Cast & Crew
Daniel L. Haynes
Nina Mae Mckinney
William E. Fountaine
Fannie Belle De Night
Zeke, a black tenant farmer, takes the family cotton crop to market and sells it for nearly one hundred dollars. Chick, a dance hall temptress, then uses her wiles to lure Zeke into a crap game with her lover, Hot Shot, who cheats Zeke out of his money with loaded dice. Zeke and Hot Shot fight, and Zeke gets possession of Hot Shot's gun, firing point blank into the crowd. The shot accidentally kills his younger brother, Spunk, and in repentance, Zeke becomes a preacher. He again meets Chick, and she gets religion, deserting Hot Shot to go with him. Zeke falls for Chick and jilts Missy Rose. Hot Shot returns, and the fickle Chick goes off with him. Zeke gives chase, and Chick is killed when Hot Shot's buggy overturns. Zeke then kills Hot Shot in a swamp, and, after serving time on the chain gang, returns home to the faithful Missy Rose.
Daniel L. Haynes
Nina Mae Mckinney
William E. Fountaine
Fannie Belle De Night
Dixie Jubilee Singers
Robert A. Golden
King Vidor's Hallelujah! on DVD
To order Hallelujah!, go to
Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) is a share-cropper who, with his parents and brothers, raises and harvests cotton. It is for the most part a happy, contented life governed by familial affection and strong religious beliefs. Zeke takes the most recent crop to the town of Greenville, where he receives a large amount of money (for the time) and intends to pick up presents for each of the family members. But Zeke is side-lined by a honky-tonk girl named Chick (played by Nina Mae McKinney), who teases Zeke about his lowly state until she gets a look at the wad of cash that he's carrying. She then steers him to crooked gambler Hot Shot (William Fountaine), who promptly fleeces Zeke of all of his money in a rigged crap game.
When Zeke realizes he's been had, he immediately demands to inspect the dice. When Hot Shot refuses, they break into a scuffle that becomes deadly when Hot Shot pulls a gun. In the struggle to get the gun away from him, several shots are fired and everyone (including Hot Shot when Zekes wrests the gun away from him) flee the honky-tonk. It is then that Zeke realizes that his brother Spunk (Everett McGarrity) has been shot, and Zeke races to get him home, believing that their Mammy (Fanny Belle DeKnight) will be able to heal him. But when Zeke arrives home, he discovers that Spunk has died.
In his grief over the tragedy, Zeke has an epiphany during Spunk's funeral, and decides that the Lord is calling him to become a preacher. He follows his calling, achieving success as a traveling preacher. But when he arrives in the latest town where he is slated to hold a revival meeting, he is met by the jeers of Chick and Hot Shot, who believe Zeke's conversion to be just another scam. But Chick finds her way to the revival meeting, where she continues to taunt Zeke, but to little effect as Zeke holds the congregation enraptured with the power of his preaching. As the emotionally charged congregation moves forward to accept the Lord, Chick finally gets caught up in the fervor and comes forward to be saved.
The fact that Chick will remain a problem for Zeke becomes immediately apparent when she shows up to be baptized. Her fervor is over-the-top, and when emerges from the water, in her excitement, she throws her arms around Zeke's neck and collapses in his arms. Zeke takes her to the family's tent, where he finds that his lust for her is still so strong that he can't resist it, and it's only the intercession of Mammy that keeps him from forsaking his vows. But when Chick shows up at the next revival meeting, Zeke's lust proves too powerful, and he goes off with her. The pair set up housekeeping, and Zeke takes a job in a sawmill, happy to do menial work as long as he can come home to Chick. Unfortunately, the reckless Chick soon grows tired of domestic life, and decides to run off with old friend Hot Shot – a decision that will lead to tragedy for all involved.
Hallelujah! was a groundbreaking film, depicting the life of rural southern blacks completely outside their relationship to whites. As always with these early studio films, the movie is only partly successful in meeting its own goals. While trying to look at rural blacks with reverence and respect, the film still depicts some common stereotypes (i.e., the Mammy character) so innocently that clearly neither Vidor or the writers knew that these images were stereotypes (in fact, Warner Bros. has inserted a disclaimer at the beginning of the film about the racist images).
Screen newcomer Daniel L. Haynes gives an amazing performance as Zeke. His deep, resonant voice gives weight and gravity to the songs, particularly "The End of the Road," which was written by Irving Berlin and used in the film at the insistence of MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg. But even more remarkable is Haynes' ability to capture the power and passion of a revival preacher, which he emulates with uncanny accuracy. The film's female lead, Nina Mae McKinney, gives an equally no-holds-barred performance, credibly portraying Chick's ever-shifting allegiances. In one particularly funny moment, when Chick is about to leave for the revival meeting Hot Shot unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep. When he tries to take advantage of her, she beats him with a fireplace poker, then says to his inert form, "That's what I'll do to anybody that stands in my path to glory!" A few minutes later she's leading a preacher into temptation.
