Friday, January 02, 2009

All-Black Memphis Film Honored: 1929 Talkie Named 1 Of '25 Important Motion Pictures'...

This poster advertised "Hallelujah," an all-black-cast 1929 film, named this week to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which preserves significant films.

Nina Mae McKinney played a dance-hall temptress in King Vidor's "Hallelujah."

Video: Rare footage of Curtis Mosby and his Blue Blowers from the 1929 movie "Hallelujah". The singer is Nina Mae McKinney on the song "Swanee Shuffle".

By John Beifuss

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Almost 80 years after it didn't win the Oscar for which it was nominated, "Hallelujah" -- a made-in-Memphis movie that was one of Hollywood's first black-cast productions -- has been recognized twice by an entity even more influential than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: the U.S. government.

Tuesday, the movie was named as one of "25 important motion pictures" added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, a move that places "Hallelujah" in the company of such famous classics as "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" and such important motion pictures as the Zapruder footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The recognition came some five months after "Hallelujah" was one of five films honored in a series of "Vintage Black Cinema" stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

Created by Congress in 1989, the National Film Registry is intended to preserve films that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant. Twenty-five films are added each year, bringing the total so far to 500.

According to a press release from the office of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, "The passionate conviction of the melodrama and the resourceful technical experiments make 'Hallelujah' among the very first indisputable masterpieces of the sound era."

Directed by the esteemed King Vidor, who earned an Oscar nomination for the film, MGM's 1929 production of "Hallelujah" was shot in 1928 in cotton fields, Arkansas bayous, the Wolf River bottom and other rural settings in and around Memphis, to ensure authenticity.

Advertised as an "all-colored" production, the movie was arguably the first major-studio attempt to present the lives of African-Americans with sensitivity and artistry. Although its racial stereotyping may trouble or embarrass viewers today, it remains probably the most significant movie ever shot in the Mid-South, and a milestone on the road that led from Stepin Fetchit to Sidney Poitier to Spike Lee.

According to the Library of Congress press release, "Vidor had to shoot silent film of the mass-river-baptism and swamp-murder Tennessee location scenes. He then painstakingly synchronized the dialogue and music. Around themes of religion, sensuality and family stability, Vidor molded a tale of a cotton sharecropper that begins with him losing his year's earnings, his brother and his freedom and follows him through the temptations of a dance hall girl (Nina Mae McKinney)."

Native Memphian Roy Betts, manager of community relations for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, said the post office, like the Library of Congress, chose to honor "Hallelujah" because of its historic importance.

"These stamps epitomize why the United States Postal Service issues stamps, to help educate and to bring awareness to American culture and history," said Betts, a 1973 graduate of Central High School.

The other films recognized with 42-cent stamps in the "Vintage Black Cinema" series include "The Sport of the Gods" (1921), based on a 1902 novel by Paul Laurence Dunbar; "America's Greatest Race Poet"; the 19-minute "Black and Tan" (1929), featuring Duke Ellington; the French production "Princess Tam-Tam" (1935), starring Josephine Baker; and the 18-minute "Caldonia" (1945), with Louis Jordan. The stamps reproduce original posters for the films.

In addition to relatively recent hits ("The Terminator"), genre classics ("The Invisible Man"), and significant amateur and newsreel efforts, the 25 movies added to the National Film Registry this week include director Elia Kazan's adaptation of a Budd Schulberg story, "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), starring Andy Griffith as hick demagogue Lonesome Rhodes. The movie was shot in Piggott and Paragould in Northeast Arkansas, and includes scenes set in Memphis.

For a full list of titles on the National Film Registry, visit

-- John Beifuss: 901-529-2394

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