First and foremost, they were people who wanted to act and entertain, part of the countless men and women who came to Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century dreaming of work and a chance at movie stardom. But for African-American performers, the racial divides of the time meant that, more often than not, they would be relegated to minor and often demeaning roles: maids, janitors, railway porters, and the like. Some artists could occasionally break away from these stigmatized portrayals (Paul Robeson, Lena Horne) or endure them long enough to garner popularity and critical acclaim (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel), but within the studio system there was little hope for anything more meaningful. One such actor who made a living walking the line between stereotypical Hollywood roles and working in independent, all-black “race films,” and whose talents were rediscovered years after his passing, was fast-talking funnyman Mantan Moreland.
Born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1902, Moreland ran away from home by the age of 13 to perform in circuses and travelling medicine shows. He worked his way onto the vaudeville stage and appeared with international touring companies before becoming a regular in the Broadway musical revues of the late 1920s and early ’30s. These stage shows, often with such now-politically incorrect names as Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1930 and Blackberries of 1932, nonetheless gave Mantan the opportunity to hone his comedic craft, particularly the fast-patter “interrupted sentence” routines where he and a partner (most often straight man Ben Carter) would have a conversation where each would finish the other’s sentences.
Moreland’s screen debut came in a 1933 Warner Bros. musical short called That’s the Spirit, where he and stage co-star Flournoy “F.E.” Miller played night watchmen in a haunted pawn shop. For most of the ’30s, though, his Hollywood roles would be limited to small, often uncredited turns (The Green Pastures, Next Time I Marry). Mantan would continue to entertain audiences in vaudeville and the all-black “chitlin’ circuit,” and found work in such low-budget “race films” as 1937′s Spirit of Youth (starring real-life boxing great Joe Louis) and Harlem on the Prairie and Gang Smashers in 1938. A break came in 1939, when B-studio Monogram cast him as the sidekick of hotel bellboy and would-be sleuth Frankie Darro in the comedy/mystery Irish Luck. The picture’s success led Monogram to co-star them in seven similar films from 1939-41, including On the Spot, Up in the Air, and You’re Out of Luck. The plots were generally the same–an enthusiastic Darro would coax the jittery and none-too-brave Moreland into helping him solve yet another crime–but the unlikely duo had a genuine chemistry in front of the camera, and their characters’ friendship seemed (at least for the time) to be based on mutual respect.
Perhaps the best example of Moreland rising above his straight-jacketed screen persona came in Monogram’s 1941 horror outing King of the Zombies. He once again plays a servant to the film’s nominal lead (in this case, leading man Dick Purcell) when they and their pilot survive a plane crash on a remote Caribbean island where a sinister European doctor (Henry Victor, because the studio apparently couldn’t afford Bela Lugosi) is using both local Voodoo and his own hypnotism to create an army of undead subordinates.
This would have been just another cheap thriller from the era, had it not been for Moreland’s performance as wise-cracking, skittish valet Jefferson Jackson. His delivery of such lines as “I thought I was a little off-color to be a ghost” and “If there’s one thing that I wouldn’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them” is on a par with Bob Hope and Lou Costello in their similarly-themed The Ghost Breakers and Hold That Ghost, but the highlight is the scene where Victor hypnotizes Moreland into believing he’s been “zombified” (“Move over, boys,” a blank-eyed Mantan says to his new compatriots, ” I’m one of the gang now.”). Also, the film did have a pretty maid (Marguerite Whitten) for Jefferson to flirt with. King of the Zombies received an inexplicable Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (more about this Oscar oddity here), but if there had been any justice Mantan would have received a nom for Best Supporting Actor.
Another interesting role in the scare genre was a 1942 Universal entry, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. It’s a minor mystery with a dash of mad scientist thrown in (the title medico threatens to switch hero Patrick Knowles’ brain with that of a gorilla), and Moreland was once again the easily-scared manservant. But Mantan also has a comic gambling scene with a police detective played by once and future Three Stooges member Shemp Howard. Howard was impressed enough by Moreland’s on-screen skills that, in the early ’50s, he suggested him to brother Moe as a possible Stooge replacement, should the need arise. And when the need did in fact arise following Shemp’s 1955 death from a heart attack, Moe later recounted that he and Larry Fine approached the Columbia honchos about integrating the act by bringing in Mantan. It certainly would have been a bold move (yes, the Little Rascals and East Side Kids/Bowery Boys both had black members previously), but Columbia insisted the boys use in-house short subject regular Joe Besser.
When the Charlie Chan film series changed hands from 20th Century-Fox to Monogram in 1944, Moreland was tapped to portray the Asian sleuth’s chauffeur/right-hand man, Birmingham Brown. Appearing in all but two of the 17 Monogram Chan thrillers–starting with 1944′s Charlie Chan in the Secret Service and ending with The Sky Dragon in 1949–Moreland’s primary purpose in the films was to share comic relief with whichever one of Charlie’s sons was “helping” the detective this time out and to be frightened by the goings-on (“Talk? Mr. Chan, I can’t,” he said in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. ” I’m so scared I can hardly gulp!”). It couldn’t have done much for his self-esteem, but the Birmingham Brown character probably gave Mantan his widest exposure to the mainstream moviegoing public.
Throughout the ’40s Mantan would continue to perform in mostly uncredited roles in regular Hollywood fare, including comedies with Laurel and Hardy (A-Haunting We Will Go) and Abbott and Costello (Hit the Ice), usually as a train porter or janitor. Better parts came courtesy of the all-black cinema scene, where he would headline such films as 1942′s Lucky Ghost and 1948′s The Return of Mandy’s Husband, both of which reunited him with F.E. Miller and gave them a chance to present their stage routines to moviegoers. He was, in fact, so well-known to black audiences that he’d sometimes get his name in the film’s title, as in Mantan Runs for Mayor and Mantan Messes Up from 1946.
The coming of the 1950s, however, meant the beginnings of a shift in America’s attitudes on race, and the subservient characters played by such actors as Willie Best, Stepin Fetchit and Moreland were falling out of favor with both blacks and whites. Mantan would spend the next 15 or so years performing in nightclubs and on the stage (he played Estragon alongside Rex Ingram and Geoffrey Holder in an all-black Broadway version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1957), and he also released several adults-only comedy “party records.” The ’60s gave Moreland’s career a small boost, with minor roles in such films as Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy and Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing, as well as the oddball horror outing Spider Baby and Melvin van Peebles’ satire Watermelon Man. He also got to appear on TV in such groundbreaking programs as Julia and The Bill Cosby Show. Age and chronic illnesses (including a stroke in the early ’60s ), though, were catching up to Moreland, and after making his final film appearance in the softcore comedy The Young Nurses for producer Roger Corman’s New World company, the comic died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.