What I'm Watching: Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-Law | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-Law


One career ago, I was a professor of film studies. I gave that up to move to Vermont and write for
Seven Days, but movies will always be my first love. In this feature, published occasionally here on Live Culture, I'll write about the films I'm currently watching, and connect them to film history and art.

Digging deep into my DVD shelves, I extracted an oddball title that I’ve owned for years but had never actually watched: the late, great Rudy Ray Moore’s fourth feature film, Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law. Yes, I will watch anything.

Actually, this film, low-budget and silly though it may be, is completely enjoyable for all kinds of reasons. For me, the main attraction is Rudy Ray Moore himself, whose comedy I’ve always loved. Moore is best known for his “Dolemite” character, which he created as part of a stand-up routine in the early 1970s. Dolemite, whom Moore played in both Dolemite (1975) and Dolemite 2: The Human Tornado (1976), was, to put it bluntly, the baddest muthafucka on the block. He was a slang-talking, badass pimp who always outsmarted his adversaries and attracted the simultaneous carnal adoration of all the ladies he met.

The character Moore plays in Petey Wheatstraw, though not nominally Dolemite, could nevertheless be described in exactly the same way. Such characters have a really interesting place in African American folklore, which is one of the most fascinating things about Petey Wheatstraw. More on this subject below.
I’m not sure if I was introduced to Dolemite via the countless rappers who’ve sampled his routines, or through his films themselves: Back in the Golden Age of Independent Video Stores, my friends and I would rent anything with weird cover art, and we definitely developed a penchant for low-budget horror and “blaxploitation,” as well as titles that I now call “art films.” (Netflix is great and all, kids, but it barely scratches the surfaces of variety and strangeness that was the bread-and-butter of the mom-and-pop video store in the late 1980s. Now, get outta my tomato patch, you whippersnappers!)

Anyway, Dolemite cracked up my friends and me when we were in high school, partly because the movies were laughably amateurish, and partly because the guy was really funny. For whatever reason, though, we never got around to watching Petey Wheatstraw. And while this film is rather rough around the edges, it’s actually far more competently made than one might expect. I suppose it’s faint praise to say so, but there were far fewer continuity errors and plot inconsistencies than I’d expected.

Which is not to say that this is a flawless film: Its sideplot-riddled narrative rambles, and the fight scenes are replete with some of the most poorly pulled punches since Sonny Corleone beats up Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather. But I found the terrible makeup, goofy “special effects” and poorly choreographed “marshall arts” routines (a precious typo from the closing credits) to be pretty charming, honestly. Petey Wheatstraw is a low-budget film whose loose story was designed to provide Moore with opportunities to wax comedic. Which he does. And, as I say, the guy was funny. His vocal mannerisms alone are enough to make me laugh, to say nothing of the bizarro, slangy insults that he lays on his adversaries.

In its tendency to privilege comic bits over narrative coherence, Petey Wheatstraw is quite like most big-budget, comedian-centered Hollywood comedies of the studio era, such as those of Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Martin and Lewis. Those films, too, are thinly plotted vehicles that give their respective stars plenty of chances to perform extended comedic “showcase scenes” that often have little narrative relevance. So to fault Moore’s films for their patchy stories is to fault “proper” film comedies for the same reason. I say we just look past it and accept this story structure as part of the form; take the films on their own terms.

Made by the generically named Generation International Pictures, Petey Wheatstraw represents a certain kind of independent filmmaking that barely exists anymore. A 35mm production featuring a bankable star (and several fairly well-known character actors, notably Leroy and Skillet, whom you may recognize from the second and third seasons of “Sanford and Son”), Petey Wheatstraw was shown at mainstream cinemas in black neighborhoods of major American cities.

Again, this was Moore’s fourth film as leading man, and it would never have been made had his previous three not turned a profit, even though it did not receive wide release. And, though it’s damnably difficult to find box-office information about films like this, Petey Wheatstraw was apparently profitable enough for Moore to make yet a fifth “starrer” (as Variety would put it), Disco Godfather, also known by the even better title The Avenging Disco Godfather.

