If you’ve seen Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw is Rudy Ray Moore’s third movie, and better in every way. In this one he ends up being the Devil’s Son-in-Law, when he’s massacred with his family by his club owner rivals. Lucifer- aka Lou Cipher, in a play on words long before Angel Heart did it- is a nattily dressed old fellow who says he’ll bring Petey and his family back, and let him avenge himself, if he’ll marry his ugly daughter.
The Devil lends him his cane, which gives him all sorts of astonishing powers, from being able to make men say what he wants or shit their pants, or sleep with a harem of women in one evening. This one spends more time on humor than badassery; there’s still plenty of goofy ’70s kung fu, but there’s plenty more slapstick and corny comedy. Whether it’s the Benny Hill-style sped-up orgy scene with the harem set to old ragtime piano, tells the tale of how he sprung from the womb at 10 years old, or when he chases junkies who stripped his car down the street, it has a much more consistent tone, and is a lot more fun.
Rudy Ray Moore is much funnier when he’s not busy directing the movie himself- his raunchy, hilarious dialogue fills every scene, whether he’s trying to lawyer his way out of kissing Satan’s butt-ugly daughter, who’s thankfully hidden behind a veil like a horrifying face in a Looney Tunes cartoon, or trash-talking with his rivals. The effects are lower than low budget- sometimes Satan’s mighty cane looks like a stick with tin foil wrapped on the end, but that just adds to the charm. When he has to fight the legions of devils in bad make-up, that’s what it’s all about.
This is pure ’70s blaxploitation done right. Plenty of humor, gratuitous nudity, outrageous fashion, and ridiculous kung fu fights, and a story straight out of a folk tale set in the ghetto. Who doesn’t like a story about outsmarting the Devil? Rudy Ray Moore was an original, a comedian and forefather of rap, and this is one of his best movies. Dolemite is good fun too, but this is better. I’m told the sequel to Dolemite, The Human Tornado, is even better- and that will be the next entry in this column.