Talking pictures broke over Hollywood like the first thunderclap on a clear day, and by the end of the 20s, movie theaters were inundated with musicals. Director King Vidor, who’d had a huge hit with the war drama The Big Parade, wanted to capture the music of rural black Americans — what they sang and how they felt. The result was Hallelujah!, about Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes), a decent man led astray by the wanton girl-woman Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). McKinney was just 16 when she got the part, and had never been in a movie. But she seduced the camera as fully as Chick did Zeke. She gives a volcanic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Swanee Shuffle,” using the exact leg and hop moves that would make Elvis Presley a star. Sashaying toward Zeke, she purrs, “Let ya baby sit on yo’ lap and make you feel so good,” taking a heavy breath before “feel” and giving it an extra erotic syllable. Mainstream movies had never seen such thrilling sexuality.
Even MGM, the staid studio that financed Hallelujah!, knew it had something in McKinney. It signed her to a five-year contract, then came to its idiot senses and ignored her. In the 30s she toured Europe concert halls, where she was billed as “the black Garbo,” and made three films in Britain, including Sanders of the River with Paul Robeson. In the 40s she got some work playing the one character available to black actresses: maid. She was dead at 55.
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