#587) The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)

#587) The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)

OR “The Children’s Hour”

Directed & Written by Melton Barker

Class of 2012

Special thanks to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have helped preserve these films. And extra special thanks to the Melton Barker website, which has been collecting information on all versions of “The Kidnappers Foil”.

The Plot: Little Betty Davis is kidnapped, and her father offers a $1,000 reward. Determined to get that money, a group of kids band together to foil the kidnappers. After a successful rescue mission, Betty’s sister Jean expresses her gratitude by throwing a party/talent show for all the kids. But wait, it gets better. “The Kidnappers Foil” was remade literally hundreds of times over the years by the same filmmaker, in different towns throughout the south, with a new cast of local children every time. Together these films paint one of the more fascinating pictures on this list of significant movies.

Why It Matters: The NFR rundown is mostly a plot synopsis and the overall history of this film project.

But Does It Really?: I’m always looking for films on the NFR that stand on their own unique piece of ground, and “The Kidnappers Foil” is hands down one of the weirdest, most unique films on the list. Part amateur home movie, part avant-garde experiment, part local talent show, there is truly nothing like “The Kidnappers Foil” on this list. The films alone are an interesting watch, and the history behind them is even more fascinating. I was simultaneously baffled and delighted by every second of “The Kidnappers Foil”, and it’s this distinctive quality that solidifies the film’s place on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Not much is known about Melton Barker, other than he was born in Mississippi in 1903, and was raised in various towns across Texas. Barker claims he worked for a number of Hollywood studios, and was responsible for discovering Spanky McFarland, though these claims are disputed (there is, however, a photo of him and McFarland). With home movies still being an expensive hobby, Barker saw the money-making potential of traveling to different towns, casting local children for his film, charging for acting lessons, and screening these films at the local movie house for the community to enjoy. While Barker made a handful of other movies in his lifetime, his legacy was and is “The Kidnappers Foil”.

Wow, That’s Dated: These films have the same ’30s kids vibe I would attribute to an “Our Gang” short (which does lend Barker’s Spanky story a little credence). Also, did every kid in the ’30s have to wear a whoopee cap (aka a Jughead hat)?

