MOKEY: Hollywood’s take on black-white relations in the south, ca. 1942

22 Feb

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.”)

For years, this movie went unseen and unavailable in any home video format until I recorded it on VHS tape from a TCM cablecast in 2005. I finally watched it from start to finish this past January. I was quite surprised at a couple of different aspects of it. Its main character, a boy nicknamed Mokey, clearly has serious behavioral problems and the film doesn’t shy away from the most negative manifestations of them even if its tidy resolution at the end seems a bit difficult to swallow. (And it’s not hard to see Robert Blake’s eventual fate foreshadowed in Mokey’s behavior.) Also, the film’s setting, a poor southern town, gives Mokey a group of black playmates and this relationship offers a brief but telling window into black society in a place where blacks and whites are never far apart from each other and not that different economically. Despite Maltin’s two-star dismissal of it, MOKEY is anything but typical of its genre.

At first sight, Mokey seems to be a well-meaning young boy, desperate for attention and affection. (Blake was about eight when he made this.) His widowed father, a traveling salesman (played by Dan Dailey, in his first starring role), is often away from home, leaving the guardianship of Mokey in the hands of Cindy Molishus, a black nanny played by Etta McDaniel (sister of Hattie McDaniel), who is often quite impatient with the boy. Mokey lives in a small but comfortable house while his frequent companions are three black siblings who live in a ramshackle house nearby with their Aunt Deedy (Cleo Desmond) who is not, they stress, their “blood kin.” The siblings are Booker T (Cordell Hickman), Brother Cumby (William “Buckwheat” Thomas), and Begonia (Marcella Moreland). Mokey’s dad remarries and brings home his new wife, played by Donna Reed (a future TV mom on “The Donna Reed Show”) in her sixth film. There is some question of whether Mokey will accept her as his mom, especially after Dailey runs off on another sales trip, but it soon becomes clear that Mokey yearns for her love as much as he did from his own mother. He addresses her plaintively as “Mother” right from the start and wants to spend time with her and help her with her chores. She doesn’t know how to deal with this kind of needy behavior and scolds him when his clumsiness damages the curtains she is working on and she sends him out of the house. In the course of the film, Mokey lies repeatedly, steals more than once (including a car!), runs away from home more than once, and aids a fugitive from justice. Every time someone in authority (parent or cop or judge) asks why he did what he did, he looks up innocently and declares, “I don’t know.” When Reed finally lambastes him and vows to leave if Dailey doesn’t do anything about him, her words struck me as an absolutely natural and reasonable reaction to Mokey’s awful behavior. It was obvious to me that Dailey’s neglect meant that Mokey never learned the difference between right and wrong. Only at the end, after Reed breaks down in court and apologizes for not giving Mokey more love and attention and promises to make amends, does the judge (Addison Richards) relent and release Mokey into her custody instead of sending him to reform school where he was surely headed.

The most notable aspect of the film, in my eyes, is the extent of the film’s investment in black life. We often see black characters in subservient roles in films from the 1930s and ’40s, but we don’t often see their lives away from the white folks. Here the setting is a poor southern town where blacks and whites live in close proximity.

A middle section of the film has Mokey running away from home and living with his nearby black playmates as their cousin “Julius.” They do him up in blackface and give him a cap to cover his straight hair. It fools Aunt Deedy—for more than three weeks! She doesn’t bathe him or check his hair the whole time. The town searches high and low for Mokey, even as Mokey and his friends walk the streets of the town and laugh at posters displaying Mokey’s picture and asking if anyone has seen him. Three weeks go by before Mokey’s father thinks to question Mokey’s black friends about his whereabouts, which gives some idea of how invisible the black population was despite being so close. Along similar lines, we witness some disapproval on the part of Mokey’s stepmother earlier in the film after Mokey has introduced his playmates to her. When she later asks Mokey if he has any friends and he replies that she’s already met them, she asks, “But don’t you have any other friends?,” clearly implying that she doesn’t find his playmates acceptable.

(L-R: Cordell Hickman, William “Buckwheat” Thomas, Marcella Moreland, Bobby Blake)

An interesting glimpse of southern black life is on display when Aunt Deedy gets sick and she calls in a traditional healer, a “conjure woman” played by veteran black actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan (who was in D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION). There are a total of seven black speaking parts, four of them quite substantial. All of these characters are portrayed sympathetically, moreso perhaps than most of the white characters. The young black actors are quite good, especially Cordell Hickman, who was active in the 1940s and, in the performances of his I’ve seen, always carried himself with a certain dignity. (He’s best known for playing the young white protagonist’s close companion in THE BISCUIT EATER, 1940.) The little girl, Begonia (Marcella Moreland, daughter of actor Mantan Moreland), is quite sassy and addresses Mokey and the other white playmates as “white boy,” with more than a hint of condescension. William Thomas, better known, of course, as “Buckwheat,” gives a lower-key performance than the other actors, which allowed them to shine despite the “Our Gang” star’s greater fame. The black characters speak in southern dialect, sometimes a tad more exaggerated than necessary.

There are other films like this I can cite, but the most relevant is the Technicolor horse-racing melodrama from 20th Century Fox, MARYLAND (1940), which has a whole subplot set in the segregated black society which supplied the workers for the horse industry in Maryland at the time.

