Monday, February 15, 2010

Mantan the Funnyman

(Background material and quotations are taken from Mantan the Funnyman: The Life and Times of Mantan Moreland by Michael H. Price. (Midnight Marquee Press, Inc., 2006).

I think it was in the late 1980s or so that AMC ran a Charlie Chan marathon one weekend. A young woman I worked with was very excited about it as she remembered enjoying them as a little girl years ago from the WGN airings on Sunday afternoons. When I saw her on Monday she expressed disappointment that they did not show any of the titles with Birmingham Brown.

I told her the Birmingham Brown character, the chauffeur to Mr. Charlie Chan, only appeared in the Monogram productions. The titles AMC showed where the 20th Century Fox titles and not the Monogram offerings. She shrugged and said she still hoped they would show the Birmingham Brown movies again. She said with a huge smile on her face, “He was so funny.”

Indeed he was, and I found it interesting she didn’t care about the mysteries in the Charlie Chan titles she saw as a young girl, but she responded to the comedy relief provided by Mantan Moreland, the brilliant black comedian who essayed the role of Birmingham Brown in 15 Charlie Chan B mystery movies at Monogram. He also appeared as comedy relief in many a Monogram programmer, including a couple of their best remembered horror offerings, as well as comedy relief at other studios as well.

Serious horror and mystery fans might shudder to hear that comedy relief is the highlight of the Monogram movies, but that’s definitely the case with Mantan Moreland. He was very, very funny and his comedy holds up very well today. Years in vaudeville ensured he knew how to connect with an audience and was already ready with a quip should he be forced to improvise.

I think it’s safe to say that the best thing about the Monogram Chans is Mantan Moreland. Moreland is one of those people who you see and instantly brighten up. In addition to the Chans, he’s also the highlight of Monogram’s horror titles “King of the Zombies” (1941) and “Revenge of the Zombies” (1943).

Threadbare productions they are, but Moreland takes the proceedings seriously. On the surface, his is a “feet, don’t fail me now” philosophy when confronted with ghosts, dead bodies, or zombies. But he’s someone the audience can identify with. Most of us would feel the same way and don’t enjoy the serene calmness of Charlie Chan when confronted with a mystery. We just want to get out of there and have no desire to stay in the same room with a recently murdered corpse.

I also always liked the way Moreland pronounced the word “zombie.” Rather than a harsh two syllables, he adds a strong emphasis on the first syllable and draws it out, with a touch of awe (and fear) in his voice.

Unfortunately, Mantan Moreland was a victim of political correctness run amok in the Civil Rights era, where many considered him an embarrassment with his roles as a waiter, train porter, or, yes, a chauffeur. His humor was considered demeaning and racist and his career suffered a huge setback in the 1950s and 1960s.

However Mantan Moreland has many defenders, including several black filmmakers who followed in his wake. Moreland’s biographer, Michael H. Price, has been championing Moreland for years.

Price quotes director Melvin van Peebles, who believes there was nothing demeaning in Moreland’s portrayals; he was just being funny.

Van Peebles calls it “a tragedy…that Mantan was left out in the cold in his prime, that the studios let themselves be bullied into agreeing that his image fostered some sort of racism.

“Now Stepin Fetchit – I could see him causing white people to think the less of black people. But even Stepin Fetchit didn’t pretend to represent any class beyond his own sense of humor. Mantan, now, his gift was simply, brilliantly, that of finding the humor in any given situation. He was not a political being, and he was no apologist either.

“To my way of thinking, he actually brought out the resilience and the resourcefulness in the characters he was assigned to portray. His speaking voice was no exaggerated dialect – that was the way he talked, just as deep-Southern as you please. Nowadays, we’d call it Ebonics. The entire so-called New Black Cinema, from Spike Lee to Eddie Murphy to my own son (Mario Van Peebles) owes a great deal to trails that were blazed by Mantan.”

Price also relates a quote director Spike Lee gave during a 2000 interview with The Bergen Record of New Jersey: “Ten years back, I thought Stepin Fetchit was an Uncle Tom…I’ve come to understand that, unlike us today, [such artists] didn’t have a choice. And these guys were good artists. Mantan Moreland – that guy was funny. Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson - I don’t think it was his choice to spend the best years of his life dancing with Shirley Temple. Hattie McDaniel had the famous quote, ‘It’s better to play a maid than be a maid.’ So I’ve gained a much greater understanding…nowadays we have choices – at least more choices than Mantan Moreland or Stepin Fetchit.”

The Third Stooge?

Mantan Moreland might be better known today if he became one of The Three Stooges, as was planned at one time. A 1942 movie gives a slight preview as to what it may have been like.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Rx” (1942) is a pretty dismal mystery movie courtesy Universal Studios, with a few very tame horror elements thrown in. Mantan Moreland appears as Patric Knowles’ manservant, but the most interesting thing about it are the scenes he plays with Shemp Howard. They enjoy some verbal dexterity with each other and there are even a few Stooge-like slaps thrown in. When Shemp died in 1955, his brother Moe was looking to replace him, and thought Mantan Moreland would be ideal.

But Columbia Studios nixed the idea, believing America was not ready for an integrated comedy team. Moe tried to convince them otherwise, to no avail. I think Mantan Moreland would have been a marvelous addition to the team. Instead we had to settle for Joe Besser, arguably everyone’s least favorite Stooge.

Price interviewed Moe Howard in 1973 who had this to say about Mantan Moreland replacing Shemp: “We really should’ a’ made Mantan Moreland our next third Stooge back when my brother Shemp cashed in (in 1955). They’d worked together, y’know, and Shemp actually had recommended Mantan if the need should ever, God forbid, arise.

“Mantan was responsive, when Larry (Fine) and I talked the idea over with him. I mean, we’d all seen our better days by that time, but ol’ Moreland, - now there was a talent that could’ a’ invigorated the whole act! He had the word play – you ever heard him do that ‘anticipation’ routine, where he and one or another of his partners finished each other’s sentences? – and he had the physical shtick, the jive moves and double take receptions that would’ a’ filled in the gaps when Jerome (Curly) and Shemp had kept covered.

“But of course Columbia (Pictures’ management) demanded a white guy, because they’d apparently been scared off of Mantan, and we ended up with that prissy damned Joe Besser, who was whatcha might call a pain…I’ve always thought what a great act the Stooges could’ a’ stayed for a while, if only we’d’ a’ gone with Mantan.”

The Glories of Monogram

It’s ironic that Poverty Row studio Monogram had no such qualms about having an integrated team, and showed much greater foresight than the much bigger Columbia Pictures.

Between 1939 and 1941, Monogram teamed Mantan with Frankie Darro in eight B movies. To the best of my knowledge, no race riots occurred and civilization did not come crashing down. I haven’t seen all of them, but the few I have seen have been quite good. “Up in the Air” (1940), (no relation to the George Clooney movie) is a pretty nifty murder mystery set in a radio station, and “The Gang’s All Here’ (1941) (no relation to the Alice Faye musical) is a more than respectable B movie about rival truck operators.

Moreland’s daughter Marcella said Monogram allowed her father to do what he did best – improvise. “Daddy was a painstaking writer of his comedy routines, okay, but he also had a gift for making up precisely the right saying on the spot, especially when the cameras were rolling. He’d come up with these out-of-the-blue line and exchanges there, at Monogram Pictures, and the directors – Phil Rosen was a favorite of ours, and Jean Yarbrough – would keep on rolling with the scene, oftener than not. The bigger studios were less encouraging, in that respect. But Monogram, it seems, just sort of let Daddy direct himself, and he always came up with something finer than what had been written for him to do or say.”

Moreland gives “King of the Zombies” its best comedy line, when after being hypnotized by zombie guru Mikos Sangre (Henry Victor), Moreland joins a line of zombies saying, ““Move over boys, I’m one of the gang now.” Moreland’s delivery of the line is priceless.

Moe Howard mentioned the “anticipation” routine. This was Moreland’s “Who’s on First”, and one he finessed with for years. He called it “Indefinite Talk” where two people would meet and have a rapid-fire conversation by finishing each other’s sentences. He did it with many partners, but most memorably with Ben Carter, who had the timing for the routine down pat. Thanks to the magic of film, the routine can be enjoyed for all to see when Moreland and Carter recreated it in “The Scarlet Clue” (1945), one of the Monogram Chans.

The final years were sad. Work was hard to come by. There was the occasional movie, like Jack Hill’s immortal “Spider Baby or The Maddest Story Ever Told” (1964), one of the great gonzo movies of all time, and appearances on television shows like “The Bill Cosby Show.” His last film was a New World Pictures exploitation flick called “The Young Nurses” (1973). He died in 1973 at the age of 71

The ending may have been sad, but the preceding years weren’t. Mantan Moreland was one of the most dependable comedians of the Golden Age of Hollywood and his special talent continues to resonate today. Just look past what outfit he was wearing and witness a true comic genius.


Rick said...

Fascinating tribute to Mr. Moreland, Kevin! I remember him best from KING OF THE ZOMBIES (loved your accurate description of how he pronounced "zombie") and the Charlie Chan films. It's interesting to note that he was popular enough to be listed second in the cast (after Sidney Toler) in some of the Chan pictures. I had no idea that he was considered for The Three Stooges!

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Rick. Like I said, he's the best part of the Monogram Chans. It's too bad the Stooges gig didn't work out. I think he would have been great.

KimWilson said...

Kevin, I'm glad you profiled Mantan. I learned a lot about a man I've seen in so many movies.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks for reading, Kim. I'm glad you enjoyed the profile.

Archdude said...

Great article about Mr. Moreland. Like you, I remember his parts on the Chan films and laughed at a lot of his bits. I especially remember the bit with Ben Carter in “The Scarlet Clue” (1945).

I thought it was fascinating that Mr. Moreland was considered for the Three Stooges role. A pity he didn't get it.

Consistently great blog, by the way.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you, sir.

dawn from noir and chick flicks. said...

Kevin, I really enjoyed reading your post. I would have loved to see him perform as one of the The Three Stooges.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Dawn. I really think Mantan not joining The Three Stooges is one of the great "What Ifs" in Hollywood comedy history.

Moira Finnie said...

I'm a little late catching up with all the contributors posts in the Black History Blogathon, but you had me laughing out loud several times, especially when you described Mantan Moreland's spin on the zombie line.

He was a delight in the Charlie Chan movies and would have been wonderful and imaginative addition to The Three Stooges. It's such a shame that did not gain approval. I haven't seen the teamwork he did with Frankie Darro, but will now start looking for many movies and so little time.

Kevin Deany said...

"So many movies and so little time." Moira, truer words were never spoken. Thanks for the nice comments.

the moonspinner said...

A great tribute to one of my very favorite actors! I never a miss an old movie that the wonderful Mantan Moreland is in, never, and watch them over and over since I was a little girl in the 1940's. He was really something special. Miss you Mantan ... Candace