Archive for the Willie Best Category


Posted in American Horror, Camp-Cheese, Mantan Moreland, Monogram Pictures, Nazis, Willie Best, Zombies on June 22, 2011 by Bill Courtney

1941/Director: Jean Yarbrough/Writer: Edmond Kelso

Cast: Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Mantan Moreland, John Archer, Henry Victor, Marguerite

King of the Zombies was a feature put out in 1941 by Monogram Pictures –later to become Allied Artist Pictures- which was part of a small group of studios known as Poverty Row, so called because of the low budgets they worked on. Monogram was noted for action and adventure fare and they may be best remembered for the Charlie Chan series that featured in some episodes black actor Mantan Moreland as Charlie Chan’s chauffer Birmingham Brown. Moreland appears in the silly but entertaining King of the Zombies and its sequel Revenge of the Zombies (1943). In King of the Zombies Mantan Moreland steals the show from the lame leads played by Dick Purcell and John Archer though his sometimes over the top portrayal of a bug-eyed and trembling manservant has garnered some pretty negative comments about the actor online. I touched on the usually negative roles offered to blacks in movies of this period (thank God that all the ‘hood’ and gangsta’ films of today have freed blacks from all these negative stereotypes) in an early post on the film The Monster Walks starring Willie Best (cast sometimes as Sleep-n-Eat, perhaps the worst name ever for a black actor) and I would like to touch on the topic a bit more but I will save that for the end of the post I guess. I will say that a connection exists between Best and Moreland and in that they both wound up buried in Valhalla cemetery in Hollywood. I don’t think Mantan’s grave was unmarked like Willie Best’s but I understand they are situated near one another.

The movie would really be forgettable to most everybody except fans of cheese cinema and zombie films enthusiasts and historians. Some people have noted correctly that the film is a stepping off point in some respects in the evolution of zombie movies from people being controlled by some sort of voodoo spell to the flesh eating monsters we have come to know and love since Romero’s 1967 ghoul-fest Night of the Living Dead. One new addition to the then zombie theme that does not appear to have existed prior to King of the Zombies is that the zombies are actual reanimated corpses. They are still controlled by a voodoo priest though in this case the voodoo priest is a white, Nazi, albeit his political ties are only hinted at in the barely pre-war film. Monogram did not want to offend the Germans or limit the film’s potential market and even made the bad guy, played by Henry Victor, an Austrian. I guess offending Austrians was okay. Another element that comes into the film that appears, again, to new to the zombie film formula is the idea that the zombies could be flesh eaters. The zombies never cannibalize anybody and the concept remains confined to the nervous jokes of manservant Jefferson Jackson (Moreland). I am not a zombie expert and while I do own the exhaustive ZOMBIE MOVIES: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE there is no real mention of these historically crucial matters in their review of the film.

The story takes place on a small island somewhere near the Bahamas where our heroes Bill Summers and ‘Mac’ McCarthy (Purcell and Archer) are forced to crash land their plane after a storm has blown it off course. It is a jungle island but as in the rule in any jungle movie where a plane has to crash land –even at night in a raging storm- the pilot will locate a clear stretch of land long enough and wide enough to land the plane with minimal damage to the craft. Also in the plane is the jittery and bug-eyed Birmingham Brown (Moreland) who stays in a terminal state of terror and unrest while the other two remain calm and collected at all times. Even when they realize they have crash landed in a graveyard it is only the nervous, superstitious manservant who feels any sense of dread. That dread is compounded when they have to stay in the house of Dr. Miklos Sangre –perhaps the most un-Austrian sounding name ever put to film- where poor Brown seems to be the only aware of the danger lurking around every corner. He soon becomes aware that zombies are being kept in the basement servent’s area where he has been trying to make some time with maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten). Zombies often appear to the sound of voodoo drums and lack any real makeup. Birmingham Brown himself believes he is a zombie –even though he can talk and make decisions on his own- and Moreland turns in some truly comedic moments. Also in the mix is the spooky manservant of Sangre’s named Momba, a witch (Madame Sul-Te-Wan, also buried in Valhalla cemetery near best and Moreland) who spends her time stirring up potions in a huge black kettle and mumbling incantations, Barbara Sangre who is under her evil husband’s spell and Sangre’s niece Alyce who wants to help our heroes escape the island and twart her uncle’s sinister plan of using his voodoo magic to gain secret military information from a captive US Admiral. I guess the film is maybe the first or one of the first to mix zombieism with Nazism which would become a strange sub-genre of zombie films later on.

I did not dislike the movie and while some of the roles by the black actors can seen as demeaning I really can’t say I was shocked or offended by anything. This is not the case for everybody and I read over some forums about the film where there was definitely some pent up aggression from all sides being vented. I guess I just don’t take it on that deep a level. Maybe I should but I don’t. I read angry reviews of the film that attack Mantan Moreland himself and call into question his dignity and self-respect. He did what he had to do at the time and you can watch the film and enjoy it for what is or you can get all angry at the injustices and inequities of life. And if you don’t know how you stand on the matter then I will post the entire film here, from the Internet Archives, and you can judge for yourself. Is the film a nightmare of ignorant racial stereotyping or simply Saturday afternoon Matinee fodder from an other time when life was not so perfect, like it is nowadays.



