I was recently watching King Vidor's classic 1929 film, Hallelujah!. I had only seen a short clip of it in an introductory film class as a college freshman, but the power of that one scene stayed with me for almost five years; I have no idea why I didn't rent it sooner. It's one of the two predominantly black cast films released that year (the other being Paul Sloan's Hearts in Dixie) and a first for mainstream cinema. Yes, this is a problematic film, some would say a racist film (of the best intentions), but like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (LeRoy, 1932) it remains one of the most striking visual documents of the pre-code era. The Hollywood style was less regimented then, and as much as I admire the films of the later '30s and '40s, the early talkies have a kind of raw poesy absent from the polished work which would succeed them.
For example, take the scene when the preacher Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) abandons his congregation out of sheer lust for Nina Mae McKenny's character, a light-skinned woman named Chick. The whole church is alive with the cries and lamentations of Zeke's constituency, every member seemingly electrified by the spirit of god; their larger-than-life shadows are thrown against the wall of the chapel by extremely dramatic frontal lighting; one female parishioner is drenched with a bucket of water when her religious flailing proves a little too fervid. As Zeke follows Chick through the throng of ecstatic worshippers, their movement is interrupted by close-ups notable for their awkwardness and violence. Suddenly, in the harsh clarity of the big screen, Zeke's leering face or Chick's come-hither gestures are shown without regard for any of the character's previous spatial orientation, as if they've been inserted from a completely different world than the one we've been viewing. That sort of cutting would never fly in the smooth, functional, self-effacing style that would come into vogue less than a decade hence. Yet the aesthetic jolts one sees in Hallelujah! are also what lend it such a visceral, mysterious hold on the spectator.
One of the things that makes Hallelujah! so watchable today is the acting, particularly that of Nina Mae McKenny--though Haynes' is nothing to scoff at, with several unforgettable musical numbers bolstered by a voice as rich and strong as Paul Robeson's. I've chosen a clip today from the first part of the film, when the sharecropper Zeke blows his entire family's wad of dough ($100 earned for an entire season's share of cotton) in a pathetic attempt to impress the materialistic Chick. This is a fragment of her initial seduction, as she dances to hot jazz played by Curtis Mosby's Blue Blowers. I'll proceed to list 5 reasons why this scene is worthy of your time today.
1.) Okay, for starters, just look at that guy drumming. Nobody does this kind of shit anymore. That fellow is juggling his own drumsticks while never missing a beat and he's happy as a lark. A trick like that is up there with Slim Gaillard's playing the piano with the backs of his hands.
2.) Nina Mae McKenny's dress. It's kind of hilarious that Vidor felt the need to foreshadow the fact that Chick fleeces Zeke for all he's worth in a loaded craps game... by having the costume designer sew two dice images onto one of her breasts. The modern viewer never really knows just when this film intends to be funny. Be that as it may, I can imagine this dress being a popular thrift store item today. Or perhaps as part of Urban Outfitter's next line, the Prohibition Chic catalogue.
3.) The largish man with oversize shoes (probably a reference to his vaudeville background) doing a clumsy and good-natured turn to Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle".
4.) McKenny's incredible eyes and smile. They're so artificial and exaggerated, like a doll's features. I'm not sure why she was billed as the "Black Garbo" in Europe. There's nothing masklike, stern or impassive about the woman--as Barthes would say, her face is an event. Can you believe she was only 16 when she made Hallelujah? Yowza. Unfortunately, despite signing a five-year contract with MGM, no one knew what to star her in; McKenny's American career amounted to precious little.
5.) Her dancing. As Donald Bogle notes, this is some of the most original dancing seen on American screens at the tail end of the '20s. She combines classic flapper moves with what look like variations on modern breaks. That stuff she does with her legs when the waiters surround her is just superb. And she executes it all with a boldness and grace truly amazing for a first-time film performer.