The Black Comedian Who Was Almost One of the Three Stooges

The Black Comedian Who Was Almost One of the
Three Stooges There’s a good chance you’ve never heard
of Mantan Moreland. But, if you are lucky enough to have seen
him in a film—any film—you’ll definitely remember him. Moreland’s comic timing manages to transcend
the decades in films like King of the Zombies (1941), where he steals the show, saving what
would otherwise be a completely forgettable (and by now, probably long-forgotten) comedy-horror
flick. While changing attitudes about black roles
in film may have hastened Moreland’s fall from popularity, he’s finally being rediscovered
as the talented character actor and comedy genius that he was. Had history unfolded just a little differently,
Mantan Moreland would most likely have never become forgotten in the first place. In fact, he once came awfully close to being
cast as one of the Three Stooges (more on that later). In an era when segregation was in full swing,
the fact that he was strongly considered to be part of the internationally-known trio,
let alone be the choice of Moe and Shemp Howard themselves, speaks to his considerable talent
as a comedian. Cutting his teeth on the brutally competitive
vaudeville stage, Moreland honed his comedy skills doing several live shows a day. Vaudeville was a cutthroat business. With dozens of performers waiting in the wings,
any act that faltered for even a moment would be yanked—if not booed—off the stage. Former vaudevillians like Charlie Chaplin,
Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope owe their cinema stardom largely to the quick-thinking and
high level of professionalism required to make it big onstage. It worked for Moreland, too. His talent as a comedian on what was then
known as “the chitlin’ circuit”—the string of nightclubs and theaters deemed safe
for black comedians during segregation—soon led to roles in movies. Moreland’s earliest roles were in “race
films,” made with black actors for black audiences. His first screen role was as a night watchman
in a haunted pawn shop in That’s the Spirit (1933), followed by a small role as an angel
in The Green Pastures (1936), a retelling of Biblical stories as black American folklore
(Rex Ingram, Disney’s original choice for Uncle Remus, played “De Lawd”). Moreland was quickly moved up to supporting
roles in all-black westerns like Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and Two-Gun Man from Harlem
(1938), playing the comic sidekick to Herb Jeffries (better known as the Bronze Buckaroo,
America’s first black singing cowboy). Recognizing his talent, studios soon snapped
him up to play comic relief roles in mainstream movies (in other words, with white casts),
but his real break came when he was paired with Frankie Darro in a series of crime comedies. The two appeared in the films as porters,
bellhops, or pages who stumble across murder cases (hijinks, of course, ensue). While Moreland’s performances are stereotypical
of the era (he’s always the frightened one), the films represent a huge turning point on
the part of the studio: Moreland and his white co-star are depicted as friends and equals. A high point of the series is when he and
Darro recreate one of the bits that made Moreland a hit on the stage. The “indefinite talk” bit appears in Up
in the Air (1940), and pays homage to the routine he developed with Ben Carter, in which
the two would finish each other’s sentences. Like this: Moreland: “I haven’t seen you since…” Carter: “Longer than that!” Moreland: “Last time I saw you, you lived
over…” Carter: “Oh I moved from there.” Moreland: “Yeah?” Carter: “Sure, I moved over to…” Moreland: “How can you live in that neighborhood?” The series came to an end when Frankie was
drafted during World War II, but Monogram hung onto Moreland, recognizing him for the
amazing talent he had. Perhaps intentionally, he was featured in
some otherwise-lackluster films, injecting a healthy dose of humor where there would
have been none. King of the Zombies (1941) is perhaps the
best known, and nearly every single line spoken by Moreland is memorable, from “Move over,
boys, I’m one of the gang now!” to “If there’s anything I wouldn’t want to be
twice, zombies is both of them.” (You can watch the film here.) Moreland was somewhat less valued at other
studios, where he didn’t receive top billing, but his role in Universal’s The Strange
Case of Dr. X (1942) caught the eye of Three Stooges cast member Shemp Howard. The two appeared together in a gambling scene,
and Howard was impressed with Moreland’s comic timing. He suggested to brother Moe that Moreland
would be the perfect replacement stooge, should the need ever arise. Meanwhile, Moreland was cast as chauffeur
