On this day in comedy on September 3, 1902 Comedian, Actor, Mantan Moreland was born in Monroe, Louisiana.
The adolescent runaway joined a minstrel show in 1910. By 1920 Moreland was a veteran performer of vaudeville, Broadway and had toured Europe. His film debut took place in a “race film” (which he did many), but it wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned and he was signed to Monogram Pictures and a co-starring contract to play in action pictures opposite Frankie Darro then transitioned into the role of detective Charlie Chan’s chauffer, Birmingham Brown.
In a career that included appearances in over 300 films, Moreland chiefly appeared as shoe shine boys, waiters and porters. Mantan’s physical trembling and eye bulging whenever danger was about earned him a reputation as a premier big screen funnyman. He also worked the Apollo Theater with partner, Ben Carter and was known for the routine called the Incomplete Sentence where Moreland played straight man. It involved the two comedians cutting each other off in mid-sentence in an attempt to top the other one. “Say, did you see…?” “Saw him just yesterday…didn’t look so good”. When Carter died in 1946 Mantan found other partners to fill the void, such as Nipsy Russell.
Work began to dry up for Moreland in the 1950s with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and Hollywood’s forced re-assessment of black images. Moreland along with others were considered negative stereotypes to be avoided. In 1953 he hosted a short-lived variety show on TV called “Club Mantan”, but as I said it was short lived. In 1957 he appeared in a black production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as Estragon (Gogo) on Broadway to rave reviews, but it didn’t matter. The industry was soured on Moreland’s kind.
One bright spot in that decade was in 1955 when Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges died (unless you were a Howard). There was serious talk of replacing Shemp with Mantan, but obviously that was only serious talk. So it was back to the chitlin circuit for Moreland. He recorded a few XXX party records; one where he popularized a bit called “Ain’t My Finger (the routine revolves around two people in bed and one says to the other to stop playing and ‘get your finger away from my butt’, at which the other replies ‘I ain’t playing and that ain’t my finger.’) The gag was so popular it was sampled by the Beastie Boys and reference on the animated show “Archer”, but mostly it was just a lot waiting for something to happen for Mantan.
It got to the point where in 1959, Moreland made an apology for what he’d done. Going on record he stated he would “never play another stereotype, regardless of what Hollywood offers. 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…Millions of people may have thought that my acting was comical, but I know now that it wasn’t always so funny to my own people.”
This apology also didn’t matter. His career languished for decades. Mantan suffered a stroke in the early 60s, but survived and found whatever work available in a slight resurgence as older generations began to forgive and the newer generation had no knowledge. He was seen in TV commercials and a couple of low budget horror films, but the resurgence was not to last. On September 28, 1973 Mantan Moreland died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: