Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“It ain’t Gene Krupa!” – Mantan Moreland and ‘King of the Zombies’

What would they have thought - any of them - if they had only lived to see it?
A few years ago, the first six films in the Monogram Charlie Chan series were issued on DVD in a box-set delightfully named Chanthology. The most eye-opening thing about it, besides the delicious quality of the prints (yes, Monogram product gleamed and shone like any other movie on its first run: they didn't always look like they were photographed through the perforations of wet lavatory paper and sound like they were overdubbed in the kitchen of a fish and chip shop), was the bizarre fact that via some long, winding and deeply ironic path, the copyright on them has devolved to MGM.
What two studios could have been further apart! What would Monogram have given, what would they have paid, simply to have these films appear, as they now do, with the MGM lion roaring approval at the start?
All that effort, all that frustration, all that envy... swept away by the ignorant caprice of copyright law and the oblivious sieve of time. Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you... They say that if you have enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time, then eventually Monogram Charlie Chan films will be brought to you from MGM.
The box-set gave us a much-needed chance to re-evaluate these films, which suffered even in comparison with the Fox Chans. Few bodies of cinema have been subjected to such foolish and ignorant criticism as the Chan series generally, but these were movies that even Chan fanatics looked down on. The truth, as Ken Hanke's definitive study of the series bravely pointed out, is the Monochans are different from the Fox titles, but by no means negligible.
For many who dismiss the films, chief bone of contention - above and beyond Chan himself - is Monogram's decision to give make a regular character of black comic relief Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, who keeps improbably running into Chan before eventually becoming his chauffeur.
You don't need me to tell you why Moreland is frowned upon by many today; but perhaps you may need reminding that he is terrific: a superb, intuitively funny actor, one of the great character actors, and comic actors, of his day. He needs no whiny defence or contextual justification: the man is hilarious. Okay, he is never allowed outside of the groove specifically carved for the black supporting actor, but we all know that.
Now look at how good he is.
Ironically, perhaps, Moreland was included not to alienate but to attract black audiences: his presence insured the films major release-status in Harlem and other predominantly black territories, where he was hugely and rightly popular. Like Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson and other controversial black comic actors of the period, Moreland has a divine comic sense and an enormously likeable screen presence; he always makes the most of what he is given, and he is often given room to do a comic party piece.
As they go along, the films increasingly incorporate authentic ethnic comedy scenes, where Moreland and another black performer do some variation on one of his stand-up routines, notably the old chestnut where he asks the other guy a question and then responds before he has a chance to answer but in full awareness of what the answer is.
(You can see him do this in a stage setting with Nipsy Russell in a wonderful compilation of black variety acts called Rhythm and Blues Revue which, though shot as late as 1954, begins delightfully with him peering around the curtain and calling "Mr Chan! Mr Chan!" He does the same routine almost word for word with Ben Carter, playing his brother Ben, in the Chan film Dark Alibi.)
Willie Best, whose involvement with the Chans goes back to the early days of the Fox films, also shows up a few times in the Monograms, either as Birminghham's brother Chattanooga, deputising when Moreland was elsewhere, or even, in Shanghai Chest, as 'himself': Moreland meets him in jail, where he is being held for loitering. (He later explains that he was loitering in a bank at midnight.) Best is certainly talented, but Moreland is the fresher, more inspired performer, and Monogram very soon realised that if they left him to do pretty much what he wanted everyone would benefit. These vignettes have the feel of authentic black nightclub humour for which the film stops to make room: these are scenes for black audiences to laugh at, not to enable white audiences to laugh at blacks. It's a reminder that Monogram were canny enough to recognise the Harlem audience was one worth catering to.
Moreland takes centre stage in the Chan films with evermore authority and assuredness as the series goes along. The Golden Eye - boasting some very funny business with him dressed as a cowboy and trying to close an overstuffed suitcase - even ends with him walking up to the camera and talking to the audience, while Chan and the rest assume fixed positions in the background.
In addition to the Chans he was also teamed regularly with Frankie Darro in a series of action adventures: Moreland worked all over in forties cinema, but it was only really Monogram that gave him the star treatment he deserved.
Moreland is at his very best in King of the Zombies (1941), a Monogram horror that, if it had only starred Lugosi as was originally planned, would probably today be regarded as one of the most professional horror pieces the studio ever turned out.
Moreland is certainly the chief attraction in the movie as it comes to us today (especially since the Lugosi role was given to the geezer who played the strong man in Freaks) but if the film has one claim to fame above all it is that it was, bizarrely and inexplicably enough, Monogram's only Oscar-nominated horror film.
Technically it was not their only Oscar-nominated film. The screenplay for their controversial life of Dillinger got a mention, presumably because of the controversy (nothing changes), and since the company known as Allied Artists was merely Monogram renamed, then let us not forget that it was Allied Artists that made Cabaret. (How many people know that Cabaret was a Monogram movie, I wonder?)
But back in the forties, when the studio's films stood more chance of being melted down and made into mandolin picks than of getting any kind of award, the fact remains that Edward Kay's music score for King of the Zombies ended up being tapped for one of the little gold fellers.
There is no obvious reason for why this happened - it sounds like any other semi-adequate Monogram score and much of the film has no music at all - and there must be more to the story somewhere. But there it is.
Who read out the nominations that night? Imagine, oh I don't know... Loretta Young doing it, immaculate in pearls and floor length gown. "Edward Kay, for King of the Zombies..." and a polite ripple of applause from the floor. And then to lose out to some nobody called Bernard Herrmann! Like anybody ever heard of that guy again. There ain't no justice.
It's just one more odd thing about a deeply odd movie all round. As well as borrowing liberally from the previous year's Bob Hope film The Ghost Breakers, it also anticipates the central plot motif of '43's I Walked With a Zombie, to say nothing of the innovation of the flesh-eating zombie nearly thirty years before George Romero. ("It's the witching hour," says slinky Marguerite Whitten in her little maid's outfit, to the easily shaken Moreland: "It's their feeding time, and they likes dark meat!" Zombies don't normally eat anything - the film itself stresses this point - so Monogram really are blazing a new trail here.)
. Basically, Mantan and two boring white men crash their plane in the jungle and find that they have in fact landed in the middle of a graveyard. They walk a few feet to a mansion owned by a sinister German called Dr Sangre - sorry, strike that: a sinister foreigner called Dr Sangre (America weren't actually in the war yet.) To their amazement he knows before they tell him that their plane has crashed - not much happens on the island that he doesn't get to hear about, he explains, though the fact that they crashed the plane in his own garden probably gave him a bit of a head start on this occasion.
Sangre's wife mopes about the house in a perpetual state of somnambulism, and also mooching about is Joan Woodbury, here filling our hearts with joy by affecting a foxy little European accent, as Sangre's niece ("by marriage", she stresses.) Joan thinks the root of her aunt's trouble might be not voodoo but garden variety hypnotism, and so steals into the doctor's library one night to read up on the subject. Luckily, she finds a book called Hypnotism right where you'd expect to find it: next to a human skull and the doctor's trusty copy of of Columbian Historical Novels Volume XIII.
What we perhaps don't see coming is that as well as a necromancer Sangre is also a Nazi - sorry, I'm doing it again: a representative of a villainous foreign power - who is holding a US admiral hostage and trying to obtain military secrets from him. No thumbscrews for him: he intends using voodoo as a means of transmuting his soul into Joan Woodbury's body and getting the information out of her instead: it may not be a more reliable way of doing it, but he'll surely have more fun trying.
Joan's partly right - he does use hypnotism to make Mantan think he is a zombie, leading to some very amusing scenes where he bosses the other zombies about. So many potentially spooky scenes in this movie are allowed to play as comedy, purely to accommodate this wonderful performer: even the big horror climax cuts to a shot of him peering from behind a table. Don't let the billing deceive you: Moreland's the star of this show.
Incidentally, Marguerite cures him of his zombie delusions by giving him salt with his food. Because, as we all know, "if a zombie uses salt, he dries up and gets dead again." A bit like a slug. (Take note, Romero: much less messy than blowing their heads off.) One of the two white guys, however, gets turned into a zombie for real, but, this being Monogram, he's back to his old self by the end, despite being killed, buried, zombified and then shot at point blank range.
As usual, and as is only right, Moreland gets the last laugh: "If there's one thing I wouldn't want to be twice, zombies is both of 'em!"