Hallelujah! is an important film in the history of black cinema, along with Fox's Hearts in Dixie which, preceding this film by only three months, was the first all black film released by a major studio. Of course, these films have to be viewed in the context of the time during which they was made, but they remain important documents of social/racial history.
As for the transfer for Warner Bros.' DVD of Hallelujah, one can only expect just so much in a film of this vintage: naturally, the source (presumably the best one available) is showing a great deal of general wear as well as plentiful scratches and debris. Despite this the black level is very strong, and the image is consistently well contrasted, with good shadow detail. The soundtrack is showing its age as well, though for the most part it is very listenable, with surprisingly deep bass. The disc includes a feature-length commentary by Black Cultural Scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton, which provides some fascinating background material and historical information about black cinema. The disc also includes two short subjects starring Nina Mae McKinney, "Pie Pie Blackbird" and "The Black Network," both of which costar The Nicholas Brothers.
For more information about Hallelujah!, visit Warner Video. by Fred Hunter
King Vidor's Hallelujah! on DVD To order Hallelujah!, go to TCM Shopping.
At first Nicholas Schenck, the board chairman of Loews Inc. (the owners of MGM) responded negatively to Vidor's movie suggestion because he felt white theatre owners in the South would not exhibit the film. After Vidor agreed to invest his guaranteed salary, dollar for dollar, with the investment of the company, Schenck approved the project with this inappropriate remark, "If that's the way you feel about it, I'll let you make a picture about whores." Schenck was referring to the storyline of Hallelujah, a story about a sharecropper in a juke joint, Zeke, who falls for Chick, a beautiful dancer. But Chick is only setting Zeke up for a rigged craps game. His brother, Spunk, is mortally wounded in the shoot-out that follows and Zeke leaves the community. He later returns as Brother Zekiel the preacher and his forceful preaching draws the faithful in such large numbers that even Chick wants to be saved by him.
Hallelujah was filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas without sound; the dialogue and sound effects were added later in Hollywood. As cost was a crucial issue, Vidor looked to unknown talent to tell his story although he originally wanted Ethel Waters for the female lead. Most of the cast members for the film were from the "Negro" districts of Chicago and New York. Nina (pronounced Nine-ah) Mae McKinney, who plays Chick, had never been in front of a camera before but had performed in the chorus line of the musical show, Blackbirds, on Broadway. Although MGM signed her to a five-year contract, she did not receive any more starring roles and eventually made her way to Europe where she became a cabaret star billed as "The Black Garbo." Vidor also used extras from a local Tennessee Baptist Church and an authority on baptism ritual to add authenticity to the production. Still, the filming of Hallelujah was a nightmare with numerous equipment problems, chaotic production crew conditions, and the daily anxiety of transitioning from silent to sound film.
All the trouble was worth the effort in the end because Hallelujah was a critical success and won Vidor an Oscar nomination for Best Director. It subsequently went on to play most theatres just shy of the Mason-Dixon Line. Vidor triumphed like a champ offering big promises like refund checks to theatre owners if the picture did not do well. He never did have to eat his words and there were often encore engagements of the film in certain markets. As expected, Hallelujah was banned by the Southern Theatre Federation but there were a few exceptions including one in Jacksonville, Florida. Seen today, Hallelujah invites criticism for its stereotypes; blacks are depicted as either naive idealists or individuals ruled by their emotions. Despite this drawback, the film set a high standard for all subsequent all-black musicals and still stands as an excellent showcase for the talents of Ms. McKinney and company.
Director/Producer: King Vidor
Screenplay: Marian Ainslee (titles), Ransom Rideout (dialogue), Richard Schayer (treatment), Wanda Tuchock (scenario), King Vidor (story)
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Music: Irving Berlin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Daniel L. Haynes (Zekial 'Zeke' Johnson), Nina Mae McKinney (Chick), William Fountaine (Hot Shot), Harry Gray (Pappy Parson Johnson), Fanny Belle DeKnight (Mammy Johnson), Everett McGarrity (Spunk Johnson)
by Kerryn Sherrod & Jeff Stafford
The first film with an all-black cast to come out of a major Hollywood studio (MGM).
This was King Vidor's first sound film and all sound was dubbed in after filming.
Several traditional Negro spirituals are used in the film, including "Goin' Home" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." King Vidor received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the film.