Hallelujah! (1929)

Toronto Film Society presented Hallelujah! (1929) on Monday, January 11, 1954 as part of the Season 6 Main Series, Programme 6.

Monday, January 11, 1954    8.15 p.m. sharp
Royal Ontario Museum Theatre

IN THE LOBBY – a display of modern and old 35mm cameras

Proem   U.S.A.   1949   10 mins
by Leonard Tregillus and Ralph Luce

A burlesque allegory in eight scenes:

1.  The Euclidian Rock
2.  A Quixotic Interlude
3.  A Catholic Fable
4.  Sex and Such
5.  The Great Dictator
6.  Power Politics
7.  Mobilization
8.  Denouement

With coloured modelling clay as their animation medium, the young producers have chosen for their experiment a Lewis Carroll theme; fluid forms and simple shapes suggest the objects and characters portrayed.

H2O   U.S.A.   1929   approx. 13 mins at 18.18 f.p.s.
by Ralph Steiner

Limited to showing ordinary objects in a fresh way, Steiner’s films’ chief interest lay in honest and skilled photography and decorative appeal.  The still photographer’s first motion picture effort, H2O, was an almost abstract study of the rhythms of light and shade on water and won the $500 Photoplay Award for the best amateur film made in 1929.  Much of the film was shot with six- and twelve-inch lenses.  A score from phonograph records will accompany the film.

Absence   France   1951   5 mins
an excerpt from Encyclopedie Filmée
DIRECTION:  Jean Dréville
DEFINITION:  Colette Audry          Translated commentary – Page 2

In 1951 authoritative representatives of French letters, arts and sciences joined outstanding film artists to commence a lively and imaginative survey of the French language on film.  The first cinematic encyclopedia was planned as a series of short films–each of which is to define, comment on and express a word filmically.  Absence is one of the first words to be treated, and in the cinematic expression of various aspects of the idea of absence, it is the most poetic and imaginative of the stimulating experiments to be created so far.

While knowledge of French is not strictly necessary to an appreciation of this film, members’ enjoyment will probably be increased if they read the translation of the commentary on page 2, before viewing the film.

Absence:  Translated Commentary

Absence is non-presence:  a thing which is not here, and yet exists.  How can absence be shown when, by nature, it exists elsewhere? – since it is empty and nothing?  Nevertheless, let us look at absence.

(RINGING TELEPHONE – no one answers) – Listen to the voice of absence.

(ROOM OF SHEETED FURNITURE) – Here, as though in the castle of the sleeping beauty, things are stricken with rigidity; a heaviness floats around; flowers die.

(A VOICE IN THE MIST) – AGNES!  Absence calls.  AGNES!…..AGNES!  Absence cries.

“I think of the roses I used to grow.
The month of May without France –
It is not the month of May.”


“How long are the days spent far from you –
For all nature is nothing without you.”

Absence is found written in things in enormous letters – dreadfully simple.  In presence there may be absence:  like death in life.  (WOMAN IN CHAIR SOBS)

(WOMAN WANDERS IN GARDEN OF ASYLUM) – She is there, and yet she is absent … the absent loved one.

(IN THE CEMETERY) – And here is absolute absence – absence of the absent one himself.  For the women of Ouessant (French district), these little crosses symbolize the bodies of drowned sailors which will never be found and thus take their place in the cemetery.

ABSENCE, ABSENCE (chanted twice) –

“Then the house slid on the steep slope
Where time heaps up the days;
Then the door closed on emptiness forever
And the nettles invaded the courtyard.”

ABSENCE!  (BRIGHT MUSIC) – But sometimes absence enjoys itself; then it changes its name.  It is then called bargain!  (There is nobody to receive money at the income tax office.)

Continuing its innocent game….

….Absence can mean a “sucker”.  (BOY IS “STOOD UP” BY GIRL)

And sometimes, too, under the effect of a sudden presence, unexpected, irresistible…(BEAUTIFUL GIRL ATTRACTS MAN DRIVING A CAR)…of a too present presence…(CAR HITS TRUCK)…absence is used in the plural! – –

– – (TRUCK DRIVER SHOUTS) – “Well, what’s wrong?!  Are you all there?” (being a pun on the plural of absence – absences which means a gap in memory.)

