Although initially made as a silent, King Vidor’s most vibrant achievement would remain the finest American film musical until the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time (1936). Its rich use of Negro spirituals and work-songs underscores an absorbing theme: the role of evangelism in exploiting and channeling pain, disappointment and unease in the American landscape—here, in the case of African Americans, who brought to the tent of salvation in the South a unique circumstance: the fact that Christianity had been the only “education” permitted slaves, with no other aim than to render them docile. Even if only unconsciously, therefore, a racist legacy confounds African-American Christian faith.
This underlying irony helps explain why Hallelujah! is at once jubilant and troubled, startlingly clear-cut and problematic. Through fantastic, hysterical religion, the Alabamans we watch, “free blacks,” dance on invisible strings; still serving the motives of whites, their Christianity ties them to their slave past.
Vidor’s grasp of such vastly implicative material is breathtaking; and if it seems odd to think of him directing a musical at all, consider that, uncredited, he would also direct the scenes in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz (1939), including the one where Judy Garland sings “Over the Rainbow.”
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