Rule of Three: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)

Rudy Ray Moore will always be remembered for Dolemite, but his crowning achievement is without question Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law.

Everything about Petey Wheatstraw represents an improvement over Dolemite, and often a substantial one. It’s smarter and funnier. The acting, writing, casting, blocking, pacing, and fight choreography are much better. Whereas Dolemite felt like a vanity project — which it was, even if it was a more inclusive one than most — Petey Wheatstraw feels like a movie.

Not just a movie, either; it’s a genuinely good movie. Moments approach greatness. Its laughs are almost uniformly genuine. I don’t have any specific insight into Rudy Ray Moore, but I’d be shocked to my core if I found out he had been upset at any point that people had laughed at Dolemite instead of laughing with it. I honestly get the sense he would have still considered that to be a kind of success.

Moore never took himself too seriously. If he caught somebody chuckling at the sight of his beer gut poking out from under his shirt during what was meant to be an exciting kung-fu sequence, I think he still would have been proud of himself. He brought joy to somebody. Maybe not the precise flavor of joy he had intended, but he made somebody’s day that much brighter.

Am I waxing romantic? Maybe, but it’s not without reason. Early in Petey Wheatstraw, our protagonist, as a child, does the same. He confides to his elderly mentor that he wants to grow up and become a comedian. It’s important to him and, he believes, to the world.

“I always wanted to be on stage, making people laugh,” he tells the old man. “So I can try and save the world from some of its misery.” Like Rudy Ray Moore himself, young Petey sees comedy as a noble calling. Let’s be completely fair to the boy: He’s right.

Every human being loves to laugh, and not every human being has the gift of making others laugh. Moore had it, and he knew he did. It was his obligation, therefore, to put it in front of as many people as possible. On stage, on record, on screen. However he could reach those who needed the laughs he could give them, it was his job to do it. The best part? The guy loved his job.

Petey Wheatstraw is an hour and a half of a man loving his job. It’s a horror comedy with a firm moral lesson that Moore as Petey stubbornly refuses to learn. He makes a deal with The Devil, reaps the benefits, and spends the rest of the film trying to outwit Old Scratch. It’s the barest sketch of a plot, but it’s more than enough to get us to a lot of funny places and a few pretty surprising ones.

The film opens with an adult Petey Wheatstraw addressing the audience directly. He is going to tell us his story, beginning with the night of his birth, in Miami, during a devastating storm.

Moore’s opening, rhyming monologue suggests that we’ll be in familiar Dolemite territory, but with the exception of a few hallmarks, we will not be. The birthing scene that follows makes that very clear.

Petey’s mother, wracked with pain, is in her bed, calling out for a doctor who hasn’t yet arrived. She’s comically huge; when the doctor shows up, he asks if she’s pregnant with an elephant.

The scene feels like an isolated comedy skit, and that’s exactly how it plays out. The woman gives birth to a watermelon. Petey bites the doctor as he tries to deliver him. Petey emerges as what looks like a 10-year-old boy and beats up the doctor for spanking him. He then attacks his father for “stabbing” him every night in his sleep.

There’s a setup, then a mix of punchlines, visual gags, and physical comedy. The scene doesn’t last any longer than it needs to and it ends the moment it runs out of jokes. It’s exactly something you might see in a sketch comedy show — though it would have had to be a pretty daring one for the time — and we’re told everything we need to know about Petey Wheatstraw: You’re meant first and foremost to laugh. Don’t take anything too seriously. The film’s logic is its own.

All good lessons, but there’s one more you might not notice as easily. See, as overtly comic as the scene is, and as much of a comedian as this film’s leading man is, Moore doesn’t appear in this sequence.

There’s no reason he couldn’t. He could have easily played his own father. He could even have played Petey. (The boy is already not an infant at birth; he could just as easily have been birthed as a full-grown, smack-talking smartass with incredible facial hair.) Instead, Moore lets other people have the spotlight. He opens his best movie by letting others get all of the laughs, on their own.

We saw a bit of this disarming selflessness in Dolemite, and we’ll see much more of it here. Moore was becoming more comfortable handing the reins over to others, giving them longer spotlights, letting them share their own noble callings with whoever needed to see them. The best part, though, is that it never feels like we’re getting less Moore. Petey Wheatstraw is still a Rudy Ray Moore film, and we’re never more than a few minutes away from the man himself working his magic.

As Petey grows, he finds himself having to fight to survive in a rough neighborhood. That’s one of Moore’s hallmarks; I can’t say how much of it he might have drawn from his own life, but the idea of a community being willfully shitty clearly fascinated him. He had to be busted out of jail in Dolemite to restore order. Later in Petey Wheatstraw, our hero has his car torn apart by junkies. In Disco Godfather he…well, you’ll see.

Here, an old man sees a spunky but unskilled Petey lose a fight. He takes the boy on as a protégé and teaches him another Moore hallmark: kung-fu.

And this, silly as it may seem, is actually important. Moore did plenty of kung-fu in Dolemite and The Human Tornado, but it was clear that he had no idea what he was doing. Last week I pointed out that the fight scenes weren’t shot well, either, but I can’t fault director D’Urville Martin too much for that. Was it worth shooting them well? (The fantastic Dolemite is My Name, with Wesley Snipes as Martin, answers this with one of the film’s best jokes.)

At some point, perhaps gradually since his first film, Moore must have actually learned kung-fu. That’s not to say he’s any kind of master by the time of Petey Wheatstraw, but he’s improved noticeably. He’s studied it, practiced it, or at least taken a crash course in it, because he looks more competent and comfortable with it throughout.

As such, the cinematography rises to meet him. We’re no longer watching a comedian floundering his way through an action scene; we’re watching an action scene. Moore and writer/director Cliff Roquemore let us know up front that Petey has received martial arts training, not because it’s necessary to know but because it was worth drawing attention to just how much better at it Moore would be during this film.

