MOKEY (1942) is a family drama made at MGM in 1942, a film I first heard of when I came across an entry for it in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, where it was described with this short two-sentence summary: “Reed has problems with her stepson, who almost winds up in reform school. Typical of genre.” “Reed” refers to one of the film’s stars, Donna Reed. What intrigued me at the time was the inclusion of three black performers in the cast list for the film: William “Buckwheat” Thomas (as he’s billed in the film’s credits), Cordell Hickman, and Etta McDaniel. If they were just playing walk-on servant roles, they wouldn’t have been listed so prominently. I determined, correctly, that Buckwheat and Hickman played Blake’s companions in it. Both Blake and Buckwheat were co-starring in MGM’s “Our Gang” series at the time, which would make this a rare opportunity for two actors from that series to share dramatic roles onscreen. (“Our Gang” would, of course, become much more famous when it ran on TV in later decades as “The Little Rascals.”)
This past Monday marked the beginning of the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese Zodiac, so I thought it a good time to do a short survey of some notable film and TV adventures of the legendary Chinese trickster, Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, a leading character in “Journey to the West,” a classic 16th century Chinese text about the trip to India by a Chinese monk to obtain Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. Based on a real monk, the story, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, adds mythical characters and supernatural elements to the mix, so we have a monkey with magical powers who is assigned to guard the monk and protect him from assorted demons and monsters on his trip. The story has been told in animated and live-action adventures in films and TV shows from China, Hong Kong, Japan and other nations. There have been modern-day versions and science fiction versions. The best known version in the west is probably the Japanese animated series, “Dragon Ball,” about Goku, a monkey-tailed boy from another planet who is raised by a Chinese martial artist and becomes Earth’s champion.