Other notes

  • The earliest versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” date back to 1933 in Ardmore OK, Miami OK and Madison WI, while the last “Foil” appears to be from 1976 in Honey Grove TX. Over the years, Barker filmed at least 287 versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” across 28 states, primarily in the south, but stretching out from California to Rhode Island, Minnesota to Florida. Of the handful that are known to still exist, 21 of these films can be found on the Melton Barker site, and you bet your bottom dollar I watched all of them.
  • Since my viewing of these films, I enjoy explaining “The Kidnappers Foil” to friends because it always sounds like a scam. In fact, what Barker was doing here is similar to the scheme Harold Hill pulls in “The Music Man“: A stranger comes to town, sells its citizens on a plan that involves their kids, culminating in a performance that, despite their lackluster talent, earns raves from the parents.
  • Yes, that’s right, the lead character in this movie is named Betty Davis. By 1933, BettDavis was getting started at Warner Bros., and was still waiting for her breakout role. It’s possible Barker had never heard of her before naming his leading lady, and never bothered to change it over the years.
  • Betty’s sister Jean has her big acting moment when she realizes Betty has been kidnapped, and most of Jean’s actors use their natural southern accents to turn “dad” into the multisyllabic “Da-yud! Da-yud!”. Speaking of, in most versions of “Kidnappers”, Betty & Jean’s father is played by Melton Barker himself, though in later versions the character is eliminated entirely.
  • Adjusted for inflation, the $1000 reward in 1933 would be about $20,000 today. Go, kids, go!
  • The joy of watching these films is that you get to observe the seams; the stilted acting, the kids pausing before receiving their cues, the ambient noises picked up on the mikes. It gives you the sense that these movies were filmed fast and cheap, no time for retakes! Added bonus: Watch these films with earbuds to hear Barker give off-screen directions.
  • It’s weird to think that a decent amount of these kids are theoretically still alive.
  • If I was a kid in one of these towns where “Kidnappers” was being filmed, I would have begged my parents to be in this, and would probably be deeply embarrassed by my own performance as an adult. But alas, I was born too late, and the closest I ever got was being an extra in some superhero short that filmed at the abandoned Stockton Airport.
  • The talent shows are always the best part of “Kidnappers”, though most of the talents are either tap dancing or singing a popular tune off-tempo. One kid earns points for originality by doing stunts on their swing set.
  • The songs featured in the talent shows are a good mix of popular tunes and novelty songs. Among the selection: “The Codfish Ball“, “Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party“, “Goody Goody“, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!“, “Playmates“, and something called “(If I Had) Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes” which finds its way into multiple versions. One girl in San Marcos, Texas sings “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down“, which if you ask me is quite a looney selection.
  • I know they’re kids, but some of this singing is giving me some serious John Daker flashbacks.
  • Viewing these shorts in sequential order highlights how Barker streamlined the process as he went along. By the late ’40s, Barker starts filming each individual line rather than trying to capture a whole scene in one take. Around this time Barker also stopped filming the talent shows, shooting only the first reel with the local talent and reusing the best talent shows from previous versions, splicing in new reaction shots. I watched the same performances of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Wise Old Owl” five times! These versions all end with the local children singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”.
  • One girl in Shawnee, OK sings “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me”. It’s been done.
  • Ooh, the 1951 Las Cruces, New Mexico version has a Waylon Jennings-esque narrator. Was the plot that hard to follow?
  • Stick around for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas version from 1952, featuring the town’s annual Easter egg hunt. I hope someone finds the E.T. cameo in “Phantom Menace”.
  • If there’s one thing I appreciate about these movies, it’s that they teach kids to practice vigilante justice at an early age.

Legacy

  • After reaching its peak in the early ’50s, productions of “The Kidnappers Foil” lessened throughout the decade, no doubt due to the increasing accessibility of home movie cameras, as well as the rise of television, and therefore local stations. According to Melton Barker’s website, he died in 1977 at age 74 while on the road.
  • Despite his prolific filmography, it appears that Barker did not hold onto any copies of “Kidnappers”, and roughly 90% of them are lost. Once again, my extreme thanks to the Barker website, as well as the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have spent years archiving and cataloging the surviving prints, as well as preserving related newspaper articles and conducting interviews with surviving performers.

#586) Hester Street (1975)

#586) Hester Street (1975)

OR “An Incredible Assimilation”

Directed & Written by Joan Micklin Silver. Based on the novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” by Abraham Cahan.

Class of 2011

The Plot: In the Lower East Side of 1896 Manhattan, Yankle (Steven Keats) is a Russian-Jewish immigrant embracing his new home, even changing his name to Jake. Jake begins a relationship with a dancer named Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), but it’s only after she loans him a large sum of money that she learns it was to pay for the arrival of Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and son Yossele (Paul Freedman) from Russia. Complications arise as Jake pushes for his wife and child to assimilate, while Gitl strives to maintain her traditions, simultaneously discovering her own independence. 

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process”. There’s also an essay by expert on Jewish cinema Eric A. Goldman.

But Does It Really?: I’ve watched my share of silent movies that deal with immigrant struggles in the melodramatic style of the time, so it’s refreshing to see these stories reimagined as a ’70s character study. With “Hester Street”, Joan Micklin Silver tells a story about the hardships of her immigrant family through a feminist lens, aided by a terrific ensemble and amazing period details. Plus it’s only 90 minutes! I’m glad that the NFR has found a place among its ranks for “Hester Street”, and I hope more people discover this little gem of a movie.

