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Warner Home Video presents
Hallelujah (1929)

"I'm a servant of the Lord, and I've got the strength of the Lord in my arms."
- Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes)

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: January 11, 2006

Stars: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William Fountaine
Other Stars: Harry Gray, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Everett McGarrity, Victoria Spivey
Director: King Vidor

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for violence
Run Time: 01h:39m:50s
Release Date: January 10, 2006
UPC: 012569676763
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B-B-B- B

DVD Review

King Vidor's 1929 talkie debut, Hallelujah, remains a fairly potent film, albeit somewhat a victim of the changeover to sound. Warner has given the film, made entirely with black actors, a classy release, paying the film the respect it deserves. A fairly simple tale of temptation and redemption, this is the story of Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes), the eldest son of a sharecropping family. As the film begins, the family is finishing their cotton harvesting, and Zeke and brother Spunk (Everett McGarrity) prepare to go into town to have the cotton ginned and sold. Upon arriving in town, Zeke is captivated by a young woman, Chick (Nina Mae McKinney), who in turn is impressed by Zeke's wad of cash, and conspires with hood Hot Shot (William Fountaine) to cheat Zeke of his money at a rigged game of craps. In a subsequent fight, Spunk is shot and killed, and Zeke finds religion again at Spunk's funeral. Becoming a traveling preacher, Zeke appears to have turned the corner, but at one stop, Chick and Hot Shot show up, and Zeke finds that his feelings for Chick remain.

This isn't a textbook musical in the sense we're used to; music plays its part in the everyday life of the characters, and fits smoothly into their activities. The film could just as easily have been made without the music and had much the same impact, I think. Vidor could well have left some footage out; there are scenes of revival meetings that simply drag on, seemingly without much purpose other than to show off the large crowds of extras that had been amassed for these genuine-looking scenes. For some, the film's main weakness will be the dated quality of the acting, coming as it did on the threshold of the sound era. Line readings are often wooden and stagy, and some of the physical movements of the actors feel the same way.

The story remains fairly simple and without a whole lot of nuance, jumping over large chunks of time, like Zeke's sudden emergence as a force in preaching immediately after having his conversion, and his sudden dissolution after running off with Chick. That's not to say the story doesn't have its moments as well; Zeke's sexually aggressive handling of Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey) early on has a real air of unease about it, and seems out of place until we see Zeke easily fall prey to the wiles of Chick. Vidor compensates for some of these weaknesses with some beautiful shots—a shot of massed hands reaching to heaven during one revival meeting conveys more of the true feeling of the event than the rest of the surrounding footage. And Zeke's pursuit of Hot Shot through a darkened swamp late in the action is a moody thrill. Daniel L. Haynes has presence to go with his deep voice, but his acting sometimes comes off as stiff. McKinney was considered an actress with real star quality, but never had much of a chance to put her ability to use. Her odd, herky-jerky dancing is weirdly compelling, but her acting is thankfully better.

As with Warner's other releases for Black History Month, the film is prefaced with a message noting that while the film contains material some would call racist, the film remains an important document of its time. And indeed, the film holds to stereotypes of that era, like the sheer happiness of the family picking cotton and singing spirituals, everybody able to sing and dance, the Mammy character—one could go on. But as the preface message informs us, this is simply indicative of how things were viewed at the time, and should be taken for what it is. The characters are generally handled with respect and even-handedness, but as with anything, if you want to be offended, you'll find something to make you so offended. Otherwise, Hallelujah has sparks of greatness, but is hindered by the passage of time and dubious acting. As an example of the early talkie and a landmark in black cinema, it should certainly be seen, and Warner can be thanked for giving us the opportunity to do so.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio, Hallelujah hasn't been treated too kindly by time, with several scenes suffering from fairly heavy wear and tear. That said, the picture remains watchable, and Warner's transfer is likely as good as we can expect, short of some kind of major restoration effort.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sound was a mix of live and post-synching, and has the limitations inherent to the era. Some dialogue is hard to understand, but the music sounds pretty good. Anyone expecting a crystal clear track is likely to be disappointed, but overall, this sounds okay.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage musical shorts Pie, Pie Blackbird and The Black Network
Extras Review: There is a detailed commentary by writers/scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton; Bogle does most of the talking, and covers a wide range of material about the making of the film and the backgrounds of the actors involved. Two musical shorts are included as well: Pie, Pie Blackbird, and The Black Network. The latter features McKinney, and both are decent, if not exceptional short films. A re-issue theatrical trailer fills out the package.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

King Vidor manages some moments of genuine beauty, but Hallelujah is too often hamstrung by poor acting and a weak script. Its historical importance can't be denied, though, and it deserves to be seen by students of the early talkies and black cinema. Its tale of sin and redemption will no doubt find its adherents as well. The DVD gathers a solid commentary and short subjects to round out a decent package.


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