Immunity for Mantan

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!

21 Responses Immunity for Mantan
Posted By Patricia : January 22, 2010 8:59 am

Mantan (I agree, I can never refer to him otherwise) and oft-times partner Ben Carter worked together in a few pictures. I think they and their double talk routine were shown to best advantage in the Mike Shayne movie [b]Sleeper’s West[/b], which is possibly the illegitimate father of [b]The Narrow Margin[/b].

Posted By Patricia : January 22, 2010 8:59 am

Mantan (I agree, I can never refer to him otherwise) and oft-times partner Ben Carter worked together in a few pictures. I think they and their double talk routine were shown to best advantage in the Mike Shayne movie [b]Sleeper’s West[/b], which is possibly the illegitimate father of [b]The Narrow Margin[/b].

Posted By rhsmith : January 22, 2010 12:06 pm

I love all those Mike Shayne movies with Lloyd Nolan and possibly Sleepers West the best of all. As I’ve written in the past, I loves me a “trapped on a moving train” movie and throwing Mantan Moreland into the mix is just the icing on an already tasty cake.

Posted By rhsmith : January 22, 2010 12:06 pm

I love all those Mike Shayne movies with Lloyd Nolan and possibly Sleepers West the best of all. As I’ve written in the past, I loves me a “trapped on a moving train” movie and throwing Mantan Moreland into the mix is just the icing on an already tasty cake.

Posted By suzidoll : January 22, 2010 12:09 pm

You can’t beat the old-time vaudevillians for constructing a comic persona to play repeatedly in film after film yet somehow their characters are never repetitive. Also, their approach to physical comedy is sharper and their comic timing tighter than any stand-up comics or comic actors in the movies today. Mantan was extremely talented and a born entertainer; that he had to endure the humiliation of a racist film industry in order to ply his trade is tragic.

Posted By suzidoll : January 22, 2010 12:09 pm

You can’t beat the old-time vaudevillians for constructing a comic persona to play repeatedly in film after film yet somehow their characters are never repetitive. Also, their approach to physical comedy is sharper and their comic timing tighter than any stand-up comics or comic actors in the movies today. Mantan was extremely talented and a born entertainer; that he had to endure the humiliation of a racist film industry in order to ply his trade is tragic.

Posted By rhsmith : January 22, 2010 12:50 pm

yet somehow their characters are never repetitive

You can say that again! What makes Mantan immortal for me is that he is alive in the frame. The passage of 70 years doesn’t dull any of his spontaneity. While the acting styles of the other (white) players seems vintage, classic and of its time, Mantan could just as easily be doing his thing in a contemporary movie.

Posted By rhsmith : January 22, 2010 12:50 pm

yet somehow their characters are never repetitive

You can say that again! What makes Mantan immortal for me is that he is alive in the frame. The passage of 70 years doesn’t dull any of his spontaneity. While the acting styles of the other (white) players seems vintage, classic and of its time, Mantan could just as easily be doing his thing in a contemporary movie.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : January 22, 2010 6:36 pm

With all due respect to Mantan, it seems like slim pickings for black actors in the era you speak of. Minstrels, Vaudeville, you could say they were a mockery of a sham and a sign of the low regard that people of color were held in this country. It was disappointing to see the TCM schedule for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. Why couldn’t there have been an extensive program based on the work of Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering Director, Screenwriter, and Producer born in 1884? I guess we still have a long way to go in this. Cheers, Wilbur

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : January 22, 2010 6:36 pm

With all due respect to Mantan, it seems like slim pickings for black actors in the era you speak of. Minstrels, Vaudeville, you could say they were a mockery of a sham and a sign of the low regard that people of color were held in this country. It was disappointing to see the TCM schedule for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. Why couldn’t there have been an extensive program based on the work of Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering Director, Screenwriter, and Producer born in 1884? I guess we still have a long way to go in this. Cheers, Wilbur

Posted By Curt from Mountain View : January 22, 2010 11:24 pm

Recently, my 8-year old son and I watched “King of the Zombies.” He commented, “Wow, the best thing about that movie was Mantan Moreland. But, dad, why was his character treated so meanly? The Count didn’t offer him wine like his (white) friends, and Mantan had to sleep downstairs in the basement while his friends got to sleep upstairs in beds.” I explained about the roles that black actors were stuck with, the treatment of black people back then, and what happened to Mantan Moreland’s career in his later years … all from just watching “King of the Zombies.” Now, I can show him this article.