Everybody Gets One: After a stint writing for The Village Voice, Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed a series of educational shorts for the Learning Corporation of America (now New World Pictures). While conducting research for the short “The Immigrant Experience“, Silver read the novella “Yekl”, which reminded her of the stories her immigrant parents had told her growing up. Silver adapted “Yekl” into a screenplay, shifting the focus to the main character’s wife, and was determined to make this her feature film debut. After many Hollywood studios passed (one studio exec told her “women directors are one more problem we don’t need”), Joan’s husband Raphael Silver used his real estate expertise to raise the funds and finance “Hester Street” as an independent feature.

Title Track: Hester Street is, of course, the street in Manhattan that became the epicenter for Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. For the film, Greenwich Village’s Morton Street doubled for Hester Street, as it was significantly cheaper to make Morton Street period appropriate.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hester Street” played a limited run in select cities, and thank God, Los Angeles was selected. “Hester” received one surprise Oscar nomination: Carol Kane for Best Actress, losing to Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. 

Other notes

  • In order to keep production costs down, “Hester Street” was filmed with as many indoor scenes as possible (less chance of outdoor shoots being cancelled due to rain), and the cast consisted mainly of stage actors who were willing to do the film for union scale. Silver was only able to afford one horse for outdoor shots, so the same horse was painted different colors for different scenes.
  • Shoutout to costume designer Robert Pusilo and art director Edward Haynes, who both should have gotten Oscar nominations for their impressive recreations of turn-of-the-century New York. Bonus shoutout to composers Herbert L. Clarke and William Bolcom. The score has the feel of a silent movie, or at least something that would play on Main Street at Disneyland.
  • Another detail worth mentioning: most of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles. Only one cast member spoke Yiddish, and the rest had to learn the language from the film’s dialect coach.
  • Steven Keats sorta looks like Sean Connery in “Murder on the Orient Express”. Keats’ only other big claim to fame was playing Charles Bronson’s son-in-law in the first “Death Wish” movie. Primarily a TV actor (he lived long enough to appear in three episodes of “Law & Order”), Keats received an Emmy nomination in 1977 for the limited series “Seventh Avenue”, playing – what else – an immigrant in turn-of-the-century Lower East Side Manhattan.
  • Carol Kane is one of those actors it seems has always been around, so it’s good to remember that like any other actor, she needed a breakout role, and “Hester Street” was it. She does a remarkable job playing a woman trying to acclimate to her new environment. She even has the “deer in the headlights” look people get when they don’t understand a foreign language. I’m glad the Academy recognized how good a performance she’s giving. Also, she was 22 when she made this!
  • Wow, Jake is a real schmuck. Am I saying that right? Schmuck?
  • You know who else surprised me with how great they are in this? Doris Roberts. I know Roberts primarily from her late-in-life work on “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and like her “Raymond” co-star Peter Boyle, it’s nice to know that she could also play a role like Mrs. Kavarsky that requires more dramatic nuances.
  • My favorite line in the movie: “A pox on Columbus!” Now you’re talkin’! The line is uttered by Bernstein, played by Mel Howard, a film student/non-actor who got roped into playing the part when the original actor bowed out right before filming began.
  • [Spoilers] The scene that fascinated me the most was the divorce ritual. It never occurred to me that some religions have a ceremony for divorce with parallels to a marriage ceremony. And I appreciate that (at least in this specific Jewish practice) a woman must enter a divorce with the same free will she entered the marriage with. Points deducted, however, for making the wife wait 91 days before remarrying, whereas the husband could remarry immediately. 
  • Silver wanted to end “Hester Street” with a crane shot over the titular street. When that proved to be too expensive, she got around this by filming the final shot from a balcony overlooking the street. Art through adversity: you gotta love it.

Legacy

  • “Hester Street” had difficulty finding a distributor (most felt it was “too Jewish”), but it managed to play out-of-competition at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week. The film received high praise, and the Silvers were able to self-distribute with assistance from Blaine Novak, who had helped market John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” the year before. “Hester Street” played in select cities across the US, and was a surprise hit, grossing almost five times its production cost.
  • Carol Kane revealed years later that she didn’t work for a full year after her Oscar nomination for “Hester Street”, finally getting cast in Gene Wilder’s “The World’s Greatest Lover”. Thankfully, Kane has rarely been out of work since, appearing in countless movies and TV shows, including four additional films on the NFR.
  • Joan Micklin Silver continued making films for the next 25 years, though most of them, like “Hester Street”, were well-received despite their limited releases. Her last film was the 2003 TV movie “Hunger Point”. Silver died on the last day of 2020 at the age of 85.

