Florian Slappey

Created by Octavus Roy Cohen
(1891-1959)

   

Man, those were different times…

One of the first black detectives, and an early proto-eye, FLORIAN SLAPPEY was a tall, slim drink of water, a “colored gentleman,” a well-dressed and well-known man about town who decides to leave “Bumminham”, Alabama” for the bright lights and big city life of Harlem. Not that he seems to have been particularly well-received, since characters seem to frequently tell him “The onliest thing I got for you is no use.”

Florian’s comic misadventures, sometimes crimonious, sometimes not, were related in a string of short stories published in the “Darktown Birmingham” column in The Saturday Evening Post. With titles like “A Bounce of Prevention” and “Ham and Exit,” it’s obvious we were supposed to find the uncouth characters and exaggerated black dialect hilarious.

But fast-forward a few decades and you’ll find Slappey dismissed as “little more than a caricature,” according to Edward D. Hoch in The Whodunit, while others, like William DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, cut him some slack, calling “a decent, if bumbling detective, and his cases… well enough constructed to stand up, if the reader can overlook the prejudices of an earlier age.”

Yeah, if you can overlook that offensive, racist thing, sure…

A December 1, 1920 issue of Maclean’s Magazine (on page 50; I checked) featured an ad promoting books as ideal Christmas gifts for various family members and it suggested Cohen’s collection Come Seven for “one who likes nigger stuff.” It went on to say “there is a chuckle in every paragraph of these stories of the so-called “High Society” among the “Cullud” people of the south. Until he knows Florrie, Slappy and the others, he will not be getting everything out of life.”

And all that for two bucks. I guess the 1920s were some of those “good ol’ days” the anti-PC crowd look back on with such affection.

Still, back then, Slappey proved to be a very popular character, appearring regularly in The Saturday Evening Post over the next twenty years or so. He was also featured in a stage play, Come Seven (which Cohen adapted from a 1920 collection) with Slappey played by a white man in blackface.

But in 1929, movie producer Al Christie adapted several of the Slappey stories into a series of two-reel comedy shorts for Paramount, starring the all-black Lafayette Players theatre company out of California. Although Slappey’s detectives “skills” aren’t much in evidence, there’s certainly plenty of singing, dancing and slapstick. It’s suspected that Cohen, always a bit of a entrepreneur, may have produced — or at least had a hand in producing — at least some of these films.

But most surprising of all (or maybe not) is that as late as 1951, they were considering a television series.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cohen was born to Jewish parents in Charleston, South Carolina in 1891 and worked as a newspaperman and a lawyer before becoming turning to writing fiction. He ended up writing more than fifty books and countless short stories, most of them mysteries, for The Saturday Evening PostColliers and other slicks of the time. He also wrote several collections of short stories, more than twenty motion picture screenplays and at least two known stage dramas, The Crimson Alibi, featuring early private detective David Carroll and the previously mentioned Come Seven. He also wrote Tempus Todd, beginning in 1923, one of the first all-black newspaper comic strips, which followed the adventures and mishaps of a cab driver and his encounters with his often eccentric passengers.

The prolific author lived variously in South Carolina, Alabama and New York, before eventually settling in California, where he died in Los Angeles in 1959.

Although Cohen is pretty much forgotten now (unless it’s to chastise him for his depiction of blacks, of course), both Slappey and his other major series eye, Jim Hanvey, are pretty good examples of an early, pre Black Mask-era attempt to find an American style of mystery. And while it’s clear that Cohen was pandering to some of the most unfortunate prejudices and racial stereotypes of his time, it should be noted that his audience wasn’t limited to white racists. Or even whites.

But still…

UNDER OATH

  • “(Octavus Roy Cohen) is remembered if at all for egregious comic stereotypes of African Americans, as in the series about sometime-detective Florian Slappey.  However benignly this Negro dialect humor may have been intended, let’s just say it is not likely to be reprinted any time soon.”
    — Jon Breen (2004)
  • “Alas, Jon was too optimistic. Several publishers have jumped on Cohen’s now public domain works in the last few years, and produced overpriced editions, done on the cheap, no doubt hoping to score a few quick bucks.”
    — the editor
  • “The magazine stories pander to white readers’ ideas of what black folk were like. The tales were in fact the inspiration for the Amos & Andy radio show. Yet with a first-rate comedy-film production team & excellent comedy actors, considerable humanity is invested in these adaptations, undermining the potentially demeaning attributes.”
    Wild Realm

COLLECTIONS

  • Come Seven (1920; at least some stories feature Slappey)Buy this reprint
  • Florian Slappey Goes Abroad (1928)Buy this reprint
  • Carbon Copies (1932; includes four Slappey stories) | Buy this book
  • Florian Slappey (1938)

