The Bootleg Files: Tall, Tan and Terrific

BOOTLEG FILES 637: “Tall, Tan and Terrific” (1946 film starring Mantan Moreland).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

The original film materials are believed to be lost and the copyright expired, which limits the opportunity to properly restore this old flick.

The 1946 film “Tall, Tan and Terrific” is among the most peculiar films within the genre known as “race films”: all-black productions created exclusively for distribution to racially segregated cinemas during the Jim Crow era. The film itself is a forgettable mediocrity, but it is notable for bringing together a number of talented individuals who rarely received a proper chance to display their considerable talents.

Back in the day, denizens and visitors to Harlem would have recognized the phrase “Tall, Tan and Terrific” as a marketing slogan for the legendary Cotton Club that described the venue’s line-up of sexy and light-skinned chorus dancers. The film, however, has nothing to do with the Cotton Club, but it takes place at another Harlem nightspot called the Golden Slipper Club. The film’s setting includes a small group of chorus dancers along with an all-female band, which was something of an anomaly for that era.

The Golden Slipper Club is owned by Handsome Harry Hansom, whose girlfriend and star singer goes by the name Tall, Tan and Terrific. Also headlining the club is comic Mantan Moreland, who is constantly referred to as a Hollywood star – well, yes, he made films in Hollywood, but was mostly known as a comic relief supporting player in low-budget offerings at Monogram Pictures.

Handsome Harry has a running feud with a gambler known as The Duke. When Handsome Harry abruptly wins back money he had previously lost to The Duke, there is a scuffle and The Duke is fatally shot. Handsome Harry is jailed, but Mantan and a lady photographer who is smitten with the funnyman uncover evidence that affirms the club owner’s innocence.

On paper, “Tall, Tan and Terrific” may seem like a flimsy offering. On the screen, it’s even flimsier, running a surprisingly puny 40 minutes. The original film might have been even shorter: two musical numbers that were supposed to be part of a nightclub-based finale, one involving a couple expressing their mutual love on a living room couch and one featuring showgirls in a shared bedroom, look as if they were shoehorned into this production from other films.

For a supposedly grand entertainment hotspot, the Golden Slipper Club is so cramped that it appears as if it was set-dressed in someone’s living room. During the dance numbers, the club’s patrons and employees walk in front of the camera, creating a jarring effect that recalls the Kit Kat Klub segments from Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” – except in this film, it appears that these distractions were clumsily accidental.

But the real interest here is the wealth of talent involved. Race films like “Tall, Tan and Terrific” gave Mantan Moreland his only opportunity to shine in starring roles. Here, he gets to perform his stand-up act, with comedy monologues shot in a tight close-up plus an interlude for an eccentric dance number. “Tall, Tan and Terrific” was something of a last peak for Moreland, whose film career waned by the end of the 1940s. Although he continued to perform stand-up at the Apollo Theater and even appeared on Broadway in an all-black “Waiting for Godot,” he was mostly reduced to bit parts and uncredited walk-ons in films until his death in 1973.

Another underappreciated talent in the film was Dots Johnson, who became internationally famous as the U.S. soldier in liberated Italy in Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 classic “Paisan.” Johnson never scored another role to match his memorable debut under Rossellini, and his film career was spotty and undistinguished. “Tall, Tan and Terrific” was among his better post-“Paisan” works, and that’s not saying much.

As Handsome Harry and Tall, Tan and Terrific, stars Monte Hawley and Francine Everett were reigning stars in the small world of race film productions. Both were talented, attractive and light-skinned performers – Hawley was fine as a George Raft-type of rough trade playboy and Everett was equal to Lena Horne in vocal prowess and glamor – but neither had luck moving into mainstream Hollywood films. If “Tall, Tan and Terrific” was unworthy of their skills, it was the only type of vehicle available for them to shine.

Behind the camera was director Bud Pollard, whose career included some intriguing works including the rarely-seen 1931 live action “Alice in Wonderland” and the progressive 1933 “Victims of Persecution” about a Jewish judge whose promising career is jeopardized when he questions the prosecution of an African-American arrested on dubious charges. Pollard also directed a 1931 New York-based Italian-language film called “O Festino o la legge” and served as a “supervisor” (most likely in an editing capacity) on the 1941 Academy Award-winning documentary “Kukan.” Pollard directed a number of race films in the 1930s and 1940s, although few film scholars acknowledge his role in these productions.

“Tall, Tan and Terrific,” like most of the race films, fell into the public domain and fell victim to improper preservation. Today, the film can only be appreciated in badly duped prints, and it is unlikely that any of the art film preservation labels would bother with a digital restoration without the original materials. While its importance today is more historic than artistic, it does not deserve this level of continued neglect.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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