In the 1930's and 40's, Mantan Moreland was perhaps the most popular
actor and comedian in the movies, both with black and with white audiences
- but in today's world of often misguided political correctness an actor/comedian like Mantan Moreland could
- quite simply put - not exist
Mantan's roles were primarily servile characters like a
chauffeur, a butler or a shoeshine boy, and his most popular routine was
him going all jittery and wide-eyed in the eye of danger. Now I admit that
all that can be seen as a racial stereotype, however if white comedians
like Lou Costello or even Bob Hope did similar routines of breaking up in
the eye of danger, nobody would raise an eyebrow over their depiction of
white men ... and fact is that Moreland did these routines so much better.
And when Mantan played a racial stereotype, one could always see the
parody (of the stereotype, not of the race) shine through.
and large, it is a mistake to reduce Mantan Moreland to his race, fact is
he was an outstanding, natural comedian who would shine in every scene he
was in, and could save many a bad movie from totally sinking - in fact, I
can hardly remember the storyline of a cheapo like King
of the Zombies (despite having seen it 3 times), but Mantan's
attempts to mingle with the zombies ("Move over boys, I'm one
of the gang now!") just cracked me up and are still fresh in my
memory. Even in a comparably posh feature like Tarzan's
New York Adventure, in which his screentime (in an uncredited
role) is less than 2 minutes, his performance stands out.
first the facts ...
Moreland was born in 1902 in Monroe, Louisiana, and legend ahs it that at
the age of 12, he ran away to join the circus, and over the next few
years, he toured the country with circuses and medicine shows. Eventually
he found a place in Vaudeville, and later in Broadway all-black comedies,
where he developed many of his routines that would later find their ways into his
After a while,
Mantan has become successful enough on stage that he no longer could be
overlooked by Hollywood, and in 1933 he made his first film, the short That's
the Spirit, where he and fellow vaudeville star Flournoy Miller
portray two night watchman in a haunted pawnshop. However, the film as
such is less horror and more a showcase for then current jazz musicians.
wouldn't catch on immediately with the audience though, in fact it wasn't
until 3 years later that he got another small part in a movie, The
Green Pastures by Marc
Connelly and William Keighley in 1936 - one of the first mainstream films to
include blacks in important roles.
And in 1937, he had another insignificant part
in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-musical Shall We Dance (director:
first shots at stardom though were in a handful of movies targeted for
an exclusively black audience (remember these were the late 1930's, when
segregation - even in the darkness of a movietheatre - was still in effect).
In Westerns like Harlem on the Prairie (1937, directed by
Sam Newfield) and Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938, by Richard C.Kahn) he plays second
fiddle to Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo, who had a
(short-lived) career as a black screen cowboy cast in the mold of then
popular singing cowboys like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.
Jeffries was acutally a singer first, a cowboy second, who previous to his
short screen career, has been a singer with Earl 'Fatha' Hines, and in
1940, he left moviemaking again, to resume his singing career, this time
with none other than Duke Ellington. In between he made the two above
mentioned Westerns as well as The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem
Rides the Range (1939), both without Mantan. Curiously enough, even
though he had been the star of these films, he's often miscredited as
Herbert Jeffrey on posters and even int he credits.
The films were
distributed by Sack
Attractions, one of the few companies specialised in providing
all-black films to all-black moviehouses, and even if these movies were
dirt-cheap, even compared to white B-Westerns, they were somewhat
Besides his work with Jeffries, Mantan
Moreland made a few films for the black as well as the white film circuit,
including another Western by Sam Newfield, Frontier Scout
(1939), this time a film for white audiences starring George Houston and
Al St. John a couple of years before they became the Lone
Rider and Fuzzy
in the popular PRC-series
(many films of which also were directed by Newfield) [PRC
history - click here].
break-through (with white audiences) though came with Monogram's
Irish Luck by Howard
Bretherton, which teamed Mantan up with Frankie Darro [Frankie Darro
bio - click
here] for the first time.
Essentially, Irish Luck
is a crime comedy in which friends and bellhops Frankie (daringly) and
Mantan (reluctantly) solve a murder case in a hotel. Of key importance s
that Frankie and Mantan act as friends here rather than Mantan being
Frankie's subordinate, and in the finale, Mantan is instrumental in saving
Luck, Mantan was given the role that he played best, that of the
frightened guy stumbling over way too many corpses, so naturally, his
performance is excellent, but the rest of the film is quite fine as well,
with a script blending comedy and murder mystery with the greatest of
ease, and former child actor Frankie Darro proving to have quite a talent
for grown-up comedy roles. The movie must have been quite a success for Monogram
as well, as it was soon extended into the Frankie
and Mantan series of films, which all more or less followed
the same formula as Irish
Luck, but all managed to be likeable crime comedies.
best of the bunch is probably Up
in the Air (1940, by Howard Bretherton), in which Frankie and
Mantan work as service personnel at a radio station who desperately try to
pitch their comedy to the head of the station - but of course they once
more stumble over a murder or two which needs solving.
Arguably the best
scene is when Mantan and Frankie (in blackface and sporting a black
accent) give their boss a taste of their comedy and do an infinite talk,
a routine that Mantan had originally developed with fellow black comedian
Ben Carter for the stage, in which one starts a sentence with other one
interrupting him with a question before the first one has really said
anything. Then the other one begins a sentence, and so on ...
"I haven’t seen you since…"
"Longer than that!"
"Last time I saw you, you lived over…"
"Oh I moved from there."
"Sure, I moved over to…"
"How can you live in that neighborhood?"
Later, in the Charlie
Chan-film The Scarlet
Clue (1945, by Phil Rosen), another crime comedy set in a radio
station, Mantan would repeat that routine, this time with original partner
Ben Carter. Another variation on the routine also shows up in another Charlie
Chan-film, Dark Alibi by Phil Karlson from 1946.
Again, Ben Carter is Mantan's partner.
and Mantan series came to an end way too soon, after only 6
films in 1941 when Frankie was drafted for service in World War II.
from other studios who often treated black actors no better than cattle and
often didn't even give them on-screen credit for their work, Monogram
knew what a talent they had in Mantan Moreland. As a result he was not
only given a billing high up in the films of the Frankie
and Mantan series, Monogram
also held on to Mantan after the series had come to an end. Instead they
put him in a string of (rather unimportant, but often - intentionally
and/or unintentionally - funny) films, many of which Mantan had to carry
on his own shoulders - which he does with ease.
This string of films
includes the foreign legion thriller Drums
of the Desert (1940, George Waggner) starring Ralph Byrd, above-mentioned King
of the Zombies (1941), Freckles
Comes Home (1942) - which seems like yet another film of the Frankie
and Mantan series, just starring Johnny Downs in the
Frankie-role -, Law
of the Jungle (1942, all three by Jean Yarbrough [Jean Yarbrough bio
- click here]), Revenge of the
Zombies (1943, by Steve Szekely), which had Mantan co-star with
horror legend John Carradine and cowboy star Bob Steele [Bob
Steele bio - click here], and Cosmo
Jones in The Crime Smasher (1943, by James Tinling), where he's up
against slapstick's favourite foil Edgar Kennedy.
other studios, Mantan's work was less appreciated though. For his small
but memorable role in MGM's Tarzan's
New York Adventure (1941, Richard Thorpe), he wasn't even
receiving an on-screen credit, and Universal
only billed him ninth for his
role in The Strange Case of Dr. RX (1942, by William Nigh), despite his role being
the biggest next to lead Patric Knowles.
Other roles for major studios
Century Fox' Laurel
& Hardy-vehicle A Haunting we will Go (1942, Alfred
The Great Gildersleeve (1942, Gordon Douglas), MGM's
Andy Hardy's Double
Life (1942, George B.Seitz) and Columbia's
Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (1941, James P.Hogan) with Ralph
Bellamy in the title role, to
randomly pick a few. None of these films were terribly memorable.
more interest during this era might be Mantan's all-black features, like
the haunted house comedies Mr Washington goes to Town (1941, Jed
Buell) and Professor
Creeps (1942, William Beaudine), in both of which Mantan again did his frightened man
In fact he would become so popular with the black
audiences that in 1946 two films would come out that would carry his name
in the title, Mantan Messes Up (Sam Newfield) and Mantan Runs for Mayor.
1944, with Charlie
Chan in the Secret Service (by Phil Rosen), Monogram
took over the Charlie
Chan-series from 20th
Century Fox, who had abandoned the series 2 years earlier, and they
even got Sydney Toler back to do the lead. And to add some comic relief to
the film, Mantan was hired to play frightened taxi driver Birmingham
Brown, who constantly stumbles over corpses (something that Mantan was by
now familiar with).
Mantan was so good in the role that he would return
in the next Charlie
Chinese Cat (1944, Phil Rosen), and in fact he would become the
only actor to stay aboard through the entire run of Monogram's
Charlie Chan-series (being replaced in only 2 of the 17
films, Red Dragon [1945,
Phil Rosen] and Dangerous Money [1946, Terry O.Morse], by Willie
Best playing his cousin) - lead Sydney Toler died in 1947 and was
replaced by Roland Winters, while Chan's various sons (and daughters)
would appear and disappear like on a magic roundabout ... with eventually
even number one son
Keye Luke, after a 10-year hiatus, making a return to the series.
1949, the Charlie
Chan-series came to a close, and Mantan's career was put on a
hiatus. The reasons are manyfold:
- the classic B-movie (as in second
feature, opposed to drive-in movie) quickly died out due to the advent of
TV, and consequently many B-movie actors found themselves out of work,
change in political attitude made the funny black guy no longer compatible
with the movie-going masses, what was once hilarious was now seen as
- and finally, Mantan's health was failing at the time, which
did not help much either.
With his film career gone down the
drain, Mantan, once having regained his health, reverted to stage work,
which basically meant back to being a stand-up comedian again. Mantan did
appear in a few movies though, all musical variety films, like Rhythm
and Blues Revue, Rock'n'Roll Revue (both 1955) and Basin
Street Revue (1956), which are all great collections of some of
the finest black musicians playing live in Harlem's Apollo Theatre, with
Mantan doing some comedy alongside Nipsey Russell, but the films were
hardly significant for his career as an actor.
Of more interest during this time might have been his
stage-performance in an all-black production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting
for Godot from 1957, which I would give my right ar-... glove for having seen.
So, if you have a time machine handy and need a right glove, let me know ...
has it that in the mid-1950's there were talks about Mantan becoming a
member of the Three Stooges, a replacement for the late
Shemp Howard (with whom Mantan co-starred in 1941's The Strange Case of Dr. RX). However, Columbia
wanted a white man for the role, so they hired Joe Besser instead.
the 1960's, Mantan Moreland had something of a mini comeback. It all
started with Jack Hill's Spider Baby or The Maddest Story ever Told,
a very black horror comedy from 1964, where Mantan falls prey to Lon Chaney
Chaney jr bio - click here] and his insane and lethal family. The film,
which was not released until 1968, is considered a cult classic today.
More filmwork (though
in small roles) soon followed, including Jerry Lewis' media satire The Patsy (1964)
- which co-starred horror greats John Carradine [John
Carradine bio - click here] and Peter Lorre [Peter
Lorre bio - click here], with
Hedda Hopper and George Raft as themselves, and in bit-parts forgotten
(B-)stars Chick Chandler, Don Brodie and Richard Bakalyan - and Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing (1967).
Mantan also had a part
in 1970's Watermelon Man by Melvyn Van Peebles, a sort of
psychedelic, even surreal comedy on racism. In this one, Godfrey Cambridge
plays a white man who turns black overnight. Again, Mantan's role wasn't
big, but at least he was there ...
Around this time, television
also began opening up to black actors, and before long Mantan found
himself in various supporting roles on various shows, including The
Bill Cosby Show in 1970, an early (and actually quite amusing)
show by black comedian Bill Cosby who later bored us all with his advice on good
fatherhood repackaged as a sitcom from the mid-80's to the mid-90's.
final film might be a good testimony as to what has become of B-movies in
the 1970's, for better or worse..
The Young Nurses (1973, Clint
Kimbrough) is a brainless sexploitation movie
produced by Roger Corman's New
World Pictures, a film not worthy of Mantan Moreland's talents - and he's
not even the star of the film ... but quite honestly, many of Mantan's
films were not worthy his talents, it was just one of his talents that he
made them watchable.
In 1973, Mantan Moreland died from
cerebral hemorrhage, and even though, he had a bit of a comeback in the
1960's/70's, his death went largely unnoticed. It seemed as if nobody even
realized that Hollywood had lost one of its finest and most underrated
Nowadays, Moreland's humour seems terribly out of date,
however seeing him entering another haunted house or stumbling over
another corpse, one can't help but chuckle in anticipation. And the
actor/comedian has yet to show him/herself who can shine even in the most
atrocious scripts and use his/her comic talents to make even the most
tedious B-movie worthwhile.