SHORT STORIES

  • “Pool and Ginuwine” (January 4, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Amateur Hero” (January 18, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Tempus Fugits” (February 1, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Backfire” (February 8, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Fight That Failed” (May 24, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Auto-Intoxication” (October 18, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “All’s Swell That Ends Swell” (November 8, 1919, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Mistuh Macbeth” (April 17, 1920, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Noblesse Obliged” (July 3, 1920, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Bird of Pray” (November 13, 1920, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “H2O Boy!” (June 4, 1921, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Evil Lie” (September 10, 1921, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Chocolate Grudge” (November 12, 1921, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Music Hath Charms” (November 26, 1921, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Widow’s Bite” (February 18, 1922, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Presto Change!” (March 18, 1922, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Focus Pokus” (October 21, 1922, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Melancholy Dame” (November 1922, Hearst’s International)
  • “His Bitter Half” (January 13, 1923, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Law and the Profits” (Apr 28 1923, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Birth of a Notion” (September1, 1923, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Framing of the Shrew” (June 1924, The Elks Magazine)
  • “The Lady Fare” (August 9, 1924, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Double Double” (September 27, 1924, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Bathing Booty” (October 4, 1924, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “A Little Child” (October 18, 1924, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Inside Inflammation” (November 1, 1924, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Blackmale” (January 17, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Damaged Good” (July 18, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Jazz You Like It” (August 8, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “A Bounce of Prevention” (September 19, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Marcy, Monsieur!” (May 8 ,1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Pay of Naples” (July 17, 1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Horns Aplenty” (Sep 4 1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Trés Sheik” (October 16, 1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Low But Sure” (November 6, 1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Ham and Exit” (December 18, 1926, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Mate in America” (January 8, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Stew’s Company” (February 5, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Sell Shock” (May 21, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Insufficient Fun” (June 4, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Trained Flee” (September 17, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Seventh ‘Leven” (October 22, 1927, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Honestly It’s the Best Policy” (January 21, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Sprinting Press” (March 3, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Money for Sooth” (March 24, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Black Beauty” (April 28, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “A Toot for a Toot” (May 19, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Brooch of Contract” (July 14, 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Meddle Play” (Oct 13 1928, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Arabian Knights” (1928, Florian Slappey Goes Abroad)
  • “French Leave” (1928, Florian Slappey Goes Abroad)
  • “After the Football Was Over” (February 23, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Dark and Dreary” (April 27, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Day of Daze” (June 1, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Permanent Waive” (August 10, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Slappeyan Way” (September 7, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Cut and Dried” (October 12, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Sizzling Sadie” (December 14, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “5000 Feet Make One Smile” (January 4, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Party of the Worst Part” (February 15, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Loan Wolf” (March 1, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Among Those Presents” (March 7, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Supe & Fish” (March 29, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
    Non-Slappey, but featuring Midnight Pictures, who is involved in several Slappey stories
  • “Vanity’s Fare” (April 19, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Lemon Aid” (June 7, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Custard’s Last Stand” (October 18, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Step Brothers” (November 15, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post
  • “Two for One” (December 13, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Fly Paper” (April 11, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Snakes Alive” (May 16, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Wedding Bills” (June 27, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Hoodoo and Who Don’t” (September 12, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Silk and Satan” (November 28, 1931, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Rolling Bones” (February 6, 1932, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Net Profits” (April 23, 1932, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Mardi Gratis” (December 24, 1932, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Auto Motive” (February 4, 1933, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Deft and Dumb” (May 27 1933, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Daylight Slaving” (August 5,  1933, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Fast Blacks” (November 10, 1934, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Sauce for the Dander” (February 23, 1935, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “A Lie for a Lie” (December 21, 1935, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Way Up North in Dixie” (February 29 1936, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Personal Appearance” (October 3, 1936, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “The Fatted Half” (February 20, 1937, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “The Fist Shall Be Last” (July 31, 1937, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Mystery of the Missing Wash” (January 22, 1938, The Saturday Evening Post; also 1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “The Malady Lingers On” (November 12, 1938, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “A Lie for a Lie” (1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Mardi Gratis” (1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Stars and Tripes” (1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Way Up Nawth in Dixie” (1938; Florian Slappey)
  • “Alter Ego” (March 18 1939, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Two-Gun Slappey Rides Again” (October 14, 1939, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Slappey-Go-Lucky” (July 20 1940, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “A Grapple a Day” (February 22, 1941, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Slappey Days Are Here Again” (March 11, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “Ultra Violent” (January 1945, Argosy)
  • “Profit Without Honor” (April 1945, Argosy)
  • “Florian Slappey—Private Eye” (1950, The Elk’s Magazine)

