Saturday, March 5, 2011

'On the Spot' is where gangsters drop dead

Given the thoughts that occurred to me while writing this review, this turned into a bit of a hold-over from Black History Month.

On the Spot (1940)
Starring: Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland
Director: Howard Bretherton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After two gangsters are gunned down at the soda counter in a small-town drug store, the only witnesses to the crimes, a soda clerk and a hotel porter (Darro and Moreland), become the focus of both media and gangland attention when everyone becomes convinced they know the location of loot from a bank robbery. They take it upon themselves to identify the mysterious killer before they become the next victims.

"One the Spot" is a light-hearted mystery flick that is worth watching these days for the look it provides into race relations of 1940s mainstream America. On the one hand, there is a casual, unconscious racism directed at Mantan Moreland's Jefferson character by the reporters and gangsters, but on the other hand, there's no such attitude from his friend Frankie the soda clerk and wanna-be scientist. Yes, Frankie bosses Jefferson around and puts him in danger, but that has nothing to do with Jefferson's skin color. You have the sense that Frankie would treat Jefferson the exact same way if he was white.

This relationship between Darro and Moreland's characters is actually a common one for the films they made for Monogram Pictures; they made enough together that one can almost label them a "comedy duo" (if someone hasn't already). The two invariably portray characters who are friends rather than employer and servant, as was usually the case when a black character appeared in a mainstream movie of the time. Moreland's character keeps getting into trouble thanks to Darro's hairbrained schemes and dreams for success he has for both of them, but they soldier on together due to the mutual loyalty. For all the rampant racism that supposedly existed at all levels and in all facets of American society, it's an interesting pair of characters.

I admit to being too lazy to anything but the most casual of research into Moreland, Darro, and their roles at Monogram, but even a simple reviewer such as myself can see that Moreland was treated with a level of respect by the studio's marketing department that few black actors in the 1930s and 1940s enjoyed: He often had equal billing with white co-stars on posters, and he was always listed high on the cast lists. Monogram clearly valued him as a comedian and an audience draw, but I also wonder if someone at the studio wasn't trying to change race attitudes through popular culture.

That said, though, this film does feature Mantan Moreland in the sort of role that made small-minded people sneer at him during the 1960s. Jefferson hewers closely to the stereotype of a not-too-bright, superstitious black man who is a afraid of everything, including his own shadow. It's a character that was something of a signature for Moreland--and one that was a comedic staple even in films made exclusively for black audiences--and when he portrayed this character type, he was quite funny. In some Monogram films, Moreland's character is actually smarter than the white main characters, with "King of the Zombies" being a perfect example of this.

Beyond the look at how race was approached in B-movies in the 1940s, "On the Spot" is moderately entertaining so long as you don't think too hard while watching it. The jokes are mostly amusing, and the supporting cast is made up of talented actors. The biggest problems with the film is the fact that it's a one-suspect mystery, although I give filmmakers credit for playing fair with the audience by establishing that one suspect with evidence put before the viewers early in the film; and the fact that the mystery could have been mostly solved if the reporters and the law enforcement officials in the film weren't among the dumbest such characters to ever appear on the silver screen. And ultimately, the killer isn't much smarter, even if the plan that brought him to the small town was pretty ingenious. (In fact, it was so clever that it almost warrants a movie unto itself, if it hasn't been done.)

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