When we catch up to Petey in his adult years, we find that he has indeed achieved his dream of being a much-loved comedian. Unlike Dolemite, he’s an insult comedian. This sets him apart to some degree from that character, as biting, spontaneous personal barbs are a much different artform from recitations of long, profane poetry, but I do admit it’s pretty funny to find out that Petey’s dream of making people happier is fulfilled by having him professionally insult them. I don’t think that’s an intentional joke on the part of the film, but it’s amusing anyway.

Petey is so accomplished in his craft that the mere fact that he schedules a show sends the owners of a rival club — another Moore staple — into a panic. This time it’s because Leroy and Skillet — a real-life comic duo Moore turns over several spotlights to — have taken a $100,000 investment from Mr. White. The idea was that they would use the money to book incredible acts during the down season, when they wouldn’t have any competition. As the only game in town and with acts worth seeing, they’d pack the house every night and make themselves and Mr. White a lot of money.

Then Petey Wheatstraw books a gig the very day after Leroy and Skillet are set to open, and this is a problem. Mr. White alluded to severe consequences if his investment didn’t pay off, and violence was likely the very least of these.

So far, so sedate. And to the credit of Leroy and Skillet, they do call Petey and ask him politely to delay his gig. Petey refuses to do so, which is understandable, but which also inspires his adversaries to take more drastic measures.

The pair hires a few goons to rough up Ted, one of Petey’s friends. Things don’t go quite as expected, as Ted’s kid brother Larry is there for the confrontation and refuses to leave. With the situation now overcomplicated, one of the goons pulls a gun on Ted.

Little Larry saves his big brother by taking the bullet instead. The thugs flee. The neighbors call an ambulance. Larry dies on the lawn.

It’s a dramatic scene which doesn’t quite seem to fit…and, hey, it doesn’t. I’ll admit that. But I do think the tonal shift is deliberate and important. This isn’t the graceless tonal whiplash of a Medea film; this is a comedy that is about to give its freewheeling hero a reason to get serious.

The death of Larry isn’t played for laughs, and Ted — played by Ted Clemmons — is legitimately emotional here.

The scene ends and the drama doesn’t let up. We see Larry’s casket being carried out of his funeral service. The boy’s grieving friends and family descend the church steps. It’s a powerful sequence. Everything here is grounded, real, and effective.

The thugs return. Sure, killing Larry sent a message, but it didn’t solve the central problem: Petey Wheatstraw is still in the way.

They open fire on Petey, striking him several times and hitting a number of mourners as well.

They drop the casket. Bodies fall. Others curl up and hope for the best, unable to take cover from this major tragedy as they were still processing another.

It’s real. It’s rough. That tonal shift was serious; it wasn’t one misjudged scene. It was deliberate, and now things are getting worse.

Then everything freezes. The dead, the dying, and the disoriented stop wherever they are. Clothing still ripples in the breeze, but nobody is moving or can move.

And a man strolls into frame.

He notices the devastation around him, is aware of what happened, but isn’t upset. He steps calmly around the bodies until he reaches Petey, who he restores to life. He offers Petey an opportunity to rewind time. To prevent this. To save himself and the people he loves.

It’s important that Petey makes his literal deal with The Devil over something like this and not, say, fame or fortune. We need to like Petey. We need to stay on his side, even as he does something as clearly foolish as shaking hands with the Father of Lies. Had Petey dabbled with darkness for his own gain, it would be pretty easy to dismiss anything that happened afterward as being well deserved. Instead, his bad decision becomes one that’s pretty damned understandable.

In that moment, wouldn’t you give anything to turn back the clock?

We’re eased back into the comedy, which is wise. This is not the time for a pie in the face; we’ll need to build back up to that. The man hands Petey a business card, which Petey reads.

“Lou Cypher?” asks Petey. “A small mistake on the part of the printer,” replies the man, masterfully undercutting the joke in a way that makes it much funnier.

I do need to take a moment here to say just how much I love G. Tito Shaw in this role. He immediately became one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Satan on film. Shaw didn’t go on to do anything else; this is, at least, his only credit on IMDb, which seems positively criminal. He is a fantastic Satan, and he manages to be one without ever slipping into overdone territory.

Shaw’s Satan is both affable and cold, shifting from one to the other in the space between two lines of dialogue. He’s a frightening presence when he wants to be, but as you can tell from the screengrabs he can’t rely on physical intimidation. Which is fine. He’s Satan. Satan isn’t scary because he can beat you up; Satan is scary because he can seal you into an eternity of torment.

And so Satan in this film doesn’t rely much on threats. He doesn’t need to. As much as threats might scare us, Petey Wheatstraw understands that the promises should be what keeps us on edge. The kindly man with the grey beard does get visibly angry at a few points, but it’s all just theatrics. He’s at his most menacing when he’s acting the way he looks: gentle and collected.

I don’t know how much of the character Shaw brought to the role. I’d like to give him as much credit as possible, but I do get the sense a lot of it must have come from the writing. There’s a scene later in the story that consists of nothing other than Satan in a red tracksuit, jogging down the street on a sunny day. He’s all smiles. He waves at passersby. He is the embodiment of all that is evil and damn does that make him happy.

In exchange for rewinding time and letting Petey change his destiny, Satan requires that Petey marry his daughter. Petey responds that he absolutely will not marry The Dark Lord’s daughter. “That’s madness, man,” he says. “You’ve got to be sick.”

Then he realizes that he might be able to weasel out of it later, so he agrees.

Satan shows him a photo of his daughter and Petey responds again that he absolutely will not marry her with a brilliantly flat, “Oh, Hell no.”

Then, a second time, he convinces himself that he might be able to weasel out of it later. It’s a funny exchange with great comic timing on Petey’s repeated backtracking.

And so with no intention of keeping up his end of the bargain, Petey lives again. We see the events of the funeral a second time, but now reversed. Evidently Satan couldn’t rewind time far enough to resurrect poor Larry, but at worst that’s a plot hole that’s easy to ignore.

It’s easy to ignore because…

…take a deep breath…

It’s easy to ignore because for the rest of the film, Petey has a magical pimp cane.

If the idea of Rudy Ray Moore wielding a magical pimp cane doesn’t fill you with glee, I don’t think you and I can be of the same species.

