Quite ironic that the first Hollywood movie to offer a realistic, sympathetic depiction of life as an African-American in the 1920s was written and directed by a man whose father C.S. Vidor is the namesake of the most notoriously racist town in Texas.
“For several years I had nurtured a secret hope,” director King Vidor started chapter 16 of his autobiography A Tree Is a Tree. “I wanted to make a film about Negroes. Using only Negroes in the cast.” King Vidor, whose entry in the film world was documenting the 1909 hurricane in his native Galveston for newsreels, had grown up around blacks employed at his father’s East Texas lumber camps. He would poke his head into their churches and their juke joints. “The sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.”
Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), which explores the forces of sin and salvation in the African American experience, didn’t have a chance to be made until the advent of sound pictures, or “talkies,” with 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Vidor’s earlier pitches for an all-black cast film were shot down by studios who argued such a picture would never play in the theaters of the South. But with the popularity of spirituals and jazz, plus spectacular scenes of river baptisms and juke joint dancing, MGM finally greenlit the picture. Also, Vidor agreed to forgo his $100,000 salary until the movie made money. “If that’s the way you feel about it,” said MGM’s parent company CEO Nicholas Schenck, “I’ll let you make a movie about whores.”
Vidor spent several weeks on the script, then went to New York City to scout talent. Daniel Haynes, who was Jules Bledsoe’s understudy in Show Boat, and 16-year-old Nina Mae McKinney- a standout in the chorus line of Blackbirds of 1929 revue- were hired as the male and female leads. Also in the cast is singer Victoria Spivey of Houston.
During pre-production in Memphis, where most of the film was shot, three boys, going as Sears, Roebuck & Poe, danced in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel for tips and when Vidor saw their act he hired them on the spot. The dramatic swamp scenes of the movie were shot in West Arkansas.
Hallelujah was Vidor’s first sound picture, but because MGM couldn’t spare a sound truck for a month in Memphis, it was filmed silent and then all the sound was dubbed in later. The synchronicity is bad in spots. Also, studio head Irving Thalberg had Irving Berlin write a song, “End of the Road,” and added it to the film without Vidor’s knowledge or approval. It was the one sore spot of Vidor’s passion project.
Only one theater in the South, in Jacksonville, FL, screened Hallelujah. It never showed in Texas or Arkansas, where C.S. Vidor also owned lumber camps, during its original run. Financially, the film was a flop and Vidor never received a penny for it. But today it ranks up there with The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928), Our Daily Bread (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), An American Romance (1944), Duel In the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949) and Ruby Gentry (1952) as one of the top creative achievements by the greatest film director Texas ever produced.