Posted in American Horror, Camp-Cheese, Gorillas-Yetis-Bigfoot, Willie Best on June 17, 2011 by Bill Courtney
There is not really much to say about this movie but I can give it a marginal recommendation if you enjoy bad movies or early cinema. I do, but I am aware that what I like is not everyone’s cup of tea.  It would have made it to my new Quikie category except for the fact that while watching the credits I noticed the name of Sleep ‘n Eat and recalled it from the days when I used to really read up on films. But we can go into in part two of this post. This film was made in 1932 and has all the trademark characteristics of a film shot in those days: stiff, melodramatic acting, terrible sound quality and poor music score, static photography (a scene often being shot for minutes from one camera angel), and loads of stereotyped characters. The film is supposed to be a remake of a 1927 silent film called the Cat and the Canary and is basically a whodunit that takes place in an old mansion over the course of one night during a thunder storm. After family members gather for the reading of a will left by the estate’s owner, an eccentric scientist, tensions develop amongst some of the family and staff who feel cheated because the man’s daughter, Ruth Earlton (Vera Reynolds) has basically received the entire fortune. Most upset is the deceased man’s invalid brother  Robert Earlton (Sheldon Lewis) who is receives only the assurance that he can still live in the house and get care,  and his staff Mrs. Krugg and her sinister son Hans (Martha Maddox and Mischa Auer).

Ruth’s fiancé Dr. Ted Carver (with a classic film name of Rex Lease) has accompanied her and is somewhat suspicious when she later alarms everyone with hysterical screaming, claiming she saw a hairy arm trying to grab her in her bed. He claims that while is a hysterical female she is not prone to nightmares. And why not be suspicious of a hairy arm when in the basement there is kept the dead doctor’s experiment in evolution, an ape… a gorilla. Of course it is obvious the “ape” is nothing but a chimpanzee not much larger than the one that played Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. I had really hoped that this was going to be a man in a gorilla suit movie and was sorely disappointed to see a chimp play the monster. Later the ‘ape” strangles the wrong woman, Mrs. Krug, and it gives actor Mischa Auer a grand chance to overact as he mourns her death and his mistake, sense he is in fact the one controlling the ape’s deeds under the behest of brother Robert. Well there are not many surprises and the ape of course kills his tormentor, Hans,  at the end and all is settled nicely overall. Brother Robert dies and Ruth and Ted wind up all hugs and snuggles. I did not hate the film and usually like these types, but I cannot recommend it to everyone. You must have a taste for old movies and bad acting and dialog to appreciate a film like this. It is a bad movie but one I enjoyed for the most part.

Appearing in the film as Exodus, the chauffer, is black actor Willie Best, often billed as Sleep ‘n Eat. I remembered his name from the days when I actually had to read books and magazines to get film information. There is not a wealth of information on the net about him, but I thought I could do a little tribute to this guy, who really was talented but had a difficult, though relatively prolific, film career that ended in obscurity.


There was a time when black actors in Hollywood actually had names like G. Howe Black and Stephin Fectchit. Especially prior to the 1960’s it would hard to point to a black actor who ever had a significant role in any motion picture. Among the actors who possessed genuine talent but never had the chance to show was Willie Best, who was billed under one of the most denigrating of all names in movie history. As unbelievable as it may sound he was cast for many years simply as Sleep ‘n Eat. While a talented actor and comedian, as well as musician and song writer, Best is sadly remembered for his myriad portrayals as lazy, simple minded and cowardly porters, servants and janitors. The lazily drawled line “yussuh”, expressed with drooped mouth and half awake eyes, can be traced back to many of Best’s characters. They are not necessarily by any stretch the roles Best would have wanted to portray, but as he stoically confessed in a 1934 interview, “ I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts… But what’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.”

He was praised by Bob Hope for his acting ability and comedic timing and played in at some Hope films… as a half witted butler of course. He also played in a few Shirley Temple films, doing the same thing. He was busted for drugs in the early 1950’s and his career all but screeched to a halt. He found some work here and there in television and as the civil rights era dawned he found himself the target of disdain by many of his fellow blacks, who saw what he did as an embarrassment to blacks. He was considered to be no more than the character he portrayed in his films. He died alone and in obscurity in a a home for aging actors and now lies in an unmarked grave in Hollywood, far from his home and roots in Mississippi. The closing lines of the film above, The Monster Walks, are so horrible. The conversation focuses on the doctors experiments in evolution and when Exodus (his character) realizes that he may be descended from apes he says something like “Well I had an uncle who looked like that (the chimp) but he was a lot slower.” It was a terrible line and pissed me off. There is hardly anything on Willie Best on the net that I could find with a basic search. I think this guy deserves more than what he got.

Note: Since the time this article was first published over at the original location of The Uranium Cafe Donna Lethal and the folks over at the Celluloid Slammer started a drive to collect funds to  let Willie rest in diginity  and got him the  headstone finally he deserved. Thanks Donna and all. Good job.