From here, Petey Wheatstraw gets even stranger and becomes even more fun. It lives up to every ounce of the promise inherent in the concept, and Moore absolutely relishes it.

Petey obviously has some specific business he needs to tend to, and so does Ted. Together they confront the thugs who killed Larry, and later a disguised Petey attends opening night for Leroy and Skillet. Sure enough, the duo has a packed house, with Mr. and Mrs. White at the foot of the stage with their guests.

The house band plays a groovy, brass-heavy number to set the tone for the night of entertainment to follow. Leroy and Skillet appear on stage, soak in the applause, and launch into their comedy routine.

Petey — I am already enjoying this sentence and I’ve only started writing it — waves his magical pimp cane and controls their minds.

He makes the duo deliver his own kind of insult comedy at the expense of the Whites.

Leroy and Skillet — and the Whites, of course — are mortified and have no idea what’s happening.

They abandon their act and call out a singer instead. Petey again waves his magical pimp cane to make her lose her voice…as well as her wig and her dress.

Something unexplainable is happening and the crowd becomes as distressed as Leroy and Skillet, which means it’s time for Petey’s grand finale: destroying the rival club.

He stands, waves his magical pimp cane, and brings the venue to a state of utter destruction. Thunder claps somewhere in the distance. Petey savors his revenge, and the film dwells just long enough on him standing there, alone in a destroyed theater, watching sparks rain down around him, that we see exactly how seduced he is by the power.

I don’t mean to oversell the gravity of the scene — there’s not much — but it’s impressive just how effective the sequence manages to be.

And then, of course, there’s comedy. Now that Petey knows what the magical pimp cane is capable of — erm…anything — there is so much more he can do with it. Leroy and Skillet are out of the picture. The thugs are dead. The cosmic balance has been zeroed out…which means Petey can now start the cosmos toward a net positive.

The montage that follows is fun, gorgeous, and infectious. It’s funny and heartwarming at once. Petey strolls through his dear, dirty neighborhood, and waves his magical pimp cane at anyone he can help. Why? Well, because they need help, and he can help them.

He stops a feuding couple before they slip into domestic violence. He gets somebody’s disabled vehicle running again. He saves a child who is nearly hit by a car. He sees a heavy woman stuck in a chair and, with a wave of his magical pimp cane, frees her by giving her the body we’re sure she’s always wanted. The song playing is a composition just for the film by Nat Dove called “Ghetto Street U.S.A.” It’s a fantastic and infectious tune, with a name reflecting the filthy streets upon which Petey strolls and a groove reflecting the better place he’s making it with every step.

And Petey just loves it.

The happiness on Petey’s face truly belongs to Moore. There is a genuine love for where his life has taken him. It works for the character, but works even better for the man playing him.

Both of them are just so damned lucky, aren’t they? They were somewhere, with some unfulfilled desires and dreams, and then, overnight, they were granted a power they never had before. The power to make things better. For themselves, sure, but also for others. And maybe it can’t last forever. Maybe the end is a hell of a lot closer than either of them thinks it could be.

But for now, in this moment, unable to conceive of something they can’t actually have, it must feel pretty great.

There are dedicated comedy moments involving the magical pimp cane, I should add; it’s not all good deeds. In one scene, the cane starts vibrating for no discernible reason. Petey lets it lead him like a dowsing rod to a small trash can in the club’s restroom, and then it stops. Inside is a bomb planted by the rival club owners.

There’s some physical comedy as Petey & co. are in so much panic they can’t get the bomb out the door. They end up throwing it into the bed of a watermelon truck so that chunks of the fruit can rain down for blocks around.

Petey uses the magical pimp cane frequently enough that Satan begins to wonder if the guy loves his magical pimp cane more than he loves the terrifying demon daughter of Hell.

He confronts Petey on Earth to remind him of their deal, and to politely suggest that he not attempt to renege on it.

Satan lets him keep the magical pimp cane a little bit longer, which makes Petey even more confident he’ll be able to wriggle out of the agreement. As long as he’s got his magical pimp cane, after all, he’s able to fight back. He assures his friends — who question Petey’s wisdom in agreeing to marry Satan’s daughter — that he will solve the problem and keep them safe. None of them really seem to believe he can conquer the whole of Hell but, well, it’s not like they have any choice but to help him try.

This is where another difference between Petey and Dolemite is made clear. Dolemite is a natural hardass. He’s undefeatable. Someone may outthink him, but he’ll turn up in the end to rip their guts out with his bare fists. He is, as the sequel had it, a human tornado. A genuine, according-to-Hoyle force of nature.

Petey is the opposite. He absolutely fights well, but he never truly gets the upper hand until he has supernatural assistance. He can’t rely on brute force to solve his problems. Someone may beat the shit out of him, but he’ll turn up in the end to outwit them. Petey is more of an artful dodger.

So what does he do to outsmart Satan? He agrees to a time and place to meet The Devil and let himself be dragged to Hell.

…and then he kidnaps and drugs a hobo to take his place.

It’s a comedy, I know, but Petey Wheatstraw isn’t quite as good at painting its hero as flawed as it should be. Perhaps it’s just because Moore is that fucking likable.

In one scene he brushes a child’s hair and he does it too hard (or perhaps the kid’s hair got stuck in the comb) and the child starts crying. It’s not an act; it’s a kid expressing pain. And we still can’t dislike Moore, even as we watch him make a little boy cry.

Moore is a fun, loveable, charming son of a bitch, and while nobody will watch the scene and be glad he accidentally made a child weep, it’s also true that nobody will watch that scene and judge him for what happened.

And so when he kidnaps and drugs a hobo who can take his place in Hell…it’s something that in most movies would be a clear signal that our hero is either desperate or despicable. Or probably both. Here, it just causes us to detach; we know Moore is doing this because Moore thinks it’s funny. He’s still playing Petey, but we’re reminded that a comedian is making this movie and he’s taking us down what he hopes will be an amusing detour.