Birmingham Brown in Monogram’s series of Charlie Chan films. While “chauffeur” certainly doesn’t
sound like a memorable role, Moreland, as usual, made the character one of the most
memorable parts of the series. In fact, he was the only actor to stay on
board for the entire run, appearing in 15 of the 17 films. In two of the Charlie Chan films, Moreland
got to reprise his indefinite talk bit with original vaudeville partner Ben Carter. Both The Scarlet Clue (1945) and Dark Alibi
feature versions of the routine that made him famous, and the movies are worth a watch
if just for those segments alone. When the series ended in 1949, Moreland saw
less and less work. Some attribute his disappearance to the decline
of the B-movie in an era that was embracing television, but many historians and biographers
think it had more to do with changing political attitudes. Black men as servants and chauffeurs were
not seen as funny so much as demeaning. It didn’t help that Moreland’s shtick
was to play the skittish, frightened man—another stereotype. On the other hand, his performances always
seemed to transcend stereotype (and those who knew him said that the deep Southern accent
and the expressions were true to how Moreland really was). His scared-out-of-his-wits characters are
really not that different from the ones played by Bob Hope (see The Ghost Breakers, 1940). It’s easy to understand, though, why Moreland’s
scared routine sits a little uncomfortably today, especially as he plays a servant to
white men to boot—which is not something Bob Hope had to do. Remember Moe Howard’s suggestion that Moreland
would be a great Stooge if the need arose? The need did just that in 1955, with the death
of Shemp Howard. At a time when Moreland could have used the
work, the comedy team suddenly had need of someone with brilliant comic timing and plenty
of experience. Moreland biographer Michael H. Price talked
to Howard about just what a great idea it was: Mantan was responsive, when Larry (Fine) and
I talked the idea over with him. I mean, we’d all seen our better days by
that time, but ol’ Moreland, – now there was a talent that could’ a’ invigorated
the whole act! He had the word play – you ever heard him
do that ‘anticipation’ routine, where he and one or another of his partners finished
each other’s sentences? – and he had the physical shtick, the jive moves and double
take receptions that would’ a’ filled in the gaps when Jerome (Curly) and Shemp
had kept covered. The studio had other ideas, though, according
to Howard: But of course Columbia (Pictures’ management)
demanded a white guy, because they’d apparently been scared off of Mantan, and we ended up
with that prissy damned Joe Besser, who was whatcha might call a pain…I’ve always
thought what a great act the Stooges could’ a’ stayed for a while, if only we’d’
a’ gone with Mantan. And that was the end of that. Having appeared in over 300 movies in his
career, Moreland then only worked sporadically in the industry until his death in 1973 from
cerebral brain hemorrhage. His last featured role was as a doomed delivery
man in 1964’s weirdly wonderful comedy-horror film Spider Baby, and though the role was
small, in true Mantan Moreland fashion, it is not easily forgettable. He played a few more blink-and-you’ll-miss-them
roles, wrapping up his film career as a man almost run over by a motorcycle in the soft-core
film The Young Nurses (1973). Moreland made a few TV appearances on shows
like “Adam 12” and “Love, American Style” and released a few raunchy “party records”
on the Laff label, including That Ain’t My Finger (his “mashed potatoes” punchline
famously appears in the Beastie Boys song “B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak”). One thing Moreland never stopped doing was
the indefinite talk routine that originally made him famous, performing it up until the
last year of his life. Mel Watkins, a black comedy historian, noted
that to black audiences, it was as well-known a classic as “Who’s on First?” was to
white audiences. Once so famous that his films bore his real-life
name (Mantan Runs for Mayor and Mantan Messes Up, 1946), the actor is certainly not a household
name today. While he deserves rediscovery, one thing’s
for sure: if Columbia Pictures hadn’t been opposed to having a black comedian in one
of the most beloved comedy groups of all time, he wouldn’t have needed to be rediscovered
at all, and his name would have been sealed in mainstream comedy history. If you liked this article, you might also
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100 Replies to “The Black Comedian Who Was Almost One of the Three Stooges”