#585) I Am Joaquín (1969)

#585) I Am Joaquin (1969)

Directed by Luis Valdez

Based on the poem “Yo Soy Joaquín” by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Class of 2010 

Ah, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, yet another topic that my severe Whiteness is under qualified to discuss with any level of expertise. I’ll do my best regarding the elements specifically covered in “I Am Joaquin”, but please continue to explore the incredible piece of history beyond its reference here. And forgive me as I also continue to educate myself.

The Plot: Luiz Valdez takes the Rodolfo Gonzales epic poem and translates it into a film collage of hope, resistance, and Mexican pride in “I Am Joaquín”. As a Chicano “lost in a world of confusion”, our narrator (Valdez) highlights the often-contradictory feeling of being Mexican in a “anglo society”, tracing his lineage from the Aztec reign of Cuauhtémoc to the revolution led by Miguel Hidalgo to the modern age of the Chicano Revolution . In the end, Joaquín represents the “nature and brotherhood” that happens when Mexicans from all walks of life come together and support each other.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “important to the history and culture of Chicanos in America” and gives a rundown of Luis Valdez’s career.

But Does It Really?: When we as Americans talk about civil/human rights in this country, we usually focus on those rights as they pertain to our Black population, which regrettably sidelines other non-White nationalities, including Mexican-Americans. The movement depicted in “I Am Joaquín” is an important reminder of what our fellow citizens and their ancestors fought and died for, often at the hand of White oppressors. “I Am Joaquín” represents not only the first cinematic endeavor of an important artist, but also perfectly encapsulates a specific time and place in Mexican and Mexican-American history. I’m thrilled the NFR has found a place for “I Am Joaquín”.

Everybody Gets One: Rodolfo Gonzales grew up in the “Eastside Barrio” of Denver, Colorado during the Great Depression. His tendency to “pop off like a cork” earned him the nickname Corky, which stuck all his life. During a successful stint as a boxer, Gonzales saw firsthand the kind of injustice faced by Mexican-Americans throughout the country, and turned to political activism, eventually becoming one of the leaders of the Chicano Movement. In 1967 Gonzales wrote “Yo soy Joaquín“, in which he encouraged his fellow Chicano to embrace the often contradictory identities of being Mexican or Mexican-American. The poem gained traction quickly, with Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino turning it into a one-act play, and later this short film.

Wow, That’s Dated: In all-too brief: The Chicano Movement was a political movement in the 1960s not dissimilar to the Black Power Movement going on at the same time. The movement encouraged Mexican and Mexican-Americans to embrace their heritage and reject assimilation. Most Americans (especially those of us from California) are most aware of one of the movement’s leaders: César Chávez. The word “Chicano” was originally a derogatory term aimed at the lower classes, but was reclaimed by the likes of Rodolfo Gonzales as a unified term for Mexicans.

Seriously, Oscars?: I’m not quite sure if “I Am Joaquin” ever played an Oscar qualifying run, but for the record: 1969’s Live Action Short Subject winner was “The Magic Machines“, Bob Curtis’ film about artist Robert Gilbert. None of Valdez’s films have received any Oscar recognition, though the Golden Globes have been a bit more accepting over the years.