Once we know how things wrap up — the hobo wakes up in a car full of demons and gets away — it is indeed pretty funny! But Petey sure does creep into the territory of doing evil shit. He has one of his friends create a perfect replica of Petey’s face — where would we be without friends? — and they use it to disguise the sedated hobo.

In full fairness to our hero, he doesn’t expect his ruse to permanently fool The Devil; he just needs the hobo to take his place long enough for Petey and his friends to flee the city and start new lives somewhere else. It’s likely he expected the Devil to release the hobo once the trick was revealed.

Regardless, we’re thinking about it too much. Petey Wheatstraw gets away with us not believing its title character to be an asshole because its reality is fragile enough that we can pierce it at any point.

The Devil — being The Devil and all — is not amused. His demons storm Petey’s club and they ultimately kidnap Nell, played by Ebony Wright, Petey’s friend, assistant, confidant, and paramour.

Wright is great, and she’s another example of an actor to whom Moore is more than happy to cede the spotlight. A running joke in the film is that she apparently runs a phone sex service; Petey is staying temporarily at her house and she answers the phone with a smokey, seductive voice, dropping it the instant she realizes the calls are for him.

It’s funny, and Wright is a good enough actor that Nell comes across as well rounded and human. When she’s in the Devil’s grip, it’s believable that Petey would give himself up…or at least agree to a climactic rooftop showdown.

The Devil — as measured and calm as he’s always been in this film — keeps his end of the bargain once again. He does indeed let Nell go when Petey shows up. He’s a fair Prince of Darkness, which is probably what enables Petey to overpower him.

Still in possession of the magical pimp cane, Petey is able to fight back against the demons. Eventually, he even downs Satan himself.

He picks the old man up and drops him off the building, where he bursts into flames upon impact.

That’s it. Petey triumphs, because of course he does. He’s our hero, and good always defeats evil.

Except for the times that it doesn’t. This is one of those times. Petey climbs into the back of an idling car, thinking it’s his friends ready to start their new lives. Instead it’s Satan and his daughter, and that’s where we leave Petey Wheatstraw, in a freeze frame before he’s dragged directly to Hell.

It’s not a bad ending. It’s surprising enough that a comedy ended in failure for our hero, especially a failure that’s essentially played straight. I do wonder if — even only hypothetically — Moore and Roquemore had discussed a sequel. Leaving Petey here, suspended in this moment, would certainly leave the door open.

From the opening monologue of this film we know Petey is indeed in Hell looking back on what got him there, but that doesn’t mean a second film can’t see him trying to outwit The Devil yet again.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s our loss that Petey Wheatstraw doesn’t continue into another two or three or ten films. It gets to stand on its own as a one-off oddity that feels even more valuable because it only happened once.

For this brief stretch of 90 minutes or so, Moore reached the peak of his cinematic output. Maybe a sequel would have been better. Maybe it would have been exactly as good. Most likely it would have represented a step down. Probably a funny one, probably a creative one, but still a step down.

On its own, Petey Wheatstraw gets to stand as a solid achievement. Moore will always be known for Dolemite, and I’m not arguing that his legacy shouldn’t focus on that film and character. I will, however, argue that Petey Wheatstraw is long overdue for a serious critical reappraisal. Both Dolemite films had heart, but Petey Wheatstraw has soul. There’s very little to laugh at here, and plenty to laugh with.

It won’t change any lives, but it will make the people who see it happier, at least for 90 minutes. Moore waves his magical pimp cane and helps us all.

The spell may be temporary, but it’s a Hell of a lot of fun while it lasts.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Bagman” (season 5, episode 8)

Is it even worth mentioning that this was Better Call Saul‘s best episode? Maybe I’ll change my mind with time, but as of now it’s easily keeping company with “Five-O” and “Chicanery” at the very top of the ladder.

Something occurred to me after posting last week’s review. In that episode, Eduardo spots the JMM on Saul’s bag, and he asks what it stands for. Saul replies, “Justice matters most,” which was the on-the-spot backronym he coined with Kim in the first episode of the season. Eduardo suggests that it could instead stand for “Just make money.”

Pretty clear distinction between the two interpretations, which is probably why I didn’t read much further into it. Later on, it occurred to me. They were discussing what “JMM” stands for, in terms of three letters standing in for three words. But, silently, the question assumes another meaning: What does JMM — as in James Morgan McGill — stand for?

What does Jimmy represent? What does he care about? What is important enough to him that he’ll die for it?

“Bagman” proposes an answer to that question. Maybe not a definitive one — we have a whole season to go after this one wraps — but it’s definitive enough to give JMM a huge shove toward letting himself become Saul Goodman.

The episode is fantastic, and also about as simple as it could possibly be. In fact, its very basic plot — Jimmy retrieves $7 million from the cartel to get Eduardo out of prison — isn’t even resolved before the episode ends. We get a beginning, a middle, and punch in the throat for expecting an ending.

And that, for this story, at this point in Jimmy’s life, as an illustration of the way in which “resolution” for him is getting farther and farther away, that’s perfect. It’s not a trick you can always get away with — in fact, I struggle to think of too many more examples of this working — but it was the right way for “Bagman” to conclude. Jimmy has made his decision, and he’ll have a long way to go before finding any kind of relief.

It’s going to get worse, in other words, before it gets any better. Debatably, it never does get better.

Which is the whole point. Soon after picking up the money, Jimmy is ambushed and very nearly executed. He’s saved by Mike, but their vehicles are damaged in the shootout. Mike and Jimmy hoof it back to civilization, one of them clearly handling the situation better than the other.

Jimmy asks Mike how he manages to keep going, and Mike gives a nice little speech about what’s important to him…what’s important enough to him that he would willingly put himself in this exact situation. For him, it’s his family, and leaving them in comfort whenever he happens to go. That’s enough for him to push through whatever it takes.

What is it for Jimmy?

We don’t know. The romantic answer would be Kim; he’ll push through as much as he can to make her happy, perhaps. But we know — and Jimmy knew — that she wasn’t happy with this situation, so that suggestion falls at the first hurdle. He did this in spite of her very rational objections. In that moment, at least, we see him arrive at a more practical answer: $100,000.