I’ve reviewed this film on IMDB and my review is the only one to cite this subplot. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

There are a number of prominent black actors in the film, including Hattie McDaniel, Ben Carter, Ernest Whitman, Clarence Muse, Darby Jones, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan (who’d appeared in D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION—talk about antebellum films!), but they all play stereotyped roles of one sort or another. McDaniel, fresh off her Oscar win for GONE WITH THE WIND, spends most of her time in the kitchen. Her husband in the film, Shadrach (Carter), has a weakness for shooting craps thanks to the temptations offered by local no-account layabout Dogface (Whitman) who pops up and rattles dice in Shadrach’s ear at inopportune moments. At one point, owing money to Dogface, who threatens him with a knife, Shadrach goes to church with his wife and winds up giving himself to Jesus after a fire-and-brimstone sermon by the preacher (Muse). So moved by the spirit is he that Shadrach is even about to confess his fling with Maybelle, a local hottie in the church congregation, but stops short. Shadrach says, “Sista’ Maybelle, Ah don’t know what ta say,” to which Maybelle responds, “Then don’t say it. Ah forgives you,” adding, with a knowing smile that tells us all we need to know, “Ain’t that enough?” (Maybelle is played by Arie Lee Branche, an actress previously unfamiliar to me who makes quite an impression.) The fling eventually comes up in the climactic courtroom battle in which Shadrach’s testimony will determine whether a prize horse will be allowed to enter the big race or not.

This whole aspect of the plot—a glimpse into a black world that exists side-by-side but quite apart from white society and offers up its own layers of melodramatics—makes the film much more interesting than it would have been without it, stereotypes or not. And the implied adultery would probably have been diluted by the censors if it had involved white characters.

When I read comments on IMDB complaining about racial stereotypes in films like MOKEY, I worry that a film like this will be dismissed and ignored precisely by those who would get the most out of seeing it. Without characters like these we wouldn’t get to see these remarkable performances by black actors trying to inject humanity into the stereotypes. It’s easy to dismiss stereotypes when you don’t see these characters as human beings. Which begs the question of who’s the most racist: the creators of these films who sought to include black people in them to a degree that was rare in that period or the high-minded gatekeepers of today who try to shield young viewers and readers by suppressing black images in vintage Hollywood films? Aren’t films like MOKEY noteworthy for at least dramatizing the racial inequality of that time and setting rather than denying it?

MOKEY was one of only two films directed by Wells Root, a screenwriter who was active in films from 1930-1954 and then shifted to television from 1954 to 1966. He co-wrote the screenplay for MOKEY with Jan Fortune, based on stories by Jennie Harris Oliver.

For the record, Jim Gallaher, the son of the man who was the real-life basis for the Mokey character, reports in a review on IMDB that his father did indeed live with a black family under an assumed name when he’d run away and traveled far from home, but is doubtful that he ever wore blackface. I’m assuming that because Mokey stays so close to home after he’s run away in the film, the screenwriter had to come up with a tactic that would plausibly delay his discovery by the townsfolk for a significant amount of time and the blackface gimmick was the only one that could work.

Here is a link to Mr. Gallaher’s review and the two most relevant paragraphs:

In another run-away incident, my father told me that he was walking down a country road and met a black family selling produce at a road stand. He was asked what his name was and he said it was Jimmy. He said that’s what they called him from that day on. He said they took him in and he ended up being part of their family for a while. I, being my father’s only son, was named Jimmy (James,really) in honor of this time in his life. I don’t know anything about him being made up to look like a black kid except what I saw in the movie. I don’t think it happened. Even though my father was from a southern family with the typical prejudices, I was taught respect for black people and the N word or other kinds of negative words or ideas were never used in my family. I believe that the experience he had with the black family changed the southern-attitude upbringing he’d had and influenced the attitudes he taught his own family as well.


2 Responses to “MOKEY: Hollywood’s take on black-white relations in the south, ca. 1942”

  1. Owen April 26, 2016 at 7:18 AM #

    the first reality movie?

  2. Connie March 13, 2021 at 8:10 PM #

    I am a Southerner, and I agree with your review of “Mokey.” I saw it on YouTube about 6 months ago. The black characters were cast in a positive light and were integral to the story. I had forgotten about the blackface makeup, but your conjecture as to why that was added is reasonable. Perhaps the filmmakers were rushed for time or they thought it would lend itself to this dramedy. Maybe they thought it would be acceptable to white Southern moviegoers. I hope that was not the reason. There are many stories of how the studio heads wanted to make sure their movies were acceptable to white audiences in Jim Crow South. But I am sure a more thoughtful and influential makeup artist could have thought of something more believable and more artful.

    Until I read your review, I didn’t know “Mokey” was based on a real-life person. The quote from the son of the real person was a nice touch. I had heard ( I forget where) that the inspiration for Steve Martin’s “The Jerk” was “Mokey.” I am not a big fan of his movies, and I saw long ago just a few scenes from it. I found it demeaning to blacks then, but I consider myself to have an open mind and can understand that someone with comic sensibilities different from my own did and can still enjoy it.

    “Mokey” is worth seeing, and I found it a delight. (I have never seen Donna Reed play such an unmotherly mother. Her piano scene with Mokey is hilarious). After I read your review, it also made me think of “Cabin In The Sky,” which is a wonderful film also made in the 1940s — an essential classic. The black actors in “Cabin” were superlative. It almost makes me cry when I see it because I think of all the talent of the black actors during that time that was wasted in subservient and demeaning roles. Thanks for the review.

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