Other notes 

  • Luis Valdez sounds a little like George Takai. There’s a certain inflection they both share. There’s also a little bit of Tony Randall there. It’s a very authoritative voice.
  • Shoutout to Luis Valdez’s brother Daniel, who composed the film’s score.
  • I appreciate that the narrator is willing to acknowledge all of his history, knowing that he is descended from the oppressors as well as the oppressed. It’s an acknowledgment you definitely don’t see in White American culture these days. Or ever.
  • When the narrator gets to the part where he “rejects my father and my mother, and dissolves into the melting pot”, the song playing is “Wooly Bully”, which is filled with cultural appropriation in its presentation, including counting off the rhythm in Spanish.
  • Most of my notes on “Joaquín” were just names and terminology I wasn’t familiar with before this viewing. Some names I know only in passing (Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata), but most were entirely new to me. Researching this post was definitely an eye-opener, and a reminder of things I was taught in high school but had definitely forgotten.
  • While the name Joaquin is used metaphorically, there is mention of Joaquin Murrieta, an outlaw circa the 1840s that has so many myths around him that his very existence has been called into question. Regardless, Murrieta is ostensibly the inspiration for another famous outlaw: Zorro.
  • I would have loved to have seen what Valdez’s production of “I Am Joaquín” looked like on stage.

Legacy 

  • Rodolfo Gonzales spent the rest of his life advocating for Chicano rights, and inspired generations of Chicano to become activists and/or run for local office. Gonzales died in 2005 at the age of 76.
  • The Chicano Movement of this film more or less dissolved by the 1970s. Like the Black Power movement, many of the Chicano organizations were infiltrated by the U.S. government and shut down from the inside. Another major concern was the movement’s marginalization of female and queer Chicanos.
  • Luis Valdez stuck mostly to his theater work after “I Am Joaquin”, but two of his four subsequent movies have also been added to the NFR: 1981’s “Zoot Suit” (another film based on one of his plays), and 1987’s “La Bamba”.
  • Valdez continues to act as well as direct, recently voicing two characters in Pixar’s “Coco”.
  • As previously mentioned on this blog, Texas congressman/”Selena” NFR endorser Joaquin Castro is named after “Yo Soy Joaquin”. True to this poem’s message, Congressman Castro has been representing the people of San Antonio for almost 20 years.

#584) Precious Images (1986)

#584) Precious Images (1986)

OR “The National Film Registry Speed Round”

Directed by Chuck Workman

Class of 2009

“Precious Images” is the quintessential movie about movies, and I’ve compiled an as-comprehensive-as-possible shot list for anyone who wishes to do a deeper dive.

The Plot: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America, Chuck Workman assembles a celebration of great movie moments in “Precious Images”. In seven minutes, Workman presents a rapid assemblage of clips from almost 500 movies, distilled down to their most iconic moments, seemingly interacting with each other through their shared imagery, and set to such equally recognizable movie music as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “As Time Goes By“. For those of you who don’t have several years to devote to watching every great American movie, “Precious Images” will do in a pinch.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the most influential and widely shown short films in history”, praising the film’s “dazzling effect” and “dizzying compilation”. “Precious Images” is so big it took two people to write its NFR essay: film professors Dale Hudson & Patricia R. Zimmermann.

But Does It Really?: This is certainly one of the NFR’s more meta inductions, but the history of film should include a nostalgic clip package from the master himself. As I’ve said previously on this blog, our collective memory of the movies boils down to moments: a line, a character, a scene. “Precious Images” is an impressive compilation of hundreds of such moments, many of which I’m sure will elicit an emotional response from the viewer (they certainly did for me). At a time when film preservation was in the national conversation, Chuck Workman showed us the power of the movies and defined clip packages for the next 25 years. “Precious Images” is as worthy of NFR recognition as the hundreds of movies it represents.

Shout Outs: By my count there are 231 films featured in “Precious Images” that are also in the National Film Registry (as of the 2020 induction). For a full run-down, check out my aforementioned shot list.

Everybody Gets One: Chuck Workman began his editing career cutting trailers for low-budget movies, eventually graduating to bigger studio fare such as the original trailer for “Star Wars“. Workman had made two films for the DGA (“The Director and the Image”, “The Director and the Actor”) when he was commissioned by them to make a trailer of sorts for all the great movies directed by DGA members. Compiling and editing the clips (and winnowing down Workman’s initial list of 700 movies) took Workman and his team three months, with Workman likening the cutting process to a sprint: “You take a breath and you go.”