He could make Kim very happy by saying he won’t go through with it. He chooses to do the opposite. To paraphrase Mr. Burns, he’d be happier with the one hundred thousand dollars.

At least, he thinks he would be. He certainly isn’t happy with it in the desert. Mike is able to push through because he cares enough about something that keeps him going. Jimmy isn’t and doesn’t.

And this is going to represent a serious turning point for him. We’ve seen Jimmy navigate ethical dilemmas before, and he’s always been able to rationalize his behavior. Last week, for instance, he used a fictional family to gain sympathy for Eduardo while the actual family of Eduardo’s victim mourned in the courtroom. That’s a shitty thing to do, and Jimmy knows it, but he can also rationalize it. It’s his job. He’s playing the game. He needs to do what he can for his client. He’s being a good lawyer.

In short, he’s able to separate his job from other people’s tragedies. One may lead to the other at times, but he has one role to play and he can’t get caught up in worrying about what might or might not happen to others as a result.

But he can’t use that internal defense anymore. Not after this. Not after watching man after man fall around him. Not after being threatened with death and then splashed with his executioner’s blood. Not after having to be pulled out of shell shock by Mike. Not after this continuous, days-long, still-compounding trauma.

He can’t play dumb. He can’t argue that his actions don’t have consequences, that he shouldn’t be held accountable for them, or that he can ignore them.

He’s living them, here, now. He’s acutely aware of just what he’s done. From here on out, every time he weighs an ethical decision, he will do so with the conscious knowledge of the damage he could cause.

We know where he ends up. Breaking Bad — whose “4 Days Out” is obviously complemented by “Bagman” — makes it very clear that Saul Goodman will eventually know the damage he is causing to other people and will continue to cause it. What this episode shows us is the moment he becomes conscious of it.

It’s painful. It’s traumatic. It’s horrifying.

And still he’s going to choose to push through it. Because there’s something he cares about deeply enough to keep him going. Here’s a hint: Jimmy wishes it still came in $1,000 denominations.

Rule of Three: Dolemite (1975)

Welcome back to Rule of Three, an annual series in which I take a look at three related comedy films during the month of April. FOR FOOLS. And speaking of fools, I hope you are excited to listen to me, the whitest naturally occurring substance, discuss the work of an integral figure in black culture.

I know we all enjoy a good laugh (for instance, the two or three times I’ve said anything funny), but I do want to be serious about something up front: I am not the person to talk about Rudy Ray Moore. I will talk about him, but I am no kind of authority on what he represents, on his impact, on the lives he’s changed or the careers he’s inspired.

So why am I writing about him at all? Because I’m going to discuss him as an entertainer, a comedian, an actor…basically the way I’d discuss any other figure in popular culture.

Making that clear up front is important, because the last thing I want to do is mislead anyone into thinking I believe I have any right to tell Moore’s target audience what they should think of him. The films I’m going to discuss this year — three films starring three Moore characters — were not made for me. I know that. The audiences for which they were made are certain to have different takeaways. I hope I am fortunate enough to hear those takeaways from folks in the comments. My biggest hope every year is that writeups such as these will inspire people to think about these films, discuss these films, or seek out and watch these films for the first time.

I am not and will never pretend to be an authority on anything I cover, particularly in this trilogy. (ALF, of course, being the exception; I am the world’s leading authority on ALF and it’s fucking garbage.)

None of this is to suggest, however, that I don’t have my own personal connection to Moore and his work. It is only meant to suggest that my connection will likely be different from anything he intended, and I’m fully aware of that.

Dolemite is not a very good film. In fact, by nearly every measure, Dolemite is an awful film. The acting, the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the fight choreography, the audio mixing, the editing…every mechanical element of this film hovers somewhere south of competence.

And yet it’s fantastic. I don’t mean that in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Rather, I mean that Dolemite is good in ways almost completely separate from what we usually admire in films. Dolemite succeeds on its charm and earnestness…exactly as Moore himself did.

For an extremely brief period, Moore — through sheer force of will — managed to become a movie star. He wasn’t much of an actor, a looker, or a fighter, but his films would treat him as all three. That’s okay; films are fiction. What matters is how much or how little we, in the audience, accept that fiction. Moore was such a charming son of a bitch that it was, and remains, surprisingly easy.

Dolemite has a plot only in the sense that one scene follows another rather than plays over top of it. There’s precious little logic and even less narrative. With better writing, it’s the sort of thing we could call a character sketch. As it stands, I don’t think we know anything more about Dolemite by the end of the film than we do in his very first scene: He’s a black man with a sense of humor who commands respect, even from the warden of the jail that holds him.

In flashback, we learn that Dolemite was arrested by corrupt cops who planted drugs in his vehicle, framing him as the source of the drugs that have increasingly become a problem in their jurisdiction. While he’s incarcerated, though, the drug crisis has only worsened. His friend and confidant Queen Bee bargains with the warden to get him released so that he can stop the true drug kingpin and restore peace to the neighborhood.

That sounds suspiciously like a story, so it says something that Dolemite never allows it to feel like one.

Let’s jump backward in a time a little bit, to when Rudy Ray Moore was a younger man (and amateur standup comedian) working at Dolphin’s of Hollywood. That record shop — founded in 1948 by black entrepreneur John Dolphin — forged its own path forward. Rather than stocking only the most popular records, Dolphin’s deliberately stirred up interest in black musicians, with an emphasis on radio-unfriendly jazz and up-and-coming R&B groups.

Dolphin’s stirred up this interest with its own radio station and label; if the groups it supported weren’t getting airplay elsewhere, Dolphin’s would change that. Live broadcast performances, interviews, and record debuts were common ways that Dolphin’s created demand (and found an audience) for innumerable artists who might not otherwise have been discovered.

It was also open 24 hours, which attracted a different clientele than a standard 9-to-5 businesses would. This is probably how Rudy Ray Moore found Dolemite.

