Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 22, 2010
While watching Universal’s hopelessly misconceived (but still enjoyable) THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942) the other night, I was struck by how valuable an asset was Mantan Moreland. The Louisiana-born comedian had paid his dues as a circus worker and vaudevillian before making his Broadway debut in the Lew Leslie-produced BLACKBIRDS OF 1928 with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and featuring Jimmy McHugh’s popular hit “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” As with all of Leslie’s productions, the performers were black but the concept and execution were the brain work of whites, who pulled their material from the minstrel circuit. The African-American performers corked up to appear blacker and the jokes were predictably “lowdown.” And yet… and yet… talent bubbled up through the pond scum of condescension and racism. Moreland’s shtick, that of a tubby coward with eyes bugging out of his skull and a stream of cornpone consciousness trickling out of the corner of his mouth, made him a natural for talking pictures.
Beginning in the 1930s, Mantan (and who could call him anything but Mantan? He’s too cuddly to refer to as Moreland) played insignificant (and often uncredited) roles in films from the big studios (walk-ons in Warner Brothers’ 1936 Biblical allegory THE GREEN PASTURES, Paramount’s THE PALM BEACH STORY in 1942 and in MGM’s CABIN IN THE SKY the following year) but found a niche in “race pictures” marketed to black audiences, such as SPIRIT OF YOUTH (1938) with boxer Joe Louis playing a fictionalized version of himself, GANG SMASHERS (1938) and ONE DARK NIGHT (1939) for Ralph Cooper‘s Million Dollar Pictures and the haunted casino comedy LUCKY GHOST (1942) for minister-turned-film producer James K. Friedrich’s Dixie National Pictures. Meanwhile he became a reliable comic relief character in a host of Poverty Row cheapies of every stripe – comedies, whodunits, gangster flicks, westerns, spookshows – you name it. Under contract to Monogram, Mantan was super sleuth Charlie Chan’s excitable chauffeur Birmingham Brown (when Sidney Toler stepped into the title role after 20th Century Fox sold off the franchise) and Jefferson White, best pal of bellhop-turned-amateur-detective Frankie Darro in seven crime comedies beginning with IRISH LUCK (1939). In both cases, Mantan received preferential billing while his characters enjoyed more or less equal footing with his partners, if not society at large. (Pushing 40, Mantan is often referred to as a kid or, worse yet, a colored boy.) Equality was at a premium for Mantan Moreland. Obviously an adherent of the Hattie McDaniel‘s Philosophy (“I’d rather play a maid… than be one…”), Mantan put in his time as countless hotel and railroad porters, bellhops, elevator operators, janitors, washroom attendants, barbers, cooks, drivers, waiters, shoeshine men, and butlers, butlers, butlers. The relegation of Mantan Moreland to subservient roles might well have been the product of racism – and many have said so – but those of us who love his work know he shined the brightest when he was stuck in the shadow of the Man.
Growing up, I always loved Mantan the most when he was scared and he was scared most of the time! In BLACK MAGIC (aka MEETING AT MIDNIGHT, 1944), Birmingham Brown is forced to find other work when Charlie Chan relocates to Honolulu… and to his great dismay he winds up a valet for a family of shady mediums who conduct spooky seances. In KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941), his jittery Jefferson Jackson dutifully follows his government agent boss to an uncharted island where dead men walk and the incessant pounding of voodoo drums “sure ain’t Gene Krupa!” LUCKY GHOST has Mantan’s hapless gambler Washington (his onscreen partner F. E. Miller gets to use the Jefferson moniker this time out) popeyed and petrified when restless spirits manifest as skeletons and in THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX Mantan is choked out of slumber, made to crawl through a laundry chute into a suspect’s apartment, is kidnapped by the mad medico and made to watch as his boss is menaced by a killer gorilla; even though some of this stuff turns out to be fake, his hair has turned snow white by the final fade out. THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX is barely worthy of Mantan’s talents but he makes this wholly inconsequential film a fun ride for 62 minutes. In later years, stars Patric Knowles and Ann Gwynne both confessed that production commenced without a finished script and that the actors had ad libbed their way through many scenes. Improvisation was really Mantan Moreland’s long suit (he nearly had an offer to join The Three Stooges following the death of Shemp Howard in 1955), honed in his years performing live. I can’t say in all honesty that any of his comic business in this film is classic but it is end-to-end delightful and Mantan’s scenes are the best. He also has two moments of surpassing poignancy. Kidnapped by the villain of the piece, his Horatio Fitz Washington is made to place a phone call to lure his boss into a trap. The moment (apart from cutaways to Knowles’ suave sleuth Jerry Church) is played in tight close-up, with Fitz obviously acting under duress…
… a rare example of Horatio in the film (and Mantan in general) being in a situation he can’t joke himself out of. Sweating profusely, he allows the killer to take the receiver out of his hand and then, trembling, he says in a pitifully fragile voice “Please don’t hurt me no more,” which makes this comic character suddenly intensely tragic – and all to Mantan’s credit for playing it straight. Later, with the dastardly plan in full swing, Mantan is made to watch helplessly (his face held in place by the hands of Dr. Rx himself, whose identity-concealing mask makes him look like a Klansman) as his employer and (slightly abusive) friend is placed in great peril.
Mantan’s response (“Don’t do that to my boss”) is again played entirely straight and strikes an unexpectedly tender note in an otherwise silly movie whose particulars you are likely to forget within half an hour of seeing them. Who knows what Mantan was channeling in that moment (in his day he might have seen any number of his friends and loved ones chained and misused) but it works a charm and makes you wonder what he could have accomplished if he’d been given the opportunity to show more than one color.
Mantan Moreland may not have been the recipient of the same ton o’contumely that was heaped on the heads of other black performers (Stepin Fetchit, Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best) who stood accused of perpetuating the “coon caricature” but the result was the same. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum during the 1950s and producers of film and television began to concede to protests from the black community, Mantan Moreland found himself out of work. Check his IMDb page and you’ll see a ten year gap (filled intermittently with live performances, one of them in an all-black Broadway adaptation of WAITING FOR GODOT, costarring Rex Ingram, a young Geoffrey Holder and Earl “Grandpa Huxtable” Hyman) between the end of the Monogram “Charlie Chan” movies and his appearances in films such as THE PATSY (1964) with Jerry Lewis and ENTER LAUGHING (1967). In the cult movie SPIDER BABY (1964, unreleased until 1968), Mantan played a luckless delivery man who gets sliced to ribbons in the film’s first scene, a shocking bit of black comedy that is only the starter course for “the maddest story every told.” Hobbled by a stroke in later years, his film appearances were few and far between. Mantan Moreland died in 1973, just a few weeks after his 71st birthday. Closing in on 40 years since his passing, Mantan still has his admirers but I think we can do better than that for him. My idea? Immunity for Mantan. He was great in everything and every movie he did, no matter how lousy or lacking otherwise, should receive an extra star rating just because he’s there. Let’s amend Roger Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh rule so that it now states “No movie with Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh or Mantan Moreland can be altogether bad.” Has Mantan been on a stamp? If not, let’s get him on a stamp! What do you say? Tell your friends, beat your drums, let’s make this sucker viral. Immunity for Mantan – a free pass for eternity!
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