PLAYS

  • COME SEVEN
    (1920)
    Description: A blackface play in three acts
    Based on characters created by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Written by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Music by Al Bernard and Walter Haenschen, including their big hit “Read ’em and Weep”
    Original Run: Broadhurst Theatre, New York; July 1920-September 1920
    Total Performances: 72
    Produced by George Broadhurst
    Starring Earle Foxe as FLORIAN SLAPPEY
    Also starring Arthur Aylsworth, Harry A. Emerson, Thomas Gunn, Henry Hanlin, Gail Kane, Lucille La Verne, Carrie Lowe, Charles W. Meyer, Eleanor Montell, Susanne Willis

FILMS

  • THE MELANCHOLY DAME | Watch it now!
    (1929, Christie Film Company)
    21 minutes
    Black & white, sound
    Release date: February 2, 1929
    Based on characters created by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn
    Directed by Arvid E. Gillstrom
    Starring Charles Olden as FLORIAN SLAPPEY
    Also starring Edward Thompson, Evelyn Preer, Spencer Williams, Roberta Hyson and The Lafayette Players Stock Company
    May be worth it just for the musical intro of “The Invesigatin’ Blues.” 
  • MUSIC HATH HARMS | Watch it now!
    (1929, Christie Film Company)
    21 minutes
    Black & white, sound
    Release date: March 16, 1929
    Based on characters created by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn
    Directed by Walter Graham
    Produced by Al Christie
    Starring Harry Tracy as FLORIAN SLAPPEY
    Also starring Spencer Williams, Roberta Hyson, Nathan Curry, Leon Hereford, Curtis Mosby, Harry Porter and The Lafayette Players Stock Company
  • THE FRAMING OF THE SHREW | Watch it now!
    (1929, Christie Film Company)
    20 minutes
    Black & white, sound
    Release date: April 27, 1929
    Based on characters created by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn
    Directed by Arvid E. Gillstrom
    Starring Charles Olden as FLORIAN SLAPPEY
    With Edward Thompson as Privacy Robson
    and Evelyn Preer as Clarry Robson
    Also starring Spencer Williams, Roberta Hyson, Evelyn Preer and The Lafayette Players Stock Company
    A henpecked husband takes some bad advice from his buddy Slappey.
  • THE LADY FARE
    (1929, Christie Film Company)
    20 minutes
    Black & white, sound
    Release date: September 28, 1929
    Based on characters created by Octavus Roy Cohen

    Screenplay by Spencer Williams
    Directed by William Watson
    Produced by Al Christie
    Starring Herbert Skinner
    and Leroy Broomfield as FLORIAN SLAPPEY
    Also starring Claude Collins, Vernon Elkins, Aurora Greeley, Leon Hereford, Roberta Hyson, Gus Jones

TELEVISION

  • THE PRIVATE EYE
    (1951)
    Directed by Erle C. Kenton
    Starring Milt Wood AS FLORIAN SLAPPY
    Hard to believe, but in 1951, Slappey made one last appearance in this unsold TV pilot, meant to be the first of a series adapting Octavus Roy Cohen’s stories. In it, Slappey opens his own detective agency, but his first case, recovering some stolen jewels, backfires and he’s accused of the theft himself.

DVD

  • BIRMINGHAM BLACK BOTTOM | Buy this DVD
    A 2003 DVD collection of four rare, black cast films from the early days of the talkies, adapted from stories from the “Darktown Birmingham” column in The Saturday Evening Post, including three films (“Framing of the Shrew,” “The Melancholy Dame,” and “Music Hath Harms) featuring Florian Slappey, plus a non-Slappey film,”Oft In the Silly Night.” All feature the music of Curtis Mosby’s Dixieland Blue Flowers.
  • MIDNIGHT MENACE | Buy this DVD
    A budget-priced collection of two early black films, Midnight Menace (which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Cohen) and The Framing of the Shrew, which is based (loosely) on the Slappey short story. also included is the 1951 TV pilot for a proposed Slappey TV series.
  • BIRMINGHAM BLACK BOTTOM: THE FIRST ALL BLACK CAST TALKIES. | Buy this DVD
    Collects four short talkies based on Cohen’s stories: Music Hath Harms, Framing of the Shrew and The Melancholy Dame and  Oft in the Silly Night, a non-Slappey tale.

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Very special thanks to Stephanie Kelly for the Maclean’s clipping, and a tip of the fedora to my faithful correspondent Mila Kette, my little Buttercup of Bigotry, who really can’t understand “why are the Florian Slappey books no longer in print?” Troll on, babe, troll on…

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