I say “probably” because that’s how Moore told it, but Moore himself was as much a character as Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, or The Disco Godfather were. After all, he was a schlub. He had big dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry, but he was already in his 40s and couldn’t get it through his thick skull that black entertainers had relatively little success in finding wide audiences.

Truly talented individuals might — might — be able to break through, but Moore was not one of those individuals. He had heart and he had drive and he had commitment. But that wasn’t enough. It would get him nowhere. It couldn’t have gotten him anywhere, and he would have been wise to abandon his dreams of stardom.

Then again, he was working for Dolphin, a man who single-handedly carved out his own place in the music industry. The existing landscape didn’t allow for certain things to flourish, so he created his own landscape where they could. This can’t have been lost on Moore, as he ended up doing exactly the same thing.

Moore was floundering as a standup comedian. He got work, but never found an audience. His career should have ended there, but instead he self-funded and distributed his own comedy albums, more shocking than clever, sold on their provocative titles, cover art, and routines. He recorded them without knowledge of what he was doing, with cheap equipment in his own house while a group of friends served as the enthusiastic audience he hadn’t yet been able to find.

Then he met a homeless man named Rico, who stumbled into Dolphin’s once — or many times, or maybe Moore met him near Dolphin’s — and caught Moore’s attention with long, rhyming stories of a badass called Dolemite. Or maybe he was begging for change and people were asking him to do the routine as Moore passed by. Or maybe he stood in the middle of Dolphin’s and a rapt audience assembled around him, clapping and hollering for more.

Whatever actually happened, Moore adopted the persona as his own. We could call this creative theft. Perhaps we even should. But within those stories Moore found inspiration. He took a name and some details and around them he built a character.

That character was everything Moore was not. Gorgeous. Dashing. Witty. Dangerous. Irresistible to women. Talented beyond belief. Beloved wherever he went. And so Moore used the character in his routines. And on his albums. And Dolemite found the audience that Moore himself always wanted. Moore had carved out his own landscape, and he made sure to ride that momentum all the way onto the big screen.

That’s how a pudgy, mumbling no-name with a perpetual squint and no dramatic bone in his body became a sexy, kung-fu fighting, righteous action hero. All because he never accepted that he was ever the former, and believed against all logic that he was destined to become the latter.

Dolemite is the culmination of everything Moore wanted for himself, and its success — the fact that other human beings paid money to watch him and his friends mess around in a sloppy passion project — was tremendously vindicating to him. Moore struggled to get by, but success sure came easily to Dolemite.

Okay, so, what in the world is this movie? Well, it depends on which scene you’re watching. It’s a prison film, a revenge picture, a romance, a comedy, an action film, a performance film, a tale of morality…

…in short, it’s everything Moore figured he could put into a movie, and since nobody making it expected it to go anywhere, nobody encouraged restraint.

And that lack of restraint is glorious. It leads to conflicting moments of characterization, incompatible tones, and brilliant madness. Dolemite is the ultimate badass who neither looks nor acts like one.

I suppose the best way to describe the character is as a tough guy with a strong moral compass. He’ll take great amusement in murdering unarmed men, but only if they’re bad unarmed men. He’s a force for good, even if he is an especially bloodthirsty one.

Dolemite’s quest is threefold: getting revenge for being framed, reclaiming his night club, and stopping the flow of drugs. All three of these roads lead to one man: Willie Green, played by director D’Urville Martin.

As you can probably tell, Green as a character feels reverse engineered; he exists to be and is defined entirely by being a direct nemesis for Dolemite. Anything Dolemite has, he takes. Anything Dolemite wants, he prevents. Anything bad that happens to Dolemite — no matter who actually does it to him — can be traced directly back to Willie Green, pulling the strings.

It seems as though Dolemite would have his hands full, taking down a man whose every waking moment is spent brainstorming new ways to fuck Dolemite over, but really our hero is in no rush. He catches up with old friends. He hangs out with a downtrodden junkie (seemingly for the sake of helping him get his life together, but Dolemite doesn’t seem to mind much when the guy is gunned down in front of him). He stops dead in his tracks when fans recognize him and performs full comedy routines for their amusement.

Neither Dolemite nor Dolemite has any sense of urgency. Nobody ever feels the need to kick things into a higher gear, and whenever things are kicked into a higher gear they’re kicked right back down again, sometimes in the space between frames. There isn’t rising and falling action, in other words; there’s starting and stopping action.

So why did anyone like this movie? Baby, you already know the answer.

Rudy Ray Moore.

The guy is so winsome and full of personality that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of him. It’s easy enough to see why he wouldn’t have had a clear path to stardom, but it’s even easier to see why people would want to be in his orbit.

Moore attracted people, and not just as hangers-on. He elevated them, trying to give them a chance to live their dreams as well. He recruited Lady Reed, another struggling comedian with whom he shared a bond, to feature on his albums and in his films. He gave D’Urville Martin a chance to direct, after the man spent years trying to break into the industry with almost exclusively small roles and background work. He took community theater leader Jerry Jones and made him a regular collaborator, as well as forged a creative partnership with Cliff Roquemore. He provided early roles to actors such as Hy Pyke, Ernie Hudson, and Keith David.

For many of these people, their work with Moore would be the high point of their careers. It would represent the closest they ever came to living their own personal dreams, and Moore did this for them because he wanted to.

Moore wanted to be a celebrity, but he didn’t want to be the celebrity. He wanted an empire full of satisfied collaborators, and if that took him sinking what little money he had into a condemned hotel just so they’d have a place to shoot their movie, so be it.

The ramshackle feel of the movie never lets up. It was and is clearly the work of a team with more ambition than talent, but that ambition is infectious. At many points you can easily envision the film Moore had in his head. The distance between what he wanted and what made it to the screen leads to more than a few chuckles at Dolemite‘s expense, but it’s admirable that Moore went for it at all.

I’m thinking of a few scenes in particular. In one, Dolemite gets into a kung-fu battle with the police. (As must we all.) He’s ultimately arrested, but not before showing off his martial arts prowess…which doesn’t seem to exist at all to anybody watching the film in the real world.

Then there’s the scene in which Dolemite and Queen Bee look on with pride while their personal army of sexy karate babes trains. In the film that existed in his mind, this surely led to an incredible action showdown. Dolemite even interrupts their training to inspire them with a rousing speech in which he lets them know just how important their confrontation with Willie Green will be. In the film we got, they do next to nothing.

And of course there’s the wonderful scene toward the end of the film in which Dolemite finally corners Willie Green and reaches into his chest to rip his guts out.

In Moore’s mind this was surely a giddy, gory highlight. In reality Willie Green makes a face and falls over, dog food on his tummy.

Throughout, though, it’s very easy to get swept along for the ride. Your belief is never suspended — oh, heavens no — but it’s easily ignored. And it’s easily ignored because if idiotic moments like these are the price to pay for a Rudy Ray Moore movie, it’s well worth the expense.

Moore is without question what makes Dolemite worth watching and what gives it whatever amount of staying power it still has. He’s a fascinating man, deluded without being delusional, magnetic without being attractive, admirable without being particularly good at anything.

Well, I shouldn’t say that he’s not particularly good at anything. While his acting may be terrible, his delivery is second to none.

Certainly honed over the course of years on stage and comedy records, Moore knows how to give every line bite. They’re not always great lines, or even memorable lines, but he digs into them with a relish that can’t be denied.

Nobody could deliver a line like, “You no-business born-insecure junkyard motherfucker,” better than Moore.

Ditto “You rat-soup-eating honky motherfucker!”

“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game,” is a line I dare you to try to deliver with any degree of sincerity. Yet Moore sells it. He convinces us that Dolemite believes in himself enough to pull it off because Moore believes in himself enough to pull it off. Moore delivers it the way only he could, turning something almost daringly unclever into a legitimate applause line.

That’s part of what made Dolemite succeed. No human being could have watched this film in theaters and believed they were watching a good movie by any traditional measure, and that was part of the fun. Moore didn’t deserve to be up on that screen, but there he was, literally living a dream. If that’s not inspirational, what is?

Moore was cutting his own path. Every theater that showed Dolemite to an audience was evidence that the little guy could win. No, the film wasn’t great, but Moore was so obviously thrilled to be making it. That was the real success of Dolemite.

I won’t attempt to speak for anybody who would have watched the film back then. I was not the target audience and was quite a long way from being born. But when you think about disenfranchised classes, when you think about struggling artists, hell, when you think about people who just want to be liked…how could they have seen Moore’s film as anything other than a triumph?

The man attempted, for a long time, to find success by the traditional route. He plied his trade as much as he could. He worked hard and tirelessly to find an audience. And he got nowhere.

So then he went a different way. He broke the rules. He found his own road to the top. And everybody who went to see Dolemite in theaters saw a man who forged his own path onto that screen.

He didn’t have to play by anybody else’s rules, which is good, because those rules are what kept D’Urville Martin having to beg and be thankful for the smallest roles. Those rules are what kept great jazz musicians off the airwaves until John Dolphin created a space just for them. Those rules are what kept people who looked, acted, and presented themselves like Rudy Ray Moore as far from the mainstream as possible.

And yet, here he was. Dolemite. Fucking up motherfuckers. Nobody would give Moore the life he wanted, so he wrote and produced it himself.

How many members of that audience went home and wrote their own jokes? How many were inspired to create characters? How many went on to become comedians and musicians and actors and writers? Maybe more importantly, how many of them left after the movie feeling just that much more convinced that they could accomplish what they had been told they couldn’t?

I’m asking these things rhetorically, but Moore — and Dolemite — provably did have influence on the larger entertainment sphere. Moore has gone on to be considered the godfather of rap, with artists in that realm pointing back to Dolemite for their inspiration.

Those aren’t hollow claims. In the film, Dolemite performs two complete routines: “Shine and the Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Both of them are long, rhyming tales, and while only one of them gets musical accompaniment, they are both delivered with a critical, driving rhythm. They’re knowingly bawdy and crass, relying on shocking the audience with language that brings one crowd closer as it consciously pushes another away.

These sequences are the highlights of the film, even though (or perhaps because) neither of them have anything to do with what’s happening. Dolemite stops so Moore can do some road-tested routines, and I’m glad it does, because it’s what he’s great at. He commands this material, and like an engaging preacher it’s impossible not to be hooked by the performance, whether or not you care for what he’s actually saying.

His was an approach that artists such as Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes would later refine and build upon, and they’d repay the artistic debt by inviting Moore to guest on a few tracks. In fact, in Moore’s later years, much of his income was made from guest appearances in the works of grateful musicians, comedians, and directors.

But we’re jumping too far ahead. For now, here, in 1975, Moore was at the absolute top of his game. He had given himself a career when nobody else would, and he had proven that there was a larger hunger for outsider art like his than anyone actually in the industry would have guessed.

What would he do next?

Well, he’d do what he was already doing. What he’d always been doing. He’d keep finding ways to get himself in the spotlight, and the success of Dolemite, for the first time, meant that people might actually start opening doors for him.

While I don’t think it’s possible to oversell Moore as the film’s clear selling point, I do think it’s worth mentioning that he doesn’t hog all of the best material for himself. That other material might not be successful, but his intention to give others a chance to shine is clear.

For Lady Reed — whose career he attempted to launch but who ended up with roles only in Moore’s own films — he provided an emotional spotlight near the beginning of Dolemite. Unlike most other characters, Reed’s Queen Bee is asked to actually act as opposed to deliver a joke, deliver a threat, or fight someone.

Here, as she successfully negotiates Dolemite’s release from prison, she cries thinking of the damage the drugs have been doing the neighborhood while Dolemite has been gone. Granted, we cut from a shot showing her with a dry face to another shot in which she has long streaks of tears, Darkplace-style, but she tried and Moore gave her room to try.

