A man named “Birmingham”
August 30, 2013
My recent post about Eddie “Rochester” Anderson got me to thinking about another black actor of that generation — Mantan Moreland, who sometimes used the name “Birmingham” Brown. Moreland was born in Louisiana in 1902 and as a child repeatedly left home to look for work in circuses and other road shows. He eventually got into vaudeville, working the tanktown circuit, but also appearing on Broadway and touring Europe.
Like many actors with similar resumes, Moreland developed a lot of skills while he was doing that work, and he eventually put them to use on the screen, appearing in at least 130 movies and television shows, but mostly movies. He worked in so-called race movies (movies made by black producers for black audiences), in shoestring productions, and in major features, and he created his most indelible impression in the role of “Birmingham” Brown, chauffeur to the film detective, Charlie Chan, who ostensibly was Chinese, though he was played by Caucasian actors. The character of “Birmingham” Brown, like most of the characters Moreland played, perpetuated stereotypes about black people. Specifically, the bug-eyed Birmingham was afraid of everything and often tried to dissuade Chan from wading into dangerous situations. His entreaty — “Mistuh Chan! Mistuh Chan!” — became familiar to millions of moviegoers in the 1940s and to a later generation of television viewers when the Charlie Chan films resurfaced on the small screen. Of course, the portrayal of Chan himself was problematic in its own way.
The major properties Moreland appeared in included A Haunting We will Go, with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Cabin in the Sky, and See Here, Private Hargrove.
White filmmakers and white audiences were content for decades to take advantage of the willingness of black actors to play subservient or demeaning roles, but when the nation became uncomfortable with, or at least self-conscious about, that kind of comedy, many black performers had a hard time getting any work at all.
Mantan Moreland himself, along with many of his black peers, was conflicted about the image they presented while they were trying to establish themselves as entertainers and, not incidentally, make a living. Moreland, in hindsight, judged the epoch harshly, telling an interviewer in 1959 that he would “never play another stereotype, regardless of what Hollywood offers.”
“The Negro, as a race,” Morehead said, ”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.” After that, he did appear in a few movies and in television series including Adam-12, The Bill Cosby Show, and Love American Style.
When Moreland was touring in vaudeville, he often worked with a comic named Ben Carter, and the two developed a routine known as “incomplete sentence” in which they carried on a rapid conversation in which neither could finish a sentence. It required a firm command of the material and impeccable timing. Moreland and Carter brought the routine to the movie screen by way of the Charlie Chan films. You can see clips of the routine if you click HERE.