Everybody Gets One-Precious Images Edition: Based on their archival appearances within the film, this is technically the only NFR appearance for: Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Vanessa Redgrave, Goldie Hawn, Jill Clayburgh, Albert Finney (twice), Patty Duke, Roger Moore, Sean Connery’s legs, Luise Rainer, John Cleese, Cantinflas, Marsha Mason, Mary Tyler Moore, Red Buttons, Michael Keaton, Dudley Moore, Ryan O’Neal (three times!), Ali MacGraw, Robert Donat, Paul Scofield, Frankie & Annette, Leatherface, Benji, The Beatles, and yes, Jane Fonda.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among the ’80s movies featured that probably wouldn’t make the cut today are “Annie”, “First Blood” (Parts 1 & 2), “Rocky IV” (the most recent film included), “My Favorite Year”, “The World According to Garp”, “Porky’s”, “Mr. Mom”, and “Octopussy”. Not that any of these are bad movies, I just don’t think they would still be deemed iconic enough for inclusion.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the 1987 Oscars, “Precious Images” won the award for Best Live Action Short Film, which is as good a classification of this movie as it’s gonna get. “Precious Images” was also aired in its entirety at the end of the ceremony.

Other notes 

  • Before we go any further, special mention to this film’s assistant editors: Rob Claridge and John Santos. Every movie editor has a team of assistants who help contribute to the process, but these two deserve to be highlighted for what I can only imagine was a Herculean achievement.
  • As mentioned in many other write-ups on this film, Workman’s fluidity of genre is commendable. Chuck Workman has been quoted as saying he doesn’t believe in genres, and that shows itself in “Precious Images”. A montage of westerns features Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy”, a selection of musical moments features Walter Huston’s memorable jig from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“. But of course, everyone’s favorite is Esther Williams descending into the water in “Million Dollar Mermaid” transitioning to Susan Blacklinie from “Jaws” getting dragged below the ocean.
  • Special shout-out to five of the films showcased: “Dog Day Afternoon“, “The Incredible Shrinking Man“, “The Mark of Zorro” (the 1940 version), “Once Upon a Time in the West“, and “Pillow Talk“. While a seemingly random collection, these five films were inducted into the NFR in 2009, the same class as “Precious Images”, meaning that each of these films have a moment that was preserved twice in the same year.
  • I’m also enjoying the wide-range of areas encompassed by the comedy montage: pratfalls lead to Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”, which leads to such beautiful women as Audrey Hepburn and Bo Derek, which leads to Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot“. Turns out sex is hilarious. 
  • As best I can tell, the shot of a man sitting alone on a ferris wheel is from the 1976 film “The Money” – aka “Atlantic City Jackpot” – directed by…Chuck Workman! Also noteworthy is a shot of the Three Stooges getting slapped, as Chuck Workman wrote and directed his love letter “Stoogemania” the same year that “Precious Images” was released.
  • I don’t know how they did it, but Randy Newman’s “The Final Game” composition from “The Natural” works perfectly with the film’s finale of familiar movie star faces. It’s a piece of music equally nostalgic and epic. Newman should have won a retroactive Oscar for its repurposing here.
  • What I wouldn’t give to see a really solid HD upgrade of “Precious Images”. Even the better quality prints of this film have that grainy, early VHS feel to them.

