit of the doubt one might give to Hallelujah is partially negated by his So Red the Rose (1935).
The director himself links the two films by opening So Red the Rose with cotton-field footage of the Johnson family from Hallelujah. Daniel Haynes (Zeke) reappears as a loyal slave who puts down a slave rebellion following the Emancipation Proclamation. He converts the Blacks back into the happy singers they were before they became “uppity” and began to think of themselves as men rather than chattel.
Is there, then, a defense for Hallelujah beyond its aesthetic importance? I think there is, and I think it lies in Vidor’s personality as we know it from his films. (Full disclosure: I found Vidor modest and utterly charming in the few hours I was privileged to spend with him in 1972.) Certainly, for a white man to make such a film now would require a great deal of chutzpah. For King Vidor, however, in 1929, there may be grounds for understanding, if not approval. He did grow up in the South and did, indeed, have preconceptions about Blacks. These he tried to render lovingly in dramatic form in what he sincerely deemed to be an honest and affectionate film. Given his naiveté, his lack of malice, and his trust in his own fairness—and given his almost mystical fervor—Hallelujah can and should be accepted as the remarkable achievement it is. Perhaps we can best gauge Vidor’s purity of intent through the words of Zeke’s song: “I can’t go wrong, I must go right/I’ll find my way ‘cause a guiding light/will be shining at the end of the road.”