Jinx said...

Brilliant! I've loved reading these articles, but Mantan Moreland made this one extra special for me. He was a comedy genius.

Erich Kuersten said...

I love that you used the Gene Krupa quote, because I sampled that line after a long drum solo on one of my old DJ Deprave tracks!

This post also reminded me of the brilliant way Moreland uses stereotypes to his advantage, i.e. there's a scene in an old basement where the white guys tell him to go find something or other and he refuses, citing he's too scared - but as soon as they're gone he's clearly not that scared anymore, as he just wanders around and makes jokes, so in his way, Mantan cleverly uses the white stereotypes to his own advantage, i.e. acting all Willie Best, like "I-I-I- c-c-cant go up there boss, Zombies!" and then kicking back with a cigar as soon as they leave. But when it's time to face danger he's pretty fearless.

It also really burns me up that scene where the dr. busts out the whiskey and doesn't give Moreland any, like sorry no black lips on my glasses. That burns me up all the way through the film

Matthew Coniam said...

Jinx -
Glad you liked it; couldn't agree more. I could watch him for hours.

Erich -
Yes; you hit on exactly the thing that makes Moreland stand out from his peers: it's like he's a performer, a turn, rather than a character; his changes of mood and attitude make no more sense - and need make no more sense - than those of the Three Stooges. One minute he's doing the black schtick, the next he's swaggering.
I think a lot of it is a reflection of his own confidence as a performer and an individual. These guys did well, and lived well, like Stepin Fetchit with his Rolls Royces and Chinese servants, but the miraculous thing about Moreland is that, unlike Fetchit, he was able to get some of that cockiness into the act: very unusual for the time, almost subversive, and like fresh air in this context.
A word of caution about that whisky scene however. I was equally shocked as you the first time I saw it, especially by the fact that the other two guys don't pipe up on his behalf. But then I stopped and thought... When it happens again in the subsequent scene (concerning where they are going to sleep) and Sangre says that if Jeff sleeps upstairs it would set a bad example to the other servants, I realised my error.
Part of the problem is that the film starts so abruptly, and never bothers to spell out the exact relationship between Jeff and the other two. (Tom Weaver in Poverty Row Horrors points out that it plays like the latest in a series of adventures for the three.) So I naively thought they were just three buddies of more or less equal status. What Sangre correctly assumes, and forties audiences would have correctly assumed without needing to be told, is that Jeff is a valet. And servants do not drink brandy.
In other words, a white butler would not have been offered any either. A black friend would. The latter is an unlikely prospect in a routine Hollywood film of the forties of course, but the point stands: such movies reflect the attitudes of a largely unthinking society, not a knowingly malevolent one.

On another note: I cant BELIEVE you used that fantastic Hopper picture in your post on Voodoo Man! I was going to as well! Curse you! Great post, however.

Hope you'll both stick around for the grand finale of Monogram Month: the Lugosi Marathon, up soon.