Tuesday, April 16, 2013


If the world were just, The Sin of Nora Moran would be known for something other than possessing the most startling movie poster of the 1930s. But as its ill-fated heroine learns, justice sometimes depends on who you know and where you're from.

Nora Moran isn't exactly leading a charmed life. She lost her adoptive parents as a teenager, is later raped by the man she worked for and is found guilty of a murder she didn't commit. Nora willingly takes the fall for the real killer, the married man she loves -- who happens to be the spineless Governor who refuses to pardon her, and who ultimately blows his brains out moments after her execution.

Even by pre-Code standards, this is pretty grim stuff. In the wrong hands, it would have been either unwatchable or howlingly melodramatic. But thanks to talented people in front of and behind the cameras, The Sin of Nora Moran is fascinating not only to watch but to study. That "New Marvelous Screen Technique" mentioned in the poster is what sets it apart from most of the Hollywood herd released back then.

The Sin of Nora Moran opens with District Attorney John Grant telling Nora's story to Edith Crawford, the widow of the late Gov. Dick Crawford. From that point, the narration bounces back and forth to any number of characters, including Nora herself via sedative-induced hallucinations while awaiting execution. Flashbacks contain flashbacks, then suddenly jump to the present before returning to Nora's fantasies and other characters' memories. People suddenly appear from the darkness only to disappear again. Images pile up on each other like Legos. Dizzying montages mark the passage of time. Nora Moran's storytelling makes that of Citizen Kane look like "Jack & Jill." 

At times, you don't know what's real and what's merely the by-product of pharmaceuticals (either Nora's or the director's). One bizarre scene features Nora's vision of her own funeral, attended by Grant and Crawford, featuring the kind of dialogue not spoken in other American movies in 1933:

CRAWFORD: What's the matter with her?
GRANT: She's dead.
CRAWFORD: I don't like the way they've fixed her hair.
GRANT: They've shaved part of it off. 
CRAWFORD: Why? Why did they do that?
GRANT: So the current would go through her head.
CRAWFORD: It doesn't go through her head?
GRANT: It goes through her head, her arms and legs.
CRAWFORD: It's a lie!
GRANT: It goes through her head, her arms and legs. If you don't believe it, come to the execution tonight. They're going to kill her again. The warden wasn't pleased with the way that she died.

For audiences weaned on mainstream fair like 42nd Street, Little Women and Dinner at Eight the same year, this  must have been a very strong drink indeed. Whether it was deliberate or not -- and I'd like to think it was -- The Sin of Nora Moran's low budget actually aides the visuals in avant-garde scenes like the funeral and the climatic meeting between Nora's spirit and Crawford. "There's nothing to fear in death," she assures him. "I'm not dying for all the things you did. I'm dying for all the good things you're going to do. And I'm dying rather than giving up something precious to me." Nora Moran is the victim of every man she's ever met, yet ultimately the strongest character in the movie.

The language in The Sin of Nora Moran is pretty coarse for its time -- four "damns" and one "hell"  by my count, with an "Oh my God!" or two thrown into the mix. Early scenes in a moth-bitten circus where Nora works as the assistant to an alcoholic lion-tamer who eventually rapes her -- and whom is eventually murdered -- set the appropriately depressing mood. (The actor's stand-in repeatedly punches the lion in the head -- a crowd-pleaser no longer featured by Ringling Bros.)  Even the brief scenes of happiness between Nora and Crawford are shrouded in doom -- we know from the opening moments that Nora kept an appointment with the electric chair. 

But the others involved ultimately pay the price as well. Crawford, by committing suicide. And Grant -- the District Attorney who not only tried to make the murder look like an accident but urged Crawford not to pardon Nora -- by a heavy conscience that will haunt him the rest of his life. Nobody gets off easy in The Sin of Nora Moran. Not even Crawford's scheming harpy of a widow (right), who realizes too late that her husband danced to her own foul tune as much as to Grant's. 

Special commendation to Phil Goldstone for the revolutionary style later credited to any number of later directors. It's especially interesting considering that Goldstone directed only 11 other movies, none of them of particular interest today (unless you count Damaged Goods, his grimy 1937 exploitation shocker about syphilis). And it's a loss to movies that The Sin of Nora Moran would be the only screenplay by somebody with the fancy-pants name of W. Maxwell Goodhue, the author of a bunch of now-forgotten stage plays. 

And speaking as someone who reads too much into coincidences, I do wonder if Phil Goldstone cast Zita Johann as Nora because of her resemblance to Renee Falconetti
in the 1928 French classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (left). If so, The Sin of Nora Moran has to be the only B-movie influenced by a silent art film directed by Theodor Dreyer. 

By and large, the cast is made up of second-tier names who made their living as character actors. Alan Dinehart (left), as John Grant, seems to appear in every other movie run on TCM. British-born Paul Cavanagh (right), as Dick Crawford, specialized in dashing heroes and oily villains, eventually making dozens of TV appearances throughout the '50s. (As it is today, TV was the salvation of actors no longer appreciated by movie producers.)

Henry B. Walthall (right), who plays the priest that arranges the young Nora's adoption -- and presides over her phantasmagoria funeral -- made his movie debut in 1908 under the direction of D.W. Griffith. He appeared in over 300 movies, including The Birth of a Nation, over 28 years. Contrast that Warren Beatty, who's made only 22 movies from his first in 1961 to his most recent in 2001. That's 40 years. Hollywood definitely honors the wrong people.

Zita Johann was the closest of the bunch to a star at the time, having been Boris Karloff's object of desire in The Mummy a year earlier. She plays Nora Moran with the right touch of sorrow, confusion and, ultimately, relief (coming from death) and compassion (for the living). In 1934, she returned to Broadway after only seven movies. Fifty-two years later, Johann  made her eighth movie, the low-budget sci-fi hybrid Raiders of the Living Dead, no doubt at the request of a movie fan involved in the production. According to her 1993 obituary in the New York Times, "In recent decades, she worked with disturbed children and gave private acting lessons," which sounds redundant. Trivia alert: Zita Johann was married to producer/director/writer/actor/commercial pitchman John Houseman from 1929 to 1933 (above, left). You can just feel the love between them, can't you?

The Sin of Nora Moran could only have been made by a two-bit studio like Majestic Pictures. (Even the name "Majestic Pictures" sounds like something from a Three Stooges comedy.) The majors would rarely, if ever, make a movie with such an atypical style. Independents had the freedom to take a chance just to get noticed. Sometimes, it was their only choice.

Such is the quandary of The Sin of Nora Moran. Without a strong family named Warner, for instance, to guide it into the age of home video, it was doomed to be forgotten, winding up in the wilds of YouTube while far less interesting movies went on to lasting fame with promotion undeserved. The real sin of Nora Moran, as with its heroine, is its fate.

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1 comment:

Karen said...

I just finished watching The Sin of Nora Moran for the first time, and I enjoyed your review immensely. I'm glad to have discovered your blog and look forward to playing catch-up!