I was looking for a movie last night, something to entertain me during a light dinner when a woke up after an afternoon nap. Short staffing in my department meant I worked Monday on the early-early shift and will (probably) be on days the rest of the week, and that left me hungry and with a couple of hours to fill.
PB&J and beef consumme was ideal for hunger; searching around Amazon Prime Video, I found Up In The Air, a 1940 mystery/comedy set in the studios of a fictional radio network, starring a couple of personable minor players, plucky Frankie Darro and the lovely and talented Marjorie Reynolds (best known from a little duet you might remember dreaming of in Holiday Inn) as an ambitious studio page and a rising young singer, and, third on the bill, Mantan Moreland.
Who? --The introduction only deepened the mystery, as an African-American film historian spoke of Moreland's career, a rising arc from vaudeville through film, and lauded Monogram Pictures* treatment of him. Now I was wondering what I was about to see.
The titles rolled and it started out as a typical B-movie of the day: workmanlike photography, basic but adequate sets, decent acting, snappy dialog. Mantan Moreland shows up early, as a stereotyped-appearing porter, Jeff, playing second fiddle to Frankie, rolling eyes and all.
But there's altogether more to Jeff than meets the eye; he's revealed as a skilled piano player and the voice of caution in Frankie's wild schemes, with plenty of rewind-worthy lines; auditioning for a radio comedy spot opposite Frankie in particularly embarrassing blackface (that scene probably didn't age well even when it was brand-new), he asks in annoyance, "You don't expect me to do dialect, too, do you?" and is visibly relieved to be told, "No, you're the straight man." The entire bit they audition, a series of interrupted, unfinished sentences, was Moreland's own, and Darro struggles with the timing. The murder-mystery plays out in 1940s-Hollywood fashion, with Jeff and Frankie tangling with police detectives as they attempt to unravel the mystery, clear Reynolds, and possibly launch their own radio careers. Despite occasionally hokey dialog, Moreland sneaks in multiple zingers (his comedic timing is really remarkable) and even gets to foil the murderer in the end!
* Monogram was one of the "Poverty Row" B-movie studios, of which Republic Pictures is probably the best-known. Radio fans enjoy pointing out the prevalence of Hallicrafters radios in Republic films and this Monogram work is even more that way -- I think Bill Halligan may have pioneered advertising by means of "product placement." Mantan Moreland was a box-office draw for Monogram and they darned well knew it.
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