The image of the African-American in Hollywood movies has been one that has thankfully evolved over the century in which film has been a viable entertainment commodity. It is no secret to anyone with a knowledge of film history that is based upon more than the IMDB Top 250 list that blacks were subservient at best and ridiculed at worst. The average appearance by a black actor in Hollywood for the first half century and more meant playing the comic relief or a servant or villain based primarily on the color of their skin. Actresses usually got the role of the maid, while most black males were reduced to playing slow-witted, slow-moving targets of often offensive stereotyping. Usually these performances relied on bulging eyes and a persistent undertone of cowardice and laziness. Most of these performances are considered an embarrassment to African-American film scholars and moviegoers today and this type of comedic role is typically categorized under the name of its foremost exemplar: Stepin Fetchit. If you are the type of the person who craves more from the airing of movies on television than just repeated viewings of Pirates of the Caribbean or a recent Pixar movie that is actually being used as a 2 ½ commercial for the upcoming Pixar movie, then you may tune in to Turner Classic Movies regularly. If so, then you realize there have been plenty of other actors besides Stepin Fetchit who were forced to wade into the shallow waters of this type of sad stereotype if they wanted to have a career as an actor. Most have been forgotten because they could not break free from the mold and establish themselves as unique. One actor that did manage this triumph was Manton Moreland.
Such was the distinction of Manton Moreland that even those who take part in the message boards on IMDB are not only familiar with him, but intimately aware of his long career. Manton Moreland made his film debut, as far as anyone knows, in a bit role in a 1933 ghost spoof called That’s The Spirit. His last performance was in The Young Nurses in 1973. His long career was spent mostly in very low budget B-movies, and often in Z-movies. With a scratchy voice not unlike Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Jack Benny’s sidekick, and an obviously keen mind and sharp wit, it did not take long for Manton Moreland to rise above the plethora of his peers. While he did begin as the bug-eyed and easily frightened comic relief he eventually became much more. In fact, in the overwhelming majority of films that Manton Moreland appeared in he was easily the most memorable character. The key element in Moreland’s ascendance over his fellow Stepin Fetchit types, including Stepin himself, was his extraordinary ability to spin a relatively unoriginal line of dialogue so that it seemed to be infused with a bare minimum of two levels of meaning. In King of the Zombies, for instance, following a plane crash that leaves the cast deserted on a voodoo island Moreland wakes up in a graveyard. He briefly considers the possibility that he died in the crash and is overjoyed to discover he is very much alive at which point he delivers a line so fraught with the potential for disaster that it probably would have been low point of the film in the hands of a lesser actor. In the masterful hands of Moreland, however, the line not only is funny, but has resonance that both admits and questions the issue of race: “I thought I was a little off-color to be a ghost.”
Mantan Moreland finally made to the big time with his role as Birmingham in the later entries in the Charlie Chan franchise. The Chan series was declining by this point thanks to weaker scripts and the replacement of Warner Oland with Sidney Toler in the lead role, and the addition of Moreland as a recurring character really pumped new life into the franchise. Even better, the character of Birmingham was essentially that of partner to Chan in that he helped in solving the cases, though usually through comic and unintentional means. Moreland was not allowed the same dignity as the white actor playing the stereotypical Chinese detective, but it can be argued that he earns more respect precisely because he was able to use this opportunity to rise above the more stereotypical roles he’d been playing. It has been commented upon on many occasions, in fact, that the single most memorable scene in any of the Charlie Chan movies from this period takes place between Moreland and his old vaudeville partner Ben Carter. The scene is directly lifted from their vaudeville act that featured a standard bit known as the “infinite routine.” Here is brief passage from the scene that takes place in The Scarlet Clue as Birmingham and one of Chan’s many sons are pursuing information about the murder when Moreland and Carter meet in a hallway:
“Why if it isn’t …”
“Ben Carter’s the name.”
“Yes, and I haven’t seen you since …”
“No, it was longer than that. Last time I saw you, you were …”
“Well, I’ve lost weight! And you lived in …”
“No, I’ve moved to …”
“That’s a bad neighborhood. How can you live there?”
The structure, as you can guess, is based upon the idea of incomplete thoughts and sentences that nevertheless result in the complete transmission of communication between the two. This scene actually goes on like this for another minute and it is simply hilarious and brilliant. As brilliant in its own way, really, as “Who’s on First?” Making it all the more impressive is that in addition to the humor of the scene it also exists on a level of sociological inquiry. Any white person who has spent considerable time within the African-American communities can attest to the fact that blacks appear to be more at ease in the arena of social interaction than whites. Entire standup routines have been built around the concept that all African-Americans seem to know one another while whites, in stark contrast, have traditionally been hung up on rigid forms of communication etiquette. While white European societies brought their highly formalized means of introduction and rules regarding social conduct to America, social organization within black culture appears to still be based on the substantially less formal means of interaction developed during the long, embarrassing era of slavery. It is not true, of course, that all black people know each other, but there is certainly an element of truth within the infinite routine that communication between two black strangers or two blacks who haven’t seen each other in a long time is not only more relaxed, but better facilitated than through the still ceremonial trappings of communications between whites in the same circumstance.
Oddly, if not ironically, it was the Civil Rights Movement that nearly brought an end to Manton Moreland’s career. The image of the Stepin Fetchit character was deemed offensive and those actors who made a living playing these roles were unfairly castigated as Uncle Toms and worse. White audiences were no longer so inclined to laugh at the racial stereotypes inhabited by Manton Moreland and the rest and since Hollywood rarely allows actors of any race to break free from their mold, Moreland’s style of comedy was declared dead and extinct. From 1949 to 1964 Moreland appeared in only one TV show and not a single movie. He popped up occasionally in B-movies and TV shows during the late 60s and early 70s before passing away in 1973. The legacy he left behind, however, disproves the conventional wisdom that there were no great black actors regularly working Hollywood before Sidney Poitier came along. Manton Moreland belongs up there in the pantheon of Hollywood’s funniest men.