Fascinating and original Pre-Code picture.
Cliff Aliperti of Immortal Ephemera, a fine movie historian and writer and a friend of this blog, has a couple of film ebooks out that you should read, and the one I recently finished was his 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories: Early Depression-Era Melodramas, Adaptations, and Headline Stories. It’s a great collection what he calls “biographies” of the representative, important, or just plain fascinating movies he chose to spotlight from that era. One of the films I hadn’t seen when I read the book was The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) and the chapter dedicated to that film made it sound so interesting that I moved it to the top of my (virtual) stack. As Cliff writes, the movie’s Vargas poster has to be one of the most known posters ever for such a little-known movie, and that should really be balanced out. Director Phil Goldstone gives you an extremely fast-moving, intense story with a disorienting but not off putting structure and style, and a riveting performance from Zita Johann, whom most movie buffs will remember from The Mummy (1932). Many will not remember Johann from anything else, and if you’re one of those people but you otherwise love Pre-Code and just are interested in seeing how big ideas can get started in little movies, then make a point to watch this as soon as you can.
The Sin of Nora Moran has one of the most creative and mind bending structures I’ve ever seen in anything that wasn’t a sci-fi or comic book plot. It begins as Alan Dinehart, a D.A., is visited by his furious sister (Claire Du Brey), who shows him a handful of love letters proving that her husband, the Governor (Paul Cavanagh) is having an affair. Dinehart knows who his brother-in-law’s mistress is, but begs his sister to have some sympathy, because the girl in question is none other than Nora Moran. Yes, THE Nora Moran, the woman in the news, the circus queen murderess on death row, the character played by Zita Johann. As Dinehart explains why Johann should be understood instead of despised, we begin the journey back through many flashbacks wherein we learn how Johann was orphaned, adopted then orphaned again, after her parents drive off a cliff in a spectacularly graphic crash.
Johann pursues her dream of being a dancer, but she doesn’t set the world on fire with her talent, and after endless “chorus filled, not casting” rejections, the starving girl joins the circus as assistant to Paulino the Lion wrestler (John Miljan). He’s a slimy drunk who eventually rapes Johann. She escapes to Europe, dances in nightclubs and meets the classy Cavanagh. Johann is more than just some mistress or gold digger, and for both it’s more than just an affair. Cavanagh loves her deeply, sets her up in a nice home with a stove, a fireplace and a radio that “all work.” It moves Johann to tears to finally have such nice, normal things. Then one day the circus comes to town, bringing not only painful memories but threat of a scandal for her beloved Governor (-to-be, still election time at that point), as well as the murder that puts her in prison.
The Sin of Nora Moran moves extremely fast, even for a movie of only 65 minutes. Years go by as whirlwinds, documented through dizzying montage and kaleidoscope effects like those you’d find in a musical. There are many movies with flashbacks inside of flashbacks, like nesting dolls, but this is the earliest example I’ve seen of flashbacks working they way they do here. There are a few times that Johann is aware that she’s in a flashback living out a key moment, knows what’s about to happen, and expresses her desire to change the course of events. This is the type of thing you find in Groundhog Day, or in a time travel and comic book story’s attempt to “retcon” events (retroactive continuity), to revise history while revisiting it. Needless to say, seeing such a familiar (by now even overused) modern device at work in a Pre-Code drama, and so well done too, is a real treat.
You might think this intricately woven tapestry of flashbacks is tough to follow but the changes and the time periods are clearly marked through the use of wardrobe, distinct sets, anchoring characters and Johann’s demeanour and states of mind. You always know exactly which flashback you’re at, even if Johann herself gets lost and has to ask other characters where she’s landed, which is another unique element. When one of those scenes happen, it’s after the transition from the bed Miljan has assaulted her in, linking her to the bed she recovered in from that trauma, which links her to the bed she’s writhing and sedated in on death row. It’s a handy trick that sews some flashbacks together and also gives the movie a dreamlike quality. When Johann wakes in the one bed, she finds her circus friend there instead of the prison nurse we would expect, has something like amnesia, and discusses an offer to change the events of her life. In a funny and surreal moment, the friend gives up and says she better go have a drink! In another bit of fantasy, Johann can appear in a vision to Cavanagh and report what is happening to her where she actually is. Similarly, Dinehart and Cavanagh stand over Johann’s lifeless body and with great gravity discuss how the electric shock travels through the body from the points on her shaved head (Dinehart explains it twice for no reason, the way people tend to speak in dreams) and how it didn’t take and she must be executed again. Such things add to the haunting feel of the movie, but there’s also a good storytelling reason for all this fogginess. It keeps certain details from the viewer that would spoil the reveal of the murder for which Johann is being executed. You first learn what you must about Johann, Dinehart, Miljan and Cavanagh, and only then, when it serves to solve the mystery of her character, do you learn the truth about the crime, the sacrifice and the tragedy.
A few months ago when I saw the Mummy at the cinema, the conversation turned to what other movies Zita Johann was known for, and we couldn’t name any. In the Mummy she’s unforgettable for the wide-eyed, exotic look that has to convincingly put her at the peak of stylishness and beauty in eras centuries apart. But that seemed more a matter of her bone structure and certainly didn’t prepare me for the great acting she does as Nora Moran. She gets a range of emotions to play: hopelessness and despair as she waits on death row, terror as she realizes her rapist is back in town, nobility as she lies to protect her lover, and saintliness when she appears to him as he agonizes over the decision to pardon her. She’s a tough dame full of attitude when she’s arrested for murder, a sweet girl in love, and a helpless victim of a brute, and Johann does a remarkable job with all of those aspects. She most effectively conveys the madness of the condemned woman who eventually stops struggling and comes to accept that she was meant for a different kind of destiny and happiness.
In his book, Cliff goes through some of the reviews at the time of release, which along with the box office returns, show that the moviegoing public was neither interested in nor prepared for a picture that was so far ahead of the curve in theme, approach and impact. But we should be very interested, because this is one highly original, trippy and heavy film containing unexpectedly good and groundbreaking things. Check out the movie and Cliff’s book to learn so much more.
The film is available on youtube and archive.org
images are from Cliff’s post on the movie