Last night I sat up for one of those midnight Z-movies I usually expect to help me catch some z’s long before the end. It was King of the Zombies, made in 1941 by Poverty Row’s underfunded Monogram Pictures and released six months before Pearl Harbor, so just qualifying as pre-War. Looking it up later on the IMDb movie website I saw that the humorous side of the horror was provided by Mantan Moreland — a name I’d seen under supporting cast credits in movie books before but without knowing anything about who he was.
This guy was an all-out riot and virtually made the film, especially but not solely in his verbal sparring with Marguerite Whitten. She called him “Honey Lamb” and other endearments while he was mainly interested in how well she could cook. A highly amusing and imaginative courtship this was. Moreland showed perfect timing and delivery of a line that spelt TALENT with a capital T-A-L-E-N-T. So it was with considerable disgust welling up in my gorge that I read the IMDb entry on him, containing a long commentary virtually apologizing for his existence. The patronising implication was that Moreland was a poor dupe of a vaudeville entertainer for the white folks in his early career (he was 40 when this movie was made) but after the arrival of modern, enlightened souls like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, did his best to make up for past sins before his death. What a load of crap! This kind of slimy, condescending backhanded pity from an ignoramus sticks in my gizzard. Talent alone is what makes a movie special, and performing so-called ethnic humor is a field perhaps more demanding than any other. Even –especially! — if it’s your own ethnicity.
If you doubt this, take a look at Tortilla Flat, based on the story by literary titan John Steinbeck and made the same year with all the most expensive talent of gigantic MGM at its command. I watched it today, in daylight hours. It was directed by Victor Fleming, he of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and starred acting heavyweights Spencer Tracy and John Garfield among others. By the way, should the original Hispanic settlers of the Monterey area feel grossly insulted on ethnic grounds that Tracy and Allen Jenkins (both with Irish roots), Garfield (Jewish), Hedy Lamarr (Austrian), John Qualen (Norwegian), Akim Tamiroff (Russian) even attempted portrayals of individuals from a foreign culture? To my mind, only veterans Frank Morgan and Henry O’Neill in relatively minor roles came away with much credit. Overall the casting, seen today, is fatal; Tracy in particular sounds like he had studied for the accent under Chico Marx. But they can get away with it because viewers who don’t know any better don’t care anyway; and those who do mostly shrug it off assuming it’s a sincere attempt at a worthy Steinbeck work. To think that probably a dozen genuinely entertaining flicks could have been made by Monogram or Mascot with the dough MGM blew on this!
Comparing the two films, and Moreland and Whitten with their fellow cast members I could see no way that they had demeaned their race by their sparkling performances. In fact, I strongly suspect their modern critics guilty of a craven cultural cringe. Comparing their sheer screen presence and talent with the Caucasian principals in the cast — Dick Purcell and John Archer — no genuine person of taste and discernment would believe they hadn’t swept the floor with them, the genuinely talented Joan Woodbury excepted. Political activists must deal with their own sense of shame and not project it on to artists such as Moreland and Whitten. King of the Zombies was rewritten and directed by Jean Yarbrough with the necessary quickie imperatives, but this tended to only add to the humor. For example, towards the end, “Mac”, the Dick Purcell character, stops four bullets at point blank range from the zombie master (Henry Victor). Then when John Archer is asked how Mac is, he answers fine “but those bullet holes didn’t do him much good.” It all made for an expertly done, hilarious romp that you don’t even see approached anymore.