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Mantan Moreland, Comedian - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2006

Ffilms starring Mantan Moreland on (re)Search my Trash

 

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In the 1930's and 40's, Mantan Moreland was perhaps the most popular actor and comedian in the movies, both with black and with white audiences - but in today's world of often misguided political correctness an actor/comedian like Mantan Moreland could - quite simply put - not exist anymore.

Mantan's roles were primarily servile characters like a chauffeur, a butler or a shoeshine boy, and his most popular routine was him going all jittery and wide-eyed in the eye of danger. Now I admit that all that can be seen as a racial stereotype, however if white comedians like Lou Costello or even Bob Hope did similar routines of breaking up in the eye of danger, nobody would raise an eyebrow over their depiction of white men ... and fact is that Moreland did these routines so much better. And when Mantan played a racial stereotype, one could always see the parody (of the stereotype, not of the race) shine through.

By and large, it is a mistake to reduce Mantan Moreland to his race, fact is he was an outstanding, natural comedian who would shine in every scene he was in, and could save many a bad movie from totally sinking - in fact, I can hardly remember the storyline of a cheapo like King of the Zombies (despite having seen it 3 times), but Mantan's attempts to mingle with the zombies ("Move over boys, I'm one of the gang now !") just cracked me up and are still fresh in my memory. Even in a comparably posh feature like Tarzan's New York Adventure, in which his screentime (in an uncredited role) is less than 2 minutes, his performance stands out.

 

But first the facts ...

Mantan Moreland was born in 1902 in Monroe, Louisiana, and legend ahs it that at the age of 12, he ran away to join the circus, and over the next few years, he toured the country with circuses and medicine shows. Eventually he found a place in Vaudeville, and later in Broadway all-black comedies, where he developed many of his routines that would later find their ways into his filmwork.

 

After a while, Mantan has become successful enough on stage that he no longer could be overlooked by Hollywood, and in 1933 he made his first film, the short That's the Spirit, where he and fellow vaudeville star Flournoy Miller portray two night watchman in a haunted pawnshop. However, the film as such is less horror and more a showcase for then current jazz musicians.

 

Mantan wouldn't catch on immediately with the audience though, in fact it wasn't until 3 years later that he got another small part in a movie, The Green Pastures by Marc Connelly and William Keighley in 1936 - one of the first mainstream films to include blacks in important roles.

And in 1937, he had another insignificant part in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-musical Shall We Dance (director: Mark Sandrich).

 

Mantan's first shots at stardom though were in a handful of movies targeted for an exclusively black audience (remember these were the late 1930's, when segregation - even in the darkness of a movietheatre - was still in effect).

In Westerns like Harlem on the Prairie (1937, directed by Sam Newfield) and Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938, by Richard C.Kahn) he plays second fiddle to Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo, who had a (short-lived) career as a black screen cowboy cast in the mold of then popular singing cowboys like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.

 

Herb Jeffries was acutally a singer first, a cowboy second, who previous to his short screen career, has been a singer with Earl 'Fatha' Hines, and in 1940, he left moviemaking again, to resume his singing career, this time with none other than Duke Ellington. In between he made the two above mentioned Westerns as well as The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939), both without Mantan. Curiously enough, even though he had been the star of these films, he's often miscredited as Herbert Jeffrey on posters and even int he credits.

The films were distributed by Sack Attractions, one of the few companies specialised in providing all-black films to all-black moviehouses, and even if these movies were dirt-cheap, even compared to white B-Westerns, they were somewhat entertaining movies.

 


Besides his work with Jeffries, Mantan Moreland made a few films for the black as well as the white film circuit, including another Western by Sam Newfield, Frontier Scout (1939), this time a film for white audiences starring George Houston and Al St.John a couple of years before they became the Lone Rider and Fuzzy in the popular PRC-series (many films of which also were directed by Newfield) [for an article on PRC, click here].

 


Mantan's real break-through (with white audiences) though came with Monogram's Irish Luck by Howard Bretherton, which teamed Mantan up with Frankie Darro [Frankie Darro-bio - click here] for the first time. Essentially, Irish Luck is a crime comedy in which friends and bellhops Frankie (daringly) and Mantan (reluctantly) solve a murder case in a hotel. Of key importance s that Frankie and Mantan act as friends here rather than Mantan being Frankie's subordinate, and in the finale, Mantan is instrumental in saving Frankie's life.

In Irish Luck, Mantan was given the role that he played best, that of the frightened guy stumbling over way too many corpses, so naturally, his performance is excellent, but the rest of the film is quite fine as well, with a script blending comedy and murder mystery with the greatest of ease, and former child actor Frankie Darro proving to have quite a talent for grown-up comedy roles. The movie must have been quite a success for Monogram as well, as it was soon extended into the Frankie and Mantan series of films, which all more or less followed the same formula as Irish Luck, but all managed to be likeable crime comedies.

 





 

The best of the bunch is probably Up in the Air (1940, by Howard Bretherton), in which Frankie and Mantan work as service personnel at a radio station who desperately try to pitch their comedy to the head of the station - but of course they once more stumble over a murder or two which needs solving.

Arguably the best scene is when Mantan and Frankie (in blackface and sporting a black accent) give their boss a taste of their comedy and do an infinite talk, a routine that Mantan had originally developed with fellow black comedian Ben Carter for the stage, in which one starts a sentence with other one interrupting him with a question before the first one has really said anything. Then the other one begins a sentence, and so on ...

 

example:

Moreland: "I haven’t seen you since…"
Carter: "Longer than that!"
Moreland: "Last time I saw you, you lived over…"
Carter: "Oh I moved from there."
Moreland: "Yeah?"
Carter: "Sure, I moved over to…"
Moreland: "How can you live in that neighborhood?"

...

 


Later, in the Charlie Chan-film The Scarlet Clue (1945, by Phil Rosen), another crime comedy set in a radio station, Mantan would repeat that routine, this time with original partner Ben Carter. Another variation on the routine also shows up in another Charlie Chan-film, Dark Alibi by Phil Karlson from 1946. Again, Ben Carter is Mantan's partner.

 

Unfortunately, the Frankie and Mantan series came to an end way too soon, after only 6 films in 1941 when Frankie was drafted for service in World War II.

 

Different from other studios who often treated black actors no better than cattle and often didn't even give them on-screen credit for their work, Monogram knew what a talent they had in Mantan Moreland. As a result he was not only given a billing high up in the films of the Frankie and Mantan series, Monogram also held on to Mantan after the series had come to an end. Instead they put him in a string of (rather unimportant, but often - intentionally and/or unintentionally - funny) films, many of which Mantan had to carry on his own shoulders - which he does with ease.

 





 

This string of films includes the foreign legion thriller Drums of the Desert (1940, George Waggner) starring Ralph Byrd, above-mentioned King of the Zombies (1941), Freckles Comes Home (1942) - which seems like yet another film of the Frankie and Mantan series, just starring Johnny Downs in the Frankie-role -, Law of the Jungle (1942, all three by Jean Yarbrough [Jean Yarbrough bio - click here]) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943, by Steve Szekely), which had Mantan co-star with horror legend John Carradine and cowboy star Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here].

 

At other studios, Mantan's work was less appreciated though. For his small but memorable role in MGM's Tarzan's New York Adventure (1941, Richard Thorpe), he wasn't even receiving an on-screen credit, and Universal only billed him ninth for his role in The Strange Case of Dr. RX (1942, by William Nigh), despite his role being the biggest next to lead Patric Knowles.

Other roles for major studios included 20th Century Fox' Laurel & Hardy-vehicle A Haunting we will Go (1942, Alfred L.Werker), RKO's The Great Gildersleeve (1942, Gordon Douglas), MGM's Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942, George B.Seitz) and Columbia's Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (1941, James P.Hogan) with Ralph Bellamy in the title role, to randomly pick a few. None of these films were terribly memorable.

 

Of more interest during this era might be Mantan's all-black features, like the haunted house comedies Mr Washington goes to Town (1941, Jed Buell) and Professor Creeps (1942, William Beaudine), in both of which Mantan again did his frightened man routine.

In fact he would become so popular with the black audiences that in 1946 two films would come out that would carry his name in the title, Mantan Messes Up (Sam Newfield) and Mantan Runs for Mayor.

 





 

In 1944, with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (by Phil Rosen), Monogram took over the Charlie Chan-series from 20th Century Fox, who had abandoned the series 2 years earlier, and they even got Sydney Toler back to do the lead. And to add some comic relief to the film, Mantan was hired to play frightened taxi driver Birmingham Brown, who constantly stumbles over corpses (something that Mantan was by now familiar with).

 


Mantan was so good in the role that he would return in the next Charlie Chan-film, The Chinese Cat (1944, Phil Rosen), and in fact he would become the only actor to stay aboard through the entire run of Monogram's Charlie Chan-series (being replaced in only 2 of the 17 films, Red Dragon [1945, Phil Rosen] and Dangerous Money [1946, Terry O.Morse], by Willie Best playing his cousin) - lead Sydney Toler died in 1947 and was replaced by Roland Winters, while Chan's various sons (and daughters) would appear and disappear like on a magic roundabout ... with eventually even number one son Keye Luke, after a 10-year hiatus, making a return to the series.

 

In 1949, the Charlie Chan-series came to a close, and Mantan's career was put on a hiatus. The reasons are manyfold:

- the classic B-movie (as in second feature, opposed to drive-in movie) quickly died out due to the advent of TV, and consequently many B-movie actors found themselves out of work,

- a change in political attitude made the funny black guy no longer compatible with the movie-going masses, what was once hilarious was now seen as demeaning,

- and finally, Mantan's health was failing at the time, which did not help much either.

 

With his film career gone down the drain, Mantan, once having regained his health, reverted to stage work, which basically meant back to being a stand-up comedian again. Mantan did appear in a few movies though, all musical variety films, like  Rhythm and Blues Revue, Rock'n'Roll Revue (both 1955) and Basin Street Revue (1956), which are all great collections of some of the finest black musicians playing live in Harlem's Apollo Theatre, with Mantan doing some comedy alongside Nipsey Russell, but the films were hardly significant for his career as an actor.

Of more interest during this time might have been his stage-performance in an all-black production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot from 1957, which I would give my right ar-... glove for having seen. So, if you have a time machine handy and need a right glove, let me know ...

 


Legend has it that in the mid-1950's there were talks about Mantan becoming a member of the Three Stooges, a replacement for the late Shemp Howard (with whom Mantan co-starred in 1941's The Strange Case of Dr. RX). However, Columbia wanted a white man for the role, so they hired Joe Besser instead.

 

In the 1960's, Mantan Moreland had something of a mini comeback. It all started with Jack Hill's Spider Baby or The Maddest Story ever Told, a very black horror comedy from 1964, where Mantan falls prey to Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] and his insane and lethal family. The film, which was not released until 1968, is considered a cult classic today.

More filmwork (though in small roles) soon followed, including Jerry Lewis' media satire The Patsy (1964) - which co-starred horror greats John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here] and Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], with Hedda Hopper and George Raft as themselves, and in bit-parts forgotten (B-)stars Chick Chandler, Don Brodie and Richard Bakalyan - and Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing (1967).

 


Mantan also had a part in 1970's Watermelon Man by Melvyn Van Peebles, a sort of psychedelic, even surreal comedy on racism. In this one, Godfrey Cambridge plays a white man who turns black overnight. Again, Mantan's role wasn't big, but at least he was there ...

 

Around this time, television also began opening up to black actors, and before long Mantan found himself in various supporting roles on various shows, including The Bill Cosby Show in 1970, an early (and actually quite amusing) show by black comedian Bill Cosby who later bored us all with his advice on good fatherhood repackaged as a sitcom from the mid-80's to the mid-90's.

 

Mantan's final film might be a good testimony as to what has become of B-movies in the 1970's, for better or worse..

The Young Nurses (1973, Clint Kimbrough) is a brainless sexploitation movie produced by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, a film not worthy of Mantan Moreland's talents - and he's not even the star of the film ... but quite honestly, many of Mantan's films were not worthy his talents, it was just one of his talents that he made them watchable.

 

In 1973, Mantan Moreland died from cerebral hemorrhage, and even though, he had a bit of a comeback in the 1960's/70's, his death went largely unnoticed. It seemed as if nobody even realized that Hollywood had lost one of its finest and most underrated comedians.

Nowadays, Moreland's humour seems terribly out of date, however seeing him entering another haunted house or stumbling over another corpse, one can't help but chuckle in anticipation. And the actor/comedian has yet to show him/herself who can shine even in the most atrocious scripts and use his/her comic talents to make even the most tedious B-movie worthwhile.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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