Harlem’s hottest night spot is The Cellar Cabaret, owned and operated by Gat Dalton (Laurence Criner). (His mother was frightened by a gun when he was born, apparently.) Dalton does all right with his nightclub business, but he really rakes in the big bucks with an enterprise known as the “Harlem Protective Association” …a fancy appellation for “shakedown racket.” One of the small businessmen in Gat’s neighborhood—a greengrocer named Bowers (Arthur Ray)—is a little reluctant to pony up for Dalton’s “gold bond” insurance…and so his business winds up blowed up real good. (Tragically, Mr. Bowers was inside his establishment when it was leveled by explosives.)
The cops quickly move in, and not only round up Dalton but the Cellar Cabaret’s resident chanteuse—Laura Jackson (Nina Mae McKinney), who gives Gat an alibi when she’s interrogated by Inspector Doyle (Edward Thompson). It’s not because she’s carrying a torch for the racketeer, though—it’s because Laura is an undercover officer who’s working as a mole to get the goods on Gat and Company. Laura convinces Doyle to cool his jets so that he can get a few more fish in the net—notably Lefty Wilson (Monte Hawley), an enterprising hood who’s been transferred to Gat’s from the West Coast so he can boost collections and make things right on the business side of the ledger.
When I glanced at the list of upcoming releases from Alpha Video about a month ago, I was drawn to Gun Moll (1938—originally titled Gang Smashers) for two reasons. One was seeing Mantan Moreland’s name in the cast. I’m an unabashed Mantan fan—a comedic actor who was such a force in motion pictures that even when he was relegated to disconcerting African-American stereotypes of that era like valets, porters, etc. he always walked off with the movie. I know my opinion isn’t shared by folks who dismiss Mantan, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit as embarrassments (there’s no getting around it—they really had to slog through some demeaning stuff) but I will argue that the immense talent present in these men and other performers shines through despite these handicaps. Moreland’s probably best remembered for playing “Birmingham Brown”—the wisecracking chauffeur of Charlie Chan when the Chan series moved to Poverty Row king Monogram. The Monogram Chans were a tremendous step down from the prestige (despite their B-picture status) they had previously enjoyed at 20th Century-Fox, but Moreland makes them all worthwhile…particularly if his old stage partner Ben Carter turns up in the feature (The Scarlet Clue , Dark Alibi ).
Mantan plays one of Dalton’s stooges—a dimwit named “Gloomy”—and while the material with which he had to work is painfully thin, he still managed to induce a few chuckles in your humble narrator (at one point in the film, he gets to shake a tail feather with a beautiful woman out on the dance floor). In an early scene, Moreland’s Gloomy keeps misplacing his pencil (he’s forgot he’s tucked it behind his ear) and when Dalton threatens him because he hasn’t produced the instrument in record time per his request he cracks: “Pencil, you’ll be the death of me yet.” Gloomy is an unusual acting turn for Mantan in the films of his that I’ve seen; the only thing I can compare it to is his performance as one of Rex Ingram’s demon henchmen in Cabin in the Sky (1943).
The other talent in Moll that I wanted to see was Nina Mae McKinney…another outstanding performer who wasn’t quite as fortunate as Mantan where film assignments were concerned. She made quite the impression as the femme fatale in the all-black MGM musical Hallelujah (1929)—the studio even signed her to a five-year contract—but Leo the Lion seemed reluctant to capitalize on her talents. She’d do her best 1930s work in movies for other studios, notably Warners’ Safe in Hell (1931—my favorite McKinney performance) and a UK production that cast her alongside Paul Robeson, Sanders of the River (1935). The backward attitudes of that era would continue to keep Nina from larger cinematic exposure—I was gobsmacked seeing her play a domestic in The Power of the Whistler, a 1945 film—and so McKinney had to go overseas to work as a stage star in cabarets (she would be dubbed “the black Garbo” in Europe) or work in “race movies” like Moll and The Devil’s Daughter (1939).
The highlight of Gun Moll for me is an extended musical sequence at the Cellar Cabaret where singer Neva Peoples performs That’s What You Get in Harlem. It’s Neva’s show all the way…but what prevents Peoples from stealing it completely is that Nina is off to the side, conducting the Phil Moore Orchestra…and looking as if she’s having the time of her life with a simple wave of the baton. (Nina does a couple of numbers in Moll, too—but nothing on the order of a song like When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, which she does magnificently in Hell.) Peoples’ number is followed by an equally amazing tap dance by Bo Jinkins (billed as Bo-Jenkins).
Author John Grant writes about “race movies” on a post about Gun Moll at his Noirish blog: “Made between about 1910 and the early 1950s, these typically featured all-black casts and were shown to all-black audiences, and were produced outside the Hollywood system on budgets that made Poverty Row enterprises seem positively DeMillean. Because of the cheapness, the production standards generally weren’t high and the acting could on occasion be amateurish; moreover, there was a reluctance to tackle genuine African American problems in the race movies, probably because most of the studios creating work in this genre were white-owned. Despite all this, the movies often show great verve, and some of the acting is top-notch; here you can see many fine African–American actors in leading roles who could get nothing but bit parts, often racially demeaning caricatures, in Hollywood productions.” Gun Moll is an excellent example of a film that has a lot to offer behind its B-picture origins; the Peoples number alone is worth the price of admission, and the acting throughout is superior to a lot of movies I’ve seen of its type.
Gun Moll was directed by Leo C. Popkin and produced by brother Harry M.—the two would later go on to independent features like the film noir classic D.O.A. (1950) and a film from my childhood that still leaves an impression, The Well (1951). (The IMDb says this was produced the states’ rights company Million Dollar Productions—you may have seen their The Duke is Tops  on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ with Lena Horne on occasion—but the Alpha Video print is credited to Toddy Pictures [which bills McKinney as “Nina May”—it looks a like a reissue print].)