Hallelujah! (1929)

DIRECTION:  King Vidor
SCENARIO:  Wanda Tuchcock; treatment by Richard Schayer
EDITOR:  Cedric Gibbons

CAST:  Daniel L. Haynes (Yeke), Nina Mae McKinney (Chick), William Fountaine (Hot Shot), Fanny Belle Leknight, Harry Gray, Everett McGarrity, Victoria Spivey, and the Dixie Jubilee Singers.

wrote to T.F.S. last June about his film:-

“I planned Hallelujah for a number of years as a silent film, but when in 1928-29 pictures metamorphosed from silent to sound I realized that my all Negro story was the ideal subject for the new medium.  I believe it was the first film to move the early sound films out of their immobility and utilize the sound track for mood and movement.  The theme of the film springs from the eternal conflict of flesh and spirit…”

Hallelujah! was a remarkable achievement, and last year Sight and Sound reported it had been chosen by directors as one of the 10 best films of the half century.  It was a commercial failure and the last all-Negro film made in Hollywood until Green Pastures of 1936.

Regarding Hallelujah‘s aesthetic and social content, Richard Griffith’s comments are to the point:  “Seen today (1948), it is revealed to have all the flexibility of the silent film at its best.  No visible concession has been made to the mechanical difficulties which caused other distinguished directors to turn out mediocre pictures in the first years of the dialogue film.  The imaginative use of sound and music at times realised the best theoretical hopes of Eisenstein and Pudovkin; the brief dialogue was almost startlingly documentary in a way seldom since encountered…  Add to this the fact that the entire film was shot on location in the South, at a time when sound cameras supposedly were immovable from their glass-enclosed booths in the studios, and Vidor’s achievement seems nearly incredible.

“This superb technique was applied to a theme as formidable and challenging as any the movies have approached.  Vidor undertook to film the Southern Negro ‘as he is’…  The cast was chosen mostly from non-professional negroes, and no white men appeared in the film.  Daring, yet the device itself defeated Vidor’s intent.  The negro was portrayed in a vacuum.  Because his position in white society was never referred to, his behavior appeared to arise from his own nature rather than from environmental pressures.  For this reason, Hallelujah! has sometimes been denounced as a vicious ‘attack’ on the race.  It was hardly that.  Negro crime was shown, but compassionately, and the dignity, wisdom, and emotion of the race furnished the true motif.  There can be no doubt that King Vidor offered his tribute to the negro with utmost sincerity, but the contrast between his brilliant technique and an important but inadequately analysed theme was to continue to be characteristic of his career.”  (The Film Since Then)

In his book, A Tree Is a Tree Vidor writes about the problems encountered in making Hallelujah!

“Whenever a scene could be shot silent and an open camera used, we emerged from the stuffy booths with delight.  It was a period of quiet despair to those of us brought up to love the lucidity of silence.

“The difficulty of matching sound tracks recorded in the studio with scenes made on location in Tennessee proved almost insurmountable.  Negro sermons and baptisms were photographed without benefit of sound equipment.  Later, in the studio, a wild recording was made; then the editor went to work and through the most tedious and maddening process tried to fit the two together.  The valuable piece of equipment called a ‘movieola’ was not yet in use and there was literally no way to tell by looking at the film what the actor was saying…  During the editing of Hallelujah I saw a cutter literally go berserk at his inability to get the job done properly…

“In Arkansas we had photographed the climax of the film (the pursuit through the swamp).  Now we were faced with the problem of supplying the sounds.  To a motion-picture studio in 1929 this was a fresh and unexplored adventure.  We found ourselves making big puddles of water and mud, tramping through them with a microphone while a sound truck recorded the effect.  Rotting branches and fallen trees were crawled over; strange birds flew up from the morass.  Never one to treat a dramatic effect literally, the thought struck me–why not free the imagination and record this sequence impressionistically?

“When someone stepped on a broken branch, we made it sound as if bones were breaking.  As the pursued victim withdrew his foot from the stickiness of the mud, we made the vacuum sound strong enough to pull him down into hell.  When a bird called, we made it sound like a hiss or a threat of impending doom, rather than a bird call.  These sounds were all in the mood of threatening death and added immeasurable to the dramatic climax of the film.  In my first desperation with sound, I believed that this nonfactual use of it was ideally suited to my film.”


