BluRay/DVD Reviews

HALLELUJAH and THE GREEN PASTURES

By • Jan 10th, 2006 •

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HALLELUJAH
(WB Home Entertainment) 1929 / 100 minutes

In 1929, the art of sound film was taking it’s first clumsy baby steps. While many early talkies were simply filmed recordings of stage plays, King Vidor’s HALLELUJAH is a cinematic marvel, shot on location in an energetic documentary style. It’s a tale of temptation, and the restoration of faith amongst African-Americans in the rural south. In the film, we follow Zeke, a simple black cotton-picker living and working blissfully with his religious family. He ventures into the big city to sell the fruits of his and his community’s labor- a truckload of cotton. It’s there, with his newfound fistful of moullah, he meets up with Chick (Nina Mae McKinney), a fast-talking she demon of a city-slicker who uses her charms to scam him out of his entire bankroll. A fight breaks out, and Zeke winds up accidentally killing his younger brother. Zeke discovers religion, and becomes a preacher. All is going well until Chick comes back into his life.

With it’s fast pace, brilliant use of locations (King Vidor shot the film in Arkansas and Tennessee), local unprofessional talent, and sometimes- expressionistic sound, King Vidor works wonders with his first sound film. His silent films, such as THE BIG PARADE and the superb THE CROWD proved he was a master visual storyteller. (Vidor was also instrumental in solving a fellow film director’s murder during the silent era!) HALLELUJAH ends with a beautifully- shot, eerie, moonlit chase through the southern swamps. There’s no doubt Akira Kurosawa mimicked this scene for the chase that concludes his gangster film, STRAY DOG.

As Chick, Nina Mae McKinney steals the film from Haynes and everybody involved! She was promoted at the time as “The Black Garbo”. A lively singer and performer whose film career never fully took off, the pint-sized Ms. McKinney is simply a pocket rocket. In HALLELUJAH, she has more spunk and sex appeal in her eyebrows than Angelina Jolie has in her entire body! Just watch some of her staccato dance movements here. It’s Elvis Presley thirty years ahead of schedule!

On the commentary track, Black Cultural Scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton remark that in early Hollywood films, black characters were simply maids, train porters, shoe shine boys – servants to white people. This is the rare film where we watch blacks before World War II live their everyday lives. Bogle and Clayton also note that because of the limited roles offered black actors and actresses at the time, talented performers like Nina Mae McKinney were denied a rightful film career. Daniel L. Haynes is magnificent as Zeke (his bizarre outdoor sermon is simply hypnotizing!) Haynes would only show up here and there in small parts in later films (He was Boris Karloff’s rifle-bearer in THE INVISIBLE RAY)

The HALLELUJAH DVD comes with two exciting vintage musical shorts, both starring Nina Mae McKinney – PIE PIE BLACKBIRD (1933) and THE BLACK NETWORK (1936).

THE GREEN PASTURES
(WB Home Entertainment) 1936 / 93 minutes

When you pop either THE GREEN PASTURES or HALLELUJAH into your DVD player, Warner Brothers’ disclaimer comes up, stating these films “are a product of their time…. it does not express Warner Brothers’ opinion…..” Okay, they’re setting the record straight. They want to present two excellent movies, without offending anyone. The “warning” is eclipsed by two factors. These two films, both with all-black casts, showcase amazing talent often smothered by the then-Hollywood studio system. They also both carry a message of faith told in a very entertaining manner.

THE GREEN PASTURES opens with a Sunday School sermon in the deep south. The classroom is made up of attentive black children asking some pretty intelligent questions about the Bible. We peek into one child’s view of heaven. Since this child probably knows very little of the world outside her community, heaven is one big fish-fry with plenty to eat, where the adults get to hangout and smoke ten-cent “see-gars”.

It’s here where God (referred to in the film as “De Lawd”) makes an appearance. This is an Oscar-worthy performance by Rex Ingram, one of many black actors at the time who seldom received decent film work from Hollywood. Ingram plays “De Lawd” in a sweet, soft-spoken manner, never talking down to the humans he created. “Now you’re just doing fine,” he tells Adam. “But there’s just one thing missing. You need a family.” Ingram’s quiet tone always tells us this guy has things in order. Film fans may remember Rex Ingram as Jim in HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1939) and as the laughing, sarcastic genie in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940). Not only was he an accomplished stage actor, but a certified MD as well!

Ingram also plays Adam and Hezdrel. During the later performance, THE GREEN PASTURES’ most memorable time-tested message comes across very simply. We realize this is truly a cinematic classic. The Bible stories are depicted here in pseudo 20th century settings with old world behavior (much like the villages in the first three FRANKENSTEIN films). Moses is a modern-day “trickster” who gives Pharaoh’s top magician a run for his money. In another scene, a pistol-packing gangster in a double-breasted suit mouths off to Noah.

THE GREEN PASTURES comes with a rare behind-the-scenes documentary, spotlighting that the film was based on a popular Broadway play by Marc Connelly. It also has two really neat musical shorts – RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT (featuring a 7 year old Sammy Davis Jnr.) and AN ALL-COLORED VAUDEVILLE SHOW.

Both HALLELUJAH and THE GREEN PASTURES are important films to finally have available on DVD. I once spoke to a Blockbuster employee who had no idea who Charlie Chaplin was. Imagine trying this person out on Nina Mae McKinney or Rex Ingram?


HALLELUJAH
Scenario by Wanda Tuchock
Dialogue by Ransom Rideout
Story and Direction by King Vidor
Cast: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney
Commentary by Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton. Two period shorts: PIE,PIE BLACKBIRD and THE BLACK NETWORK.

THE GREEN PASTURES
Produced by Henry Blanke
Written by Roark Bradford, Marc Connelly, Sheridan Gibney
Directed by Marc Connelly and William Keighley
Cast: Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Edna Mae Harris, Frank Wilson
Commentary by LeVar Burton, Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero. Two period musical shorts: RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT and AN ALL-COLORED VAUDEVILLE SHOW.

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