  1. This video was all worth it hearing Simon say, "B-boys, Making with the Freak-freak." with his thick accent. Oh, lordy.

  2. i wasnt watching the screen when you said he worked in a "pawn" shop and with your accent i heard "porn". lmao like damn that was a progressive studio for the time.

  3. I definitely remember him.I watched a lot of old films growing up.He had great natural timing,and delivery.
    Nice to bring up talented people who may not be known now.

  4. Along with the The Three Stooges, my father shared with me the Charlie Chan films and I loved Birmingham Brown. I was too young at the time to notice the racial components, I just thought he was funny. To think he, potentially, could have been a Stooge is truly amazing and something I would never have imagined possible.

  5. Earlier in the video, you state Shemp recommend him, as a worthy replacement Stooge to Moe. At about 5:30, you then said "Remember when Moe suggested he'd make a worthy replacement Stooge?".

  6. I seem to remember seeing a character that fits Moreland's description IN a Three Stooges short. He was the luggage guy on a train when a circus lion got loose and scared the shit out of him.

  7. I discovered the man while watching the Charlie Chan films. The routine of finishing each other's lines is incredible. The two men make it seem so effortless and fill it with emotion in the voice and on the face so it never feels fake. I really think everyone should find one of his films and check him out. Yes, he plays the bumbling, muttering black servant that doesn't seem to be too smart and is always afraid. His comic genius is still there and he still deserves to be seen and heard.

  8. I have seen many of Mantan Moreland's movies. I discovered him a few years ago and absolutely love him.

  9. "Separate but 'equal' " spawned an entire parallel society in America, that included virtually all professions. In additional to 'race' movies, there were things such as black owned banks, black run hospitals, black run businesses, even black run car dealerships (since many white dealerships refused to sell cars to blacks), etc. These blacks, interestingly were mostly Republican. The political whites, mostly Democrats, referred to them as 'uppity', as the Klan and progressive Darwinists (who believed the white Anglo-Saxon was epitome of human evolution) began to be uncomfortable with these blacks' success, despite the horrid racist environment that existed. This attitude still permeates in white American pop culture as evidenced by the ill treatment individuals such as Dr. Ben Carson, Justice Clarence Thomas, Allen West, Condy Rice, Steve Harvey, etc. by many factions since they deviate from what that white pop culture allows for the contemporary American black. A black radio show host, Kenny Hamblin, referred to the concept of these inarguably admirable American blacks as having left the liberal plantation, thus must be 'hobbled' in its current incarnation by that white pop culture. (Current example: Dr. Ben Carson one of the most talented pediatric neurosurgeons, is often referred as an 'idiot' and 'stupid', for his leaving the liberal plantation.)

  10. Awesome! I love Manton Moreland! He was one of the funniest actors ever.
    I first saw him in a Charlie Chan film, and actively sought out movies with him in them after that.
    Despite being cast in servant roles, he brought a certain sassiness to them that raised them beyond what would have been demeaning.

  11. I'll have to look deeper into his work. Another comedian who didn't get his fair shake was Rudy Ray Moore. The Human Tornado (aka Dolemite 2) deserves to be considered among the top comedies of the '70s, which is a formidable list.

  12. Uncle Reemus was turned into a very beloved song in 1970's rock music by the piano master George duke & the composer Frank Zappa, anybody who hasn't heard the song taken from the former slave Disney character Uncle Reemus should do a youtube search for "Frank Zappa Uncle Reemus " because it's a beautiful song that addresses the idiocy of racism via comedic lyrics over complicated jazz rock vamps .

  13. I'm surprised and actually quite disappointed that you didn't mention that he was actually in a few Stooges films.

  14. Had to look up Mantan. Hilarious!!!!!!!! As someone who grew up watching the stooges, he would have been so much better than Joe Besser or Joe DeRita!!

  15. If he had been made a part of the three stooges the blow back from the stereotypes you mentioned would of driven the three stooges into obscurity (kind of like the black and white minstrel show , which was very popular at the time it was made, but is now almost unheard of to everyone except historians of early television)

  16. It really is quite disturbing to realise the terrible way the studios and indeed the laws treated black people so recently. It just seemed so long ago in my mind that I did not realise it was actually only a few decades ago that this level of racism was legal and practised by so many in the industry. Thank havens things have moved on and people are now treated as equals; I know there will always be some racist people in the world, but generally speaking most people realise that skin colour is not an issue or a reason to treat someone differently.

  17. That's a really sad story. So many talents from that era are basically lost, and that Columbia threw him under the bus because he was black makes it even worse. It's cool that Howard and Fine thought that he would have made a great addition, given some troubles the group had had over the years. It's great to hear that people were seeing the talent and character beyond colour.

  18. I LOVE that guy! I always wondered who he was and what his story is. Cracks me up hard every time I see him in a Stooges episode.

  19. Fail on Columbia. Joe Besser, as popular as he was at the time, did not improve The Stooges comedy. It actually made them worse. Very sad.

  20. Would love to see a video on Claudette Colvin, one of the four women brought to trail re: Alabama bus segregation laws. She was arrested nine months prior to Rosa Parks (who did not participate in the trial). But history seems to have forgotten Claudette.

