Thursday, July 27, 2017

#2,394. The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)

Directed By: Phil Goldstone

Starring: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart

Tag line: "Straight to every woman's heart!"

Trivia: The movie's poster, by Alberto Vargas, was #2 of "The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever" by Premiere

I’ve talked about “pre-code” movies before, but for those who aren’t familiar with this era of filmmaking, here’s a (very) brief history:

Following a series of scandals that rocked Hollywood in the 1920s (from the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle murder trial to Clara Bow’s alleged sexual promiscuity), the studios tried to regain the trust of the American people by implementing the Hays Code. Named after Will Hays, former Postmaster General of the U.S. and the man hired by the studios to be their “moral compass”, the code was a list of “dos” and “don’ts” that filmmakers were expected to follow. Under the code, sex, profanity, and violence were strictly forbidden, and there were even guidelines as to how groups like the police and the clergy could be depicted on film (other rules forbade things such as illegal drugs, white slavery, and scenes of actual childbirth).

But from the very start, there was no real power behind it; neither Hays nor his chief censors, Jason Joy or Dr. James Wingate (who were assigned the task of “enforcing” the code), could actually remove objectionable material from a motion picture. They simply “recommended” its removal to the studios, which often ignored their advice. Clearly, the powers-that-be saw the code as nothing more than a public relations ploy, a smokescreen designed to satiate those who feared the cinema was becoming a morally bankrupt form of entertainment. And, for a while, it worked: to forget (albeit temporarily) the hardships they endured as a result of the Great Depression, the public flocked to movie houses in large numbers, spending what little money they had on films that were as risqué as ever.

With no watchdog to keep them in line, the studios pretty much did what they wanted until July 1934, at which point everyone from the Catholic League of Decency to the federal government said “Enough is enough”. Threats of boycotts and government restrictions loomed heavy, forcing the studio bigwigs to finally bow to the pressure. As a result, every movie produced after July 1934 adhered to the code’s strict guidelines.

Yet despite Tinseltown’s rather shabby treatment of Will Hays and his code between the years of 1930 and 1934, this particular era turned out some of the most fascinating pictures ever to emerge from the studio system. It was during this 4-year span that genres such as horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), the gangster film (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Scarface), and musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade) took Hollywood by storm, while sexually-charged movies like Red-Headed Woman and Three on a Match proved that audiences were still hungry for entertainment with an edge. From adventure (Tarzan the Ape Man) to religious epics (The Sign of the Cross) and so-called “message” films (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to zany comedies (Duck Soup), the Pre-Code era was, in my opinion, the single most creative period in the history of the American cinema.

So over the course of the next week or so I’ll be delving into some of Pre-code’s lesser-known titles, movies that, for one reason or another, raised a few eyebrows when they were initially released, and the first film on the docket is the provocatively-titled 1933 drama The Sin of Nora Moran

Dancing girl and former circus performer Nora Moran (Zita Johann, who also played the apple of Boris Karloff’s eye in 1932’s The Mummy) is on death row, convicted of murder. Through a series of flashbacks, some of which are recounted by John Grant (Alan Dinehart), the District Attorney who put her away, we learn that Nora has led a miserable life: orphaned at an early age, she was adopted by a loving older couple (Otis Harlan and Aggie Herring), who were tragically killed in an auto accident eight years later. Following the advice of Father Ryan (Henry B. Walthall), Nora tries to make her own way in the world, yet her dreams of becoming a Broadway dancer are thwarted at every turn (mostly due to her lack of experience). The only job available is with the circus, which Nora quits soon after her boss, the lion-tamer Paulino (John Miljan), rapes her. 

Nora does eventually find work as a dancing girl, and before long meets the man of her dreams, Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh). Dick convinces Nora to move to the country, where he puts her up in a small house and visits her every Monday and Friday. But Nora’s happy world is turned upside-down when it’s revealed that Dick is actually a married man, and what’s more, he’s running for Governor! The very night she learns the truth about Dick, Nora gets into a fight with Paulino, who had forced his way back into her life. By the time the police arrive on the scene, Paulino is dead (Nora tells the cops that she hit him on the head with the butt end of a whip, a blow that supposedly killed Paulino outright). 

Found guilty of murder, Nora is sentenced to die in the electric chair. But is she truly a killer, or simply taking the fall for someone else? 

Produced by Larry Dalmour Productions, the same Poverty Row company that gave us 1933’s The Vampire Bat, The Sin of Nora Moran does tackle several issues that the code strictly forbade, including the positive portrayal of an extramarital affair (there’s no question that Nora and Dick are truly in love) and rape. The movie is also quite creative in the way it handles flashbacks, some of which are treated as if they were dream sequences (with Nora trying to change the very past that she’s re-living), and at a breezy 65 minutes the film moves along at a decent pace, keeping us engaged from start to finish. 

I did have issues with the ending (which is a bit too sappy) as well as the overall depiction of the title character (throughout the movie, Nora is portrayed as if she’s a saint, which makes her seem kinda bland at times). But on the whole, The Sin of Nora Moran is a fine example of a pre-code film, and features a story that undoubtedly gave poor Will Hays and his associates a few restless nights.

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