Moore’s features played on a theatrical circuit that represented an alternative to those that showed mainstream Hollywood fare. Such alternative circuits still exist, but they’re increasingly rare and highly self-selected — perhaps the most interesting example is the current and highly profitable Mormon cinema. (The fact that you likely haven’t heard of its existence is proof of its self-selected audience.) But most such films don’t get theatrical releases anymore, which is too bad. A varied cinema is a healthy cinema. You’ll find all kinds of (for instance) low-budget horror films if you troll the depths of Netflix or rent from a Redbox, but most of those features never had the theatrical distribution that Rudy Ray Moore’s films had.

To return to the film itself: In it, Petey is blackmailed by Satan into marrying the Devil’s hideous daughter, presumably so the Devil can have a grandson who is as badass as the notorious Petey Wheatstraw. Petey, through the help of the magic cane (which is apparently topped with a ball of crumpled tin foil), devises a plan to double-cross the Devil so he doesn’t have to marry such an unsightly woman. (His objection is not to the woman’s inherited evilness but to her ugliness; progressive this film is not.)

I suppose most people would call this a “blaxploitation” film, though I’m not so sure that the moniker fits. For one thing, most, if not all, of the key creative personnel on this film were black, and it seems unlikely that they’d want to exploit themselves. To me, “blaxploitation” applies most appositely to such films as Mandingo, which traffic in racist stereotypes as a means to generate profit. 

In fact, Petey Wheatstraw draws on many African American cultural traditions that were and are a source of pride: the comic tradition of “playing the dozens,” numerous musical and performative traditions, and familiar narrative archetypes such as the “baddest man in the world” trope that fairly defines the film.

It was for this reason that the (quite excellent) blues musician William Bunch took the stage name Peetie Wheatstraw in the 1920s, and that the story of Stagger Lee — a muthafucka even badder than Petey W. — has been told in hundreds of iterations. If you’re going to play the film to black audiences, it’s wise to draw on stories familiar to them; since the film’s narrative is so loose, the story of Petey Wheatstraw stands in for it, in a way, and fills in some of the story gaps with pre-existing, shared “folk” knowledge.

It would surely be going too far to claim Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law as a film with ties to, say, the Black Power movement, or even as a text that makes any sort of overt claims about black pride or nationalism. Still, I was pretty surprised to see that the film employs quite a few quasi-racist stereotypes. There are multiple jokes about black people eating watermelon, for one thing; for another, the movie certainly doesn’t do anything to challenge the stereotypes of the sexually dominant male and the subservient women who lust after him. But contradictions like this are part of what makes the film enjoyable to me.

Stylistically, the film is no great shakes, but it uses a couple of low-budget devices in creative ways. When Petey visits Hell, for instance, the filmmakers saved some money by simply placing a murky red filter over the camera lens, thereby conveying the sense of “inferno” without building costly sets.

But my favorite device is a simple camera movement that occurs in an orgy scene. (This would appear to have been a fetish of Moore’s, as he beds down with about half a dozen women at once in nearly every one of his films.) Just before Petey is to be betrothed to his daughter, the Devil throws him an orgy: six or eight naked Devilettes astride a giant pink bed located in, for some reason, a condemned building in downtown L.A. (Lots of things in this film don’t make sense; just go with it.) It’s a pretty funny scene, with Moore hamming it up as he enjoys the hell out of himself. The device that made me laugh was a series of zoom-ins/zoom-outs, in rapid pulsations, of several velvet paintings of demons. So instead of showing us the hellacious sex act itself, the camera simulates Petey’s thrusting while he grunts and cackles on the soundtrack. Pretty clever, really, and it’s not the only such moment in a film that, for all its faults, is surprisingly rich in a number of ways.