Some of my favorite precious images in “Precious Images”:

  • Charles Grodin making bedroom eyes at Miss Piggy in “The Great Muppet Caper”.
  • Chuck Norris in “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning”, because I love that Chuck Norris is on the NFR.
  • “Fritz the Cat”, the NFR’s first and most likely only dip into pornographic animation.
  • Hitchcock’s cameo in “Rear Window“, therefore giving “Precious Images” a Hitchcock cameo.
  • “Jaws 2”? If you say so…
  • Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s nude wrestling match from “Women in Love”.
  • The segue from Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” to Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce” to Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane”.
  • Zero Mostel’s weird high-pitched squeal from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
  • A scene from 1917’s “Teddy at the Throttle” in which a young Gloria Swanson is tied to the railroad tracks as the train approaches. I didn’t realize that was from an actual movie!
  • James Baskett as Uncle Remus walking through a cartoon world in “Song of the South”, which is as close as this movie will ever get to the NFR.
  • Putney Swope“: shoutout to the late, great Robert Downey Sr.
  • Mark Lester as “Oliver!” asking for more (one of a handful of international moments otherwise ineligible for this list).
  • The (as of 1986) three versions of Mrs. Norman Maine from “A Star is Born”.
  • Fredric March and Myrna Loy embracing in “The Best Years of Our Lives“, a movie moment that gives me chills just writing about it.
  • The perfect final shot: Dorothy and her traveling companions skipping off into the horizon on the yellow brick road.

Legacy 

  • Chuck Workman has created countless film montages since “Precious Images”. His immediate follow-up was “Words”: a tribute to the Writers Guild of America. I’m also fond of his 1994 compilation “100 Years at the Movies”, and 1989’s “50 Years of Bugs Bunny in 3 1/2 minutes”.
  • Workman is perhaps best known for his many Oscar montages, which he produced for ceremonies throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In addition to the various salutes to cinema that opened many ceremonies, Workman was also responsible for any Best Picture clip packages, as well as the In Memoriam. Workman’s personal favorite of these was a montage of the moviemaking process set to “Putting It Together” for the 1994 ceremony.

Further Viewing: My vote for the spiritual successor to “Precious Images”; Jonathan Keogh compiled clips from “1,001 Movies to See (Before You Die)”, added over 200 additional titles, and made an energetic movie montage with a 21st century sensibility.

#583) Hallelujah (1929)

#583) Hallelujah (1929)

OR “Zeke No Evil”

Directed by King Vidor

Written by Wanda Tuchock. Story by King Vidor, treatment by Richard Schayer, dialogue by Ransom Rideout.

Class of 2008

The Plot: Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) is a sharecropper who is able to sell his cotton crop for $100 (about $1500 today). Zeke loses all of it in a crap game against Hot Shot (William Fountaine), in cahoots with his girlfriend Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). When Zeke confronts Hot Shot, a fight ensues, leading to the murder of Zeke’s brother Spunk (Everett McGarrity). Traumatized by this tragic event, Zeke becomes a preacher, and starts a new life leading a revival tour. A few years later, Zeke runs into Chick and Hot Shot, and attempts to sway the pair to atone for their sins. Chick is tempted, but Zeke is equally tempted to leave his wife Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey) for Chick. All of this in one of the first major all-Black movies in American film history.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “among the very first indisputable masterpieces of the sound era”, praising its “passionate conviction of the melodrama” and “resourceful technical experiments”.

But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “two steps forward, one step back” category of progressive films. Sure, by 1929 standards “Hallelujah” is a revolutionary and nuanced depiction of African-American life. By modern standards, however, it’s a difficult watch filled with Black characters that are either “happy slaves” or swindling con artists. That being said, “Hallelujah” crawled so that other, better movies could run. The film is deserving of its spot on the NFR, I just wouldn’t recommend it to a casual moviegoer.

Everybody Gets One: Just a few years away from becoming a big name in nightclubs in both America and Europe, Nina Mae McKinney was initially cast in a minor role in “Hallelujah”, but took over the part of Chick when original lead Honey Brown injured herself. McKinney’s subsequent film career (as well as a successful tour of Europe in the 1930s) earned her the nickname “Black Garbo”.

Wow, That’s Dated: I’m pretty sure I covered the film’s most dated aspect in the “But Does It Really?” section.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hallelujah” was a hit in its day and received one Oscar nomination: Best Director for King Vidor (his second nomination). Due to the Oscar’s eligibility calendar that year (August 1929 to July 1930), Vidor lost to one of the biggest hits of 1930: “All Quiet on the Western Front“.