Posted By Curt from Mountain View : January 22, 2010 11:24 pm

Recently, my 8-year old son and I watched “King of the Zombies.” He commented, “Wow, the best thing about that movie was Mantan Moreland. But, dad, why was his character treated so meanly? The Count didn’t offer him wine like his (white) friends, and Mantan had to sleep downstairs in the basement while his friends got to sleep upstairs in beds.” I explained about the roles that black actors were stuck with, the treatment of black people back then, and what happened to Mantan Moreland’s career in his later years … all from just watching “King of the Zombies.” Now, I can show him this article.

Posted By Joe Thompson : January 23, 2010 12:42 am

Thank you for remembering Mantan. Not long before he passed on, he appeared on a San Francisco UHF show, “The Worst of Hollywood.” The host tried hard to get a good interview, but Mantan didn’t appear to be feeling well. He made much of the opportunities he got.

Posted By Joe Thompson : January 23, 2010 12:42 am

Thank you for remembering Mantan. Not long before he passed on, he appeared on a San Francisco UHF show, “The Worst of Hollywood.” The host tried hard to get a good interview, but Mantan didn’t appear to be feeling well. He made much of the opportunities he got.

Posted By Richard Sutor : January 30, 2010 7:32 pm

I’m in complete agreement that Mantan Moreland deserves much more respect for his work on countless films. But in the mention of the 10 year “gap” there is an omission of a Laurel and Hardy film in which he appeared. The 1942 20th Century Fox film “A Haunting We Will Go” includes a “cameo” by Mantan. The scene takes place on a train with Mantan playing a waiter. He and Stan Laurel share the screen and, according to line notes packed with the DVD, ad lib most of the scene. Mantan is quoted in the liner notes recalling how he and Stan had a script from which to work but when they thought they could improve on it these two comedy masters went to it.

Posted By Richard Sutor : January 30, 2010 7:32 pm

I’m in complete agreement that Mantan Moreland deserves much more respect for his work on countless films. But in the mention of the 10 year “gap” there is an omission of a Laurel and Hardy film in which he appeared. The 1942 20th Century Fox film “A Haunting We Will Go” includes a “cameo” by Mantan. The scene takes place on a train with Mantan playing a waiter. He and Stan Laurel share the screen and, according to line notes packed with the DVD, ad lib most of the scene. Mantan is quoted in the liner notes recalling how he and Stan had a script from which to work but when they thought they could improve on it these two comedy masters went to it.

Posted By belphegor : January 31, 2010 2:21 pm

Good posting. But I believe the correct title of the movie that is being discussed here is “The Strange Case of Dr. R/X.”

Posted By belphegor : January 31, 2010 2:21 pm

Good posting. But I believe the correct title of the movie that is being discussed here is “The Strange Case of Dr. R/X.”

Posted By Spiderclinic : March 22, 2010 2:38 am

Mantan’s film sequences with Ben Carter are to be sought out.
Their verbal exchanges are clever conversations with the humor derived from one knowing exactly what the other is just about to say. My description doesn’t do them justice.

I love Mantan in King of The Zombies. “I’ve been zombie-fied!”

A friend told me the new Green Hornet movie is coming out in
December. It reminded me of Bill Cosby’s spoof, The Brown Hornet who was assisted by his faithful valet, Leroy. Couldn’t help thinking of Birmingham Brown (Mantan) and his assistance of
Mr. Chan.

Posted By Spiderclinic : March 22, 2010 2:38 am

Mantan’s film sequences with Ben Carter are to be sought out.
Their verbal exchanges are clever conversations with the humor derived from one knowing exactly what the other is just about to say. My description doesn’t do them justice.

I love Mantan in King of The Zombies. “I’ve been zombie-fied!”

A friend told me the new Green Hornet movie is coming out in
December. It reminded me of Bill Cosby’s spoof, The Brown Hornet who was assisted by his faithful valet, Leroy. Couldn’t help thinking of Birmingham Brown (Mantan) and his assistance of
Mr. Chan.

Posted By Zigarro : September 25, 2016 9:09 am

I always click on anything Mantan! He delivered my favorite line in “Law of the Jungle”: “This ain’t no job for a man that’s got ideas.”

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