  21. Would love to see a video on Iva Toguri, aka Tokyo Rose. Brings tears to my eyes every time I read about her story.

  22. Interesting how the black person movie stereotype is the hardcore scary one, but also the scared one… just depends on the specific character.

  23. The reason Columbia Pictures didn't want Moreland is similar to the way movies now replace some characters with other races, such as the Ancient in Doctor Strange. They're concerned about their how the audience in their markets will accept it. Had they gone with Moreland there's a chance that they could have lost the southern market.

  24. OH… "haunted PAWN shop"… You British people with your confusing accents, I was about to Google that.. uh.. other movie!

  25. I always liked the Stooges and was pleased to find out that they weren't racist…didn't assume they were but considering the times it's cool to know that they were willing to give a talented black man a shot…

  26. I find your constant glancing at a script to the left of you extremely annoying. Thanks for the history lesson though. o.O

  27. I remember him. He was hilarious. It's a shame that the Democratic Party controlled Hollywood, keeping him from success.

  28. If memory serves, it's not spelled "Chtilin' Circuit". It was the "Chitterling Circuit". The pronunciation was correct, though.

  29. I liked those old Charlie Chan movies. Mantan Moreland and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson look like they could have been brothers.

  30. LOL, so…he was never really close to being a Stooge aside from a recommendation of Shemp "if the need ever arised", which it did three times.

  31. I know Moreland from (first) the Frankie Darro movies, (second) Spider Baby, and (third) the Charlie Chan series. Chan probably would have been higher on the list except that in my formative years it was hard to find those pictures because of other racial stereotypes.

    I'm trying to track down the origin of the catchphrase "feet, don't fail me now" in movies. I've heard it credited to Willie Best (in "Ghost Catchers" which you mention), to Mantan in some unnamed movie, and to Stephen Fetchit in a likewise unnamed movie. So far none of the "absolutely, certainly, everybody knows it" leads I've been given has actually turned out to contain the line. (Best, in fact, was a pretty respectable non-stereotypical performance; he played Hope's partner, not his employee, and was never over-the-top terrified like the trope is usually played out.)

  32. Those old-ass movies are mostly public domain, y'know. You could just play the clip instead of awkwardly trying to read it to us.

  33. You can blame it on Columbia' but they knew their audience. I mean have met white Americans not a lot has changed since this actors time and he is the tip of a gigantic iceberg

  34. This is why I love the YouTube, and the internet im general. You bypass the entertainment gatekeepers. I will be watching this man's films, and enjoying them!

  35. It's a mistake to compare treatment of blacks then to how they are treated now. You have to compare how they were treated prior to that time to see that it was progress. Put it another way, if you have a sequence 1,2,3, then 2 will look small if you compare it to 3 when it really is a big step up from 1.

  36. You did a whole video about an actor without showing a single clip of video. This didn't need to be a video, it could could have been just a web page.

  37. Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve known this for a while but the rest of the world needs to know. Thank you again

  38. MANTAN MORELAND is the greatest comedian/song/dance man to ever grace our silver screen……..thanks to YouTube we can relish his talent anytime we like……sorry, but i see MANTAN as a very talented man…….not a black man……….

  39. Ready to learn more fun facts about famous African Americans? Then check out this video and find out about The Black Babe Ruth:

  40. How could Shemp have predicted in the early 40s(When that DR RX movie was made)that there'd ever be a need for a replacement Stooge? I doubt the issue ever came up before 1946. That makes this story fishy!

  41. Joe Besser was disgusting. I can't think of anything more stomach churning than a fat and ugly man who thinks he's adorable. His childlike persona wasn't the slightest bit funny. It was just gross. Moreland sounds like he would have been a decent replacement for Shemp. And with that notwithstanding they either should have continued with only Moe and Larry as the two stooges or just ended the series altogether.

  42. I first discovered Mantan Moreland through the Charlie Chan movies. He was hilarious and always "stole the show." He would indeed have made a great Stooge. Thanks for keeping his memory alive.

  43. Mantan Moreland : "If I knew it was going to be this kind of a party, I'd have stuck my dick in the mashed potatoes" google it

  44. Mantan Moreland would have been ten times better than Joe Besser and Joe DeRita combined. He was a very talented man who was never really allowed to show what he was capable of.

  45. I have some Michael Shane detective movies from the 40’s (recommended) and Moreland was in one called Sleepers West. He stood out and definitely made his part his own. Cool video!

  46. Good job! I've long been a fan of Moreland's comic skills. One of the greats — and glad to see him well-remembered!

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