Other notes 

  • King Vidor had been trying to persuade MGM for years to let him make a movie about African-American life, but MGM always declined, stating that a film with an all-Black cast lacked box office appeal. Vidor finally got approval once he agreed to defer his salary, only receiving a percentage of the film’s grosses if it was successful. Vidor wrote the initial story outline himself, and travelled to Chicago and New York to find the best Black talent he could for “Hallelujah”.
  • “Hallelujah” began as a silent feature, but production went so well that MGM made it a sound feature mid-production, causing Vidor to reshoot much of the movie. For the Tennessee location shooting that would be too expensive to reshoot, early dubbing and synching technology was used.
  • It was made abundantly clear to me within the first few moments just how tough a watch this was going to be. The film’s opening sequences are Zeke and his family happily picking cotton in a field while singing spirituals. Are we supposed to be happy for them? Again, this is very progressive by 1929 standards because they have names and aren’t White actors in blackface.
  • Of course, the film’s major setback is that it was directed and conceived by a White Hungarian-American whose only experience with African-American life had been what he witnessed as a child in Galveston, Texas. Adding insult to injury, two of the “spirituals” in this movie were written by Irving Berlin!
  • Today on “Wow, That’s Becoming Dated”: Two of Zeke’s siblings are named Sears and Roebuck, after the department store that, as of this writing, is in the midsts of “a slow motion liquidation”, with only about 70 or so stores left.
  • As I’ve come to expect with early sound pictures, there’s a lot of jerky camera movement in “Hallelujah”. Sound cameras were bulky compared to the kind used for silent films, hence the awkward movement in films like this. Scenes initially shot silently stand out for their fluidity and more artistic compositions.
  • Shoutout to William Fountaine, who rewrote his own lines while playing Hot Shot, stating that he “wouldn’t be able to return to Harlem” if he spoke his stereotype-heavy dialogue as written.
  • I know they’re referring to the dice game, but it’s still weird hearing people in a ’20s movie say the word “craps”.
  • God this movie is such a downer. At least none of the Black stereotypes in “Stormy Weather” got murdered halfway through.
  • “Hallelujah” would pair well with “Black and Tan” and/or “St. Louis Blues“, the two NFR shorts that also depict Black living in the late ’20s through popular songs. The film would also work as a double feature with “The Blood of Jesus” Spencer Williams’ religious-themed All-Black film, or “Body and Soul“, the Oscar Micheaux movie that also features a preacher with a dark past.
  • It was around hour fifteen of Zeke’s sermon that I was convinced this movie will feature every spiritual ever written. Hey, as long as you don’t have to pay for them, right? That being said, Zeke sure knows how to work a crowd. It helps that Daniel Haynes was a preacher in real life.
  • Chick has the best character arc in the show, and it’s a shame Nina Mae McKinney isn’t a better actor. She’s not bad, she just doesn’t have the range to pull off this character.
  • What a weird ending. Is the point that no one can truly change? Seems like a downer for this subject matter. Whatever the outcome, all I know is that Missy Rose deserves better.
  • There is a lot that could be unpacked regarding this film’s depiction of African-Americans, and the pros and cons of that depiction, but that is for somewhere more educated (and significantly less White) than I. Suffice it to say that there is a lot to learn from “Hallelujah”, and like so many of the movies on this list, there’s some homework that needs to be done to truly appreciate it. In the end, “Hallelujah” isn’t “Birth of a Nation” offensive, but it ain’t exactly “Moonlight” either.

Legacy 

  • “Hallelujah” had two New York premieres: one in lower Manhattan and one in Harlem. Both went well, and “Hallelujah” was well received by critics and audiences in its day. Following its initial run, “Hallelujah” has more or less become a movie solely for film academics; a stepping stone for more nuanced portrayal of Black life. Believe it or not, the film’s Wikipedia page is a good starting point to discuss this film’s depiction of race, citing critics with strong arguments on both sides of this film’s legacy.