Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Up in the Air" makes Mantan Moreland fall flat

It's been a while since I've written about 1940s film star Mantan Moreland -- but I've been watching his films all along. I've always been impressed with not only how good his performances are, but how much they played against the racial stereotypes of the day.

In many films for poverty row studio Monogram Pictures, he was teamed with Frank Darro. Like Abbott and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy, the two played the same basic characters time and again. Frank was the young man always full of energy and ambition, impetuously plunging head-long into trouble (or sometimes danger).

Mantan Moreland was the level-headed one, always expressing misgivings about Frankie's ideas, and only participating reluctantly and when forced. Often such African-American characters were portrayed as lazy -- but Moreland never gave that impression. His character wasn't lazy -- he just wanted to avoid trouble. And often Frankie's hare-brained schemes worsened rather than improved his character's situations.

These are films of their times, however. Darro always addresses Mantan's character by his first name (usually Jeff, short for Jefferson). Mantan always addresses Darro as "Mister Frankie." Their characters may be friends, but they're not equals.

Mantan Moreland had been active in vaudeville before moving to pictures. He and his vaudeville partner Ben Carter brought one of their routines to the screen. Since many B pictures (such as virtually all of Monogram's output) was only screened once, popular routines could be recycled. As was the case with "Incomplete Sentences." This running gag relies on split-second timing and delivery to pull it off.

It appears in a few of Mantan's 1940s films, almost always in dialog with Carter. But then there's "Up in the Air."

This 1940 film, a murder mystery set at a radio station, is on par with other Moreland/Darro pix. The plot moves along briskly, the competent cast of character actors is doing a credible job. Moreland and Darro are playing their respective roles.

And then comes the unfortunate -- and unnecessary -- scene at 31:41. That's when Darro and Moreland audition for a spot as a comedy duo for a radio show. It's Mister Frankie's idea, of course. They do the "Incomplete Sentences" routine, with Frankie Darro speaking in "dialect." And worse yet, in blackface (so effective on the radio).

Of course, it's horribly racist, and incredibly insulting to Mantan as a performer. But it's also illuminating. Because to me, the skit falls flat. Darro just doesn't have the comedic chops to hold up his part. The timing's off, and I get the sense that the actor had to concentrate so much on delivering his lines in "dialect" that his attention to timing slipped.

I still enjoy watching Mantan Moreland perform in these old movies. But this film really brought home just how little say black actors had in Hollywood in the 1940s -- even with their own material. I can only hope things are different now.

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