Then there’s Jerry Jones, who plays FBI Agent Blakely. As much fun as it is to watch Moore push back against and eventually triumph over corrupt white cops (and as cathartic as it must have been for him to do it), Blakely gets to do it from the inside. Two forces of good — one on the streets and one in the office — get to corner corruption and take it out with their own two hands. Dolemite was always going to be the hero, but Moore didn’t let him be the only one.

Jones also wrote the screenplay — in close and obvious collaboration with Moore — and Moore brought him back to do the same for the sequel, The Human Tornado. He reprised Blakely in other Moore films as well.

My favorite performance comes from Wesley “West” Gale, another actor who had to make do with a career full of almost exclusively small parts (almost exclusively uncredited small parts) who got a true and much-deserved spotlight in Dolemite.

Moore cast him as the incendiary Reverend Gibbs, a womanizing, firearms-fencing preacher who hedges his bets by supporting both sides in what he expects will be a coming race war. To his parishioners, his support of the police is an act. To the police, his support of his parishioners is an act. I won’t pretend Gale is a fantastic actor, but he does an excellent job with the material.

Moore even hands him one the film’s biggest laughs as the police walk in on him mid-sermon and he shifts direction on a dime.

“We’ll create our own war, and we don’t need no redneck mother…oh yes Lord, mothers are the best friends we have!”

Then there’s a great scene later on when Dolemite shows up to the church to press Gibbs for information, and several corpses sit up in their caskets to point guns at him.

It’s a setup that makes exponentially less sense the more you think about it, but it’s a cool idea and an irresistible visual, so it’s in the film. One might expect the ass-kicking Dolemite to start flipping caskets and kung-fu kicking guns out of hands, but instead he admires Reverend Gibbs’ successful trick. There’s a mutual respect. Dolemite lets Gibbs win this round.

Don’t let me oversell Dolemite as a non-stop thrillride. This thrillride makes frequent stops. Things happen in every scene, but everything happens so damned slowly.

You forget you’re watching a movie at times and drift into daydreams. You could probably edit the film down into an incredible, giddy 60 minutes; instead it’s an often-tedious 90 minutes. But those highlights do exist, and they’re fantastic.

All of this elevates (or at least separates) Dolemite from being a vanity project. As much as Dolemite as a character would from this point on define Moore — both in terms of his career and in the way he conducted himself in interviews and for the press — he was still just a regular guy at heart, and on some level he’d always know that. He was equal parts resourceful and lucky, and he wanted that to pay off for others as well. He didn’t care about being the richest guy in the casino; if he had his way, everybody would be hitting jackpots.

And, sure, that’s an easy metaphor, but it’s also pretty accurate. Moore did hit the jackpot with Dolemite. I suspect he would have seen the film as a roaring success simply because it was finished and made it to theaters, but instead it hauled in more than $12 million on a budget of around $100,000. $100,000 was a lot of money to stake on a film that everybody advised him not to make, and $12 million was one hell of a payout.

Moore, now, had the ear of wider audiences. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world was in his hands, but for the first time he was in a position to wonder what he could do next, as opposed to wonder what he had to do to get people to pay attention.

I vividly remember hearing about Dolemite for the first time. I had a friend in high school named Chris, and he recommended a lot of things to me that I ended up enjoying. (Most notably Mr. Show, which he assured me I’d love but which I didn’t watch until several years after it ended. That was my loss.)

I have no clue how he came across Dolemite. The internet was in its awkward early years, with easy access to weird films not yet being one of its selling points. He didn’t recommend Dolemite, but he told me about it, and a bunch of us listened to him describe it.

We thought it was the funniest thing imaginable. In my mind — possibly also in Chris’ description, but maybe not — Dolemite was a cheap Shaft knockoff. A mindless cash-in that aped something popular. Something that may have offered some degree of amusement but which certainly wouldn’t have any merit. (Perhaps weirdly, Futurama seemed to confuse the two as well; in “Jurassic Bark,” Professor Farnsworth paraphrases a line from the Shaft theme song and then says, “It’s dolomite, baby!”)

We couldn’t stop laughing at the character named after a mineral, and how impossible it would be to take him seriously. I remember checking for it several times in video rental stores and coming up empty. I remember giving up on finding it, knowing that it would never be able to live up to the bad movie that existed in my head.

I was right. As wild and unpredictable as Dolemite is — and, it must be said, as impressively unfocused — it was not the third-rate Shaft wannabe that I expected. It was instead one of the most confusing and beguiling B-movies I’ve seen, and also one of the most inspirational.

I didn’t get to see it until the excellent Vinegar Syndrome released it in 2016. They restored and rereleased a number of Moore’s films, actually, which immediately made Dolemite seem like it might be more important — and more worthy of rediscovery — than I had given it credit for being.

I’m glad I got to see it in this form, with a loving restoration that certainly makes the film look sharper and crisper than Moore ever got to see it while he was alive.

Vinegar Syndrome targets a different audience than Moore did, but the experience is still a joyous one. We’re watching it today as an artifact, a preserved, imperfect piece of cinema history. But we — film collectors so white our hearts pump Twinkie filling — are peering through a window into a house that was not built for us. We may be able to appreciate what we see, in our own way, but it isn’t ours. There’s a difference between gazing upon and living within.

We get to look back on it and admire what Moore managed to accomplish as we reflect on the echoes of Dolemite through the years. In 1975, though? Dolemite‘s audience wasn’t reflecting. It was looking forward.

Dolemite found Moore the audience he always knew he deserved. He appreciated them giving him a chance. In 1976, he’d repay their faith with The Human Tornado, a sequel to Dolemite that was better in every way. It lost none of Moore’s ramshackle charm, but it was smarter, funnier, better acted, and better produced. The director, Cliff Roquemore, worked so well with Moore that he stuck around, sometimes unofficially, to keep Moore’s films on track.

I thought about covering The Human Tornado instead, simply because it’s the superior production, but Dolemite is without question the more culturally significant film. What I will say is that you should seek out both movies, and I will add that you should seek them out for very different reasons.

Next week I’ll cover the movie he (and Roquemore) gave audiences in 1977. That’s Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, and it’s the great movie so many of his collaborators knew Moore had in him.

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