The premise is from Emerson ("to take a master's part in the music"), black voices on a jagged screen herald the remarkable flow of black images. The land, vast as ever for King Vidor, dotted with cotton and rattling with souls lost and found, the sharecropper (Daniel L. Haynes) takes you through it. A season's harvest goes for $100 in the city, the temptress (Nina Mae McKinney) and the gambler (William Fountaine) separate the farmer from his earnings, the ensuing honky-tonk melee claims his younger brother (Everett McGarrity). A preacher's vocation arrives by moonlight (cp. Ray's Distant Thunder), hence "Ezekiel the Prophet" in the river while the "yellow hussy" howls for baptism and salvation. Fall and rise, fall and rise: "Excuse me, but it looks like the devil's in me here tonight." Vidor's holy rollers, as vibrant and full-bodied as Archibald Motley's, one ethnographic tableau after another galvanized into furiously stylized motion. Faith and song of equal carnality comprise this folkloric deep South, where the swirling ecstasies of sex and Irving Berlin tunes mingle seamlessly with fervid spirituals. (The orgiastic sermon sequence gives a sudden overhead view of the center of the indoors cyclone, the hand raised to the heavens is bitten in the flash of heat.) That old-time religion and that brand-new technique—early-talkie hubbub layered over silent-movie swaths of Arkansas and Tennessee, an arresting mix of montage and tracking cameras for a swamp chase remembered by Kurosawa (Stray Dog). From prison quarry to boxcar and back at last to the eternal fiancée (Victoria Spivey) for the protagonist, yet it's McKinney's breathtaking blur of hoochie-coochie and zealot that lingers as a tangible bedrock for the untamed Vidor Woman. "The way is long, the night is dark..." What it takes from Sunrise it passes on to Tabu, Minnelli in Cabin in the Sky explicates the state of grace. Cinematography by Gordon Avil. With Harry Gray, Fanny Belle DeKnight, and Dixie Jubilee Singers. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce