Mantan Moreland

Active - 1937 - 1973  |   Born - Sep 4, 1901   |   Died - Sep 28, 1973   |   Genres - Comedy, Mystery, Musical, Crime, Drama

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Appropriately nicknamed "Google Eyes" by his childhood friends, African-American actor Mantan Moreland joined a carnival at 14 and a medicine show a year later - and both times was dragged home by juvenile authorities. Most of Moreland's early adult years were spent on the "Chitlin Circuit," the nickname given by performers to all-black vaudeville. After a decade of professional ups and downs, Moreland teamed with several comics (notably Benny Carter) in an act based on the "indefinite talk" routine of Flournoy and Miller, wherein each teammate would start a sentence, only to be interrupted by the other teammate ("Say, have you seen...?" "I saw him yesterday. He was at..." "I thought they closed that place down!"). Moreland's entered films in 1936, usually in the tiny porter, waiter and bootblack roles then reserved for black actors. Too funny to continue being shunted aside by lily-white Hollywood, Moreland began getting better parts in a late-'30s series of comedy adventures produced at Monogram and costarring white actor Frankie Darro. The screen friendship between Mantan and Frankie was rare for films of this period, and it was this series that proved Moreland was no mere "Movie Negro." Moreland stayed with Monogram in the '40s as Birmingham Brown, eternally frightened chauffeur of the Charlie Chan films. The variations Moreland wrought upon the line "Feets, do your duty" were astonishing and hilarious, and though the Birmingham role was never completely free of stereotype, by the end of the Chan series in 1949 Monogram recognized Moreland's value to the series by having Charlie Chan refer to "my assistant, Birmingham Brown" - not merely "my hired man." Always popular with black audiences (he was frequently given top billing in the advertising of the Chan films by Harlem theatre owners), Moreland starred in a series of crude but undeniably entertaining comedies filmed by Toddy Studios for all-black theatres. The actor also occasionally popped up in A-pictures like MGM's Cabin in the Sky, and worked steadily in radio. Changing racial attitudes in the '50s and '60s lessend Moreland's ability to work in films; in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, a frightened black man was no longer considered amusing even by Mantan's fans. Virtually broke, Moreland suffered a severe stroke in the early '60s, and it looked as though he was finished in Hollywood. Things improved for Moreland after 1964, first with a bit in the oddly endearing horror picture Spider Baby (1964), then with a pair of prominent cameos in Enter Laughing (1968) and The Comic (1969), both directed by Carl Reiner. With more and more African Americans being hired for TV and films in the late '60s, Moreland was again in demand. He worked on such TV sitcoms as Love American Style and The Bill Cosby Show, revived his "indefinite talk" routine for a gasoline commercial, and enjoyed a solid film role was as a race-conscious counterman in Watermelon Man (1970). In his last years, Mantan Moreland was a honored guest at the meetings of the international Laurel and Hardy fan club "The Sons of the Desert," thanks to his brief but amusing appearance in the team's 1942 comedy A-Haunting We Will Go (1942).

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