Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter

Movies of the 1930s and 1940s often featured black actors in secondary comic-relief roles, frequently playing racial stereotypes. I recently suffered through an extreme example of that in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935, reviewed here), which is a pretty bad movie all around, but sinks into the depths with its treatment of Stepin Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Perry made a career of playing an offensively stereotypical character often described as “the laziest man in the world,” but in his defense, his Stepin Fetchit character enabled him to become a major character actor and a millionaire and to receive star billing in film credits and advertising. His performance has sometimes been described as “subversive.” At the same time he was playing in Stepin Fetchit roles on the screen, Perry had a second career as a writer, notably for The Chicago Defender, an important African-American weekly newspaper. One of his friends was Will Rogers.

I don’t know that Perry was ever handed a worse role than in Charlie Chan in Egypt, where his character at one point says he had been “won” by his current employer in a card game. Said employer, who’s incredibly enough supposed to be a good guy, treats Fetchit like an abused animal, for example striking him for moving too slowly or hesitantly when forced to go first into a dangerous situation. On the other hand, since Perry’s character is also presented as likable, it’s possible he thought the scenes in question would disturb at least some white audience members and perhaps prompt some negative thoughts about racist mistreatment.

Later pictures in the series featured Mantan Moreland, another black comic actor, in a vaguely similar role as Chan’s chauffeur, Birmingham Brown. Moreland was regularly required to act comically scared and roll his eyes, but at least he was able to play more of an everyman character not necessarily worse than the comic sidekicks played by white actors. Two of the Chan movies, The Scarlet Clue (1945) and Dark Alibi (1946) featured a famous Vaudeville routine called “Incomplete Sentences” involving Moreland and his longtime Vaudeville straight man Ben Carter. Carter had his own film career that included roles in such well-known films as A Day at the Races (1937) with the Marx Brothers and the Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland.

The YouTube clip below excerpts the “Incomplete Sentences” scenes from those two Chan movies, and while they’re yet marred by some unfortunate elements of racial stereotyping, the routine itself is reasonably funny, with Benson Fong (as Charlie Chan’s son) and Sidney Toler (Chan) getting into the act as well.

(Having a white guy play a Chinese-American detective is a whole other subject that I won’t go into for now. At least the Asian characters weren’t subject to the same negative portrayal African-Americans endured.)

Finally, I apologize if anyone is offended by my posting the clip. As I said, it has its offensive aspects, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives, and Moreland and Carter deserve to be remembered as gifted comedians and comic actors. (Carter was also an excellent singer.)


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Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter — 5 Comments

  1. I’m actually reminded of Poul Anderson’s BRAIN WAVE. In that novel, Earth has left a zone of the galaxy where brain speed is retar— *ahem* reduced. The subsequent increase in human brain capability enables people to largely talk in a kind of shorthand, where they can figure out what’s not being actually said from the context of what is said.

    So one could argue that the “Incomplete Sentences” routine is subversive, in that the non-Negro characters look kinda *ahem* dumbstruck.

  2. Pingback: Review: Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935 movie) | D Gary Grady

  3. Not a bit offended! I’m proud of each and every Black Actor for any role they had to act to get on the silver screen and early tv. Today’s entertainers owe those who had to portray those humble roles! There are so so many people today’s Black entertainers owe to those who led the way playing those roles! Lincoln Perry, Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel,Louise Beavers, Lilian Randolph, willie Best, Beah Richards, Eddie Anderson, Nicholas Bros, Paul Roberson, Canada Lee, Freddie Washington, Josephine Baker, Little Rascals Stymie Beard, Sammy Davis, and others I wanna name but you don’t have enough space for their names and Oscar Micheaux who I really can’t leave out! I thank you all for what you gave!

  4. It sickens me when people look back in history and do not take into account the period and make judgements bases on today’s view of the world.

    Moreland was a comic genius and a star, getting second billing only to Toler in most of the Charlie Chan movies.

    There was nothing offensive or stereotypical about his shtick. It was the same one used by white actors of the time such as Moses, Samuel, and Jerome Horwitz and Louis Fienberg.

    Many of these elements he used in his stage routine on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Or sometimes known as black vaudeville tour.

    The only offensive thing is the way this comedic genius memory is denigrated by those who cannot recognize it and are looking to be offended.

    By the way, those white actors I mentioned earlier who used the same shtick as Moreland, their stage names were Moe Howard, Curley Howard, Shemp Howard and Larry Fine. Or more commonly known as the three stooges.

    • Historians have a term for judging the past by present standards: “presentism.” I pretty much agree with what you say about it here.

      I would add, however, that I don’t think it’s presentism as such to consider the reaction of modern audiences. Recently, for example, the literary estate of Dr Seuss withdrew from circulation a few titles, only one of which (And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street) most people have even heard of. The books in question contained illustrations or text that would be offensive to contemporary readers and are really not appropriate in books for children. (I personally would have preferred to see them edit the books in question to remove the offensive items rather than ending publication of the books entirely.)

      I included disclaimers about the Mantan Moreland scenes both to forewarn anyone who might be offended by them and to show respect for their point of view. But like you I don’t consider them inherently offensive.

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