The Holy Mantan

Here we see a scene from the late Charlie Chan opus, MEETING AT MIDNIGHT. Comedy Negro Mantan Moreland (a sort of dark-hued Rodney Dangerfield in appearance) is rolling his eyes and acting spooked and generally doing all the things Comedy Negroes were paid to do, during the years Hollywood saw fit to represent African-Americans in this way. Moreland’s character is called Birmingham, which makes him seem a pretty straight rip-off of Eddie Anderson’s “Rochester” character.

“Are you not a nigger bloodhound?” asks Charlie Chan.

At which point I stop the film, rewind, and listen again.

“Are you not an eager bloodhound?” asks Chan. I think. It is genuinely hard to tell.

Anyhow, Moreland then goes on to say, “No, I’s too anaemic, why I’s practically pale,” so the film’s casual racism-meter rises to a standard 1940s setting anyway.

18 Responses to “The Holy Mantan”

  1. Have you seen Spider Baby ?

  2. Yes, but it’s been awhile…I’d forgotten MM was in that. Of course, director Jack Hill’s future lay in a different form of blaxploitation…

    Honorary mention should go to the excellent Clarence Muse — in Invisible Ghost he has a similar cheesy line, “I turned white as a sheet” or some such crap, but manages to say it in such a natural way that there’s not even a hint of humour. Muse seems to me adept at making good roles out of bad ones. It’s only his Frank Capra movies that reduce him to unfunny stereotypes.

  3. Wow Bob Wow. That last guy is particularly surprising.

  4. Never got ’round to seeing the “Wonderful World of Post-Modernism” number until now. Thank you, David.

    Perhaps it should be played back-to-back with this …

  5. Thanks Chris. I was going to link that in.

    Jero is a major phonom. He’s a black american kid (Jerome White is his name) with a Japanese grandmother. Her dying wish was that he learn “Inka” — the classic Japanese ballad form. And so he did. And so he’s become the biggest thing to hit Japan EVAH.

    What’s funny about the video, and his act, is that he appears in hip-hop garb, only to stand stark still and sing these soulful ballads.

  6. I still like the idea of James Hong’s juvenile Al Jolson routine best. A Chinese-American impersonating a jew in blackface. God bless America!

    Does Jero dress like that because the Japanese expect it of him, since he’s black, or because that’s how he dresses normally? Either way, it’s surreal and charming.

  7. He dresses like that for theatrical effect. Here he comes roaring down the street with his “homies” then suddenlt he stands stark still and sings.

    He’s undoubtedly going to be on the big annual “Kohaku” TV show in Japan on New Year’s Day. I’m sure everyone can find it on one cable channel or another. It’s a huge event where every musical star in Japan performs a number. For many years all Japan stayed home to watch this show, but recently viewer numbers have dwindled. “Jero” will bring audiences roaring back.

  8. From Jero to Hero!

  9. I’d never heard of Mantan Moreland until I went to see Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and even then I assumed for some reason that he was a fictional creation, standing in for Stepin Fetchit or someone that I had heard of. “Mantan” didn’t strike me as a plausible name, I think. (And was quite in keeping, as a made-up name, in a film that also featured ads for Tommy Hilnigger clothing.)

    Later on, I found out a lot more about Mantan, in the course of looking up actors who played Pullman porters (he’s in The Mike Shayne mystery, Sleepers West, which is set on a train and features a lot of expert clowning by a gang of great black comics like Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones — let me know if you want to borrow a few Mike Shaynes, by the way).

    I came across an interesting quote by Mantan, from a newspaper article he wrote in 1959, when he announced that he “would never play another stereotype”. He said, “The Negro, as a race, has come too far in the last few years for me to dash his hopes, dreams and accomplishments against a celluloid wall, by making pictures that show him to be a slow-thinking, stupid dolt.” He went on, “I’ll work in movies any time they want me to play a role that shows me to be as intelligent as all the other characters.”

    Tellingly, he got only eight film roles in the next 14 years, all of which were bit parts.

    And you’re right: he really did look like Rodney Dangerfield!

    (PS – enjoying the Chans and the Motos, and I came across one particularly wonderful unsung Joe in the first Moto, which always makes a film that little bit more enjoyable…)

  10. Look forward to the Unsung Joe! The trouble with Mantan is that his style of playing doesn’t lend itself to playing other types — his cameo in Spider Baby isn’t that different to the nonsense he was purveying back in the 40s. And it’s not that different from Eddie Murphy playing an idiot in Bofinger. Comedy idiots are funny, but the political context they’re placed in can make them distinctly unfunny.

    Haven’t even heard of Mike Shayne, but I’m intrigued! Let’s try them on.

  11. “Mike Shayne” — that’s Michael Shayne, as in the Brett Halliday character played in several films by Lloyd Nolan?

    It might be worth noting that one of the early Raymond Chandler adaptations, a 1942 version of “The High Window,” was a tailoring for the Shayne character with the new title “Time To Kill.”

    This was roughly like the “Falcon Takes Over” version of “Farewell My Lovely,” only with Shayne as the fill-in-the-name detective.

  12. Sounds intriguing. If Diarmid has that one, I’d be specially interested. But I’m enjoying all these old “B” series, so I’ll try any of them.

  13. I’m trying to source Time to Kill from my black market sources, as it hasn’t been released on DVD. I’ve got four non-bootleg Michael Shayne DVDs that you can borrow, though, and also a bootleg of the first three Falcon films, which includes the Falcon Takes Over, the first ever Chandler screen adaptation. I’ll bring that along, unless you’ve already seen it.

  14. Sounds great. A bottle a vodka and three or four B-movie series films back-to-back once in a while isn’t going to hurt me.

    I’ve got one George Sanders Saint movie which looks very enjoyable, have to source more. These things are best when you binge on them.

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