The Committee welcomes all members to their meetings.
Mrs. Gerry Ostrower, Secretary of the Group will be
at the desk in the lobby during Intermission and will be
glad to answer questions, give information, etc. about
the Group’s activities.

MEMBERS’ EVALUATIONS ON Journal d’un Cure de Campagne:  “A great film; no other word for it.  Admittedly difficult for someone not acclimatized to the Catholic mind, or to whom the style is not appealing.  The only modern work of art which conveys the same chambered, intense, yet pure emotion, and by remarkably similar methods, is Graham Green’s novel ‘The End of the Affair’.  (This member also compares the film with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc) Unlike many members I did not find it depressing”—“Like the Set-Up, rubbed me the wrong way; sordidness of several characters, bleakness of outlook; but photography, dialogue, mood, enough to offset these and place film in excellent category; many short scenes pointed up cure’s character more than several long scenes would have done; singularly different but profound and moving film, superbly done; at first thought I would criticize it as Roman Catholic propaganda; after more thought I find this film is catholic (small c); could happen to any priest or minister; I remember Delannoy’s Symphonie Pastorale“—“Outstanding work of art, ranks with finest ever put on celluloid; transcends realm of mere film and becomes poetry, complex in its very simplicity, mystical through its very naivete; excels through its slow uninterrupted rhythm, lack of sensational plotting, profound understanding of a human soul and mystical conception of man, life and the world; in a time as materialist as ours it is encouraging to find men like Bresson (or Bernanos) who do not take the surface of things for their depth; direction of difficult, delicate subject admirable; cure’s face, subtly brought out by the camera, became the place of action for the whole film as it was truly the mirror of his soul; an experience I shall not forget just as I will never miss an opportunity of seeing this masterpiece of film-making again”. (This member criticized the scene of the Countess’ conversion which failed to convince him)—“Liked it very much; cast wonderful; Bresson says the camera work is simple; to me it seemed extra special”. (This member had the feeling some of the story had been ‘cut out’ because of the sketchy treatment of some supporting characters)—“Endless, tiresome; shame they didn’t have a good script”—“A terrific waste of good photography”.

Madeline:  My favorite cartoon; third time I’ve seen it, its charm and beauty still fresh”—“Charming; exquisite drawings”—“More UPA cartoons; what a treat!”—“Call me what you will, I see nothing in Bosustow; unexceptional, trivial, oversentimentalized; these films have the same merit qua film as comics have qua literature; Bosustow less an artist than a hoax, his pastel brilliance gaudy, his technique as refreshing as a day-old Coca-Cola”.

Lesson in Geometry:  “Remarkable, effective; content not instructive, but as purely filmic expression of the abstract beauty of a practical science, superb”—“Very well made, most imaginative; fine, unusual visuals; enjoyed it very much though in disagreement with its philosophy”—“If it had been an hour long I’d be as bewildered as after 12 minutes; but my attention completely absorbed; a nice experience; loved the Moore art”—“Liked it immensely; as one to whom mathematics has meant very little, seemed to treat subject just right”.

CURRENT FILM NOTES:  Sadko, the new Soviet film at the Studio, is a fetching fantasy with music and song by Rimsky-Korsakov.  The content is more naive, less persuasive and enthralling than in Stone Flower (the work of the same director) but there is much visual magic and splendor, and technical ingenuity; altogether something worth looking at.  Also seen lately: a neglected but charming movie variously known as Guaglio and Proibito Rubare (Forbidden to Steal) about an Italian Boys’ Town; two short story collections, Times Gone By and Decameron Nights, mainly if not consistently amusing; the exciting UPA 8-minute version of Poe’s ‘Tell Tale Heart’; Inferno, the first respectable 3-D effort, certainly the best to date, technically and dramatically; A Lion is in the Streets, Jimmy Cagney’s rousing sketch of a Huey Long type backwoods politician; Island in the Sky, an able and absorbing job by William Wellman about the rescue of a crashed air crew; and The Square Ring, a competent and conscientious British boxing film which yet lacks the classic power and imagination of The Set-Up.

George G. Patterson

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