Halloween Havoc!: BLACK MOON (Columbia 1934)

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I thought I’d seen, or at least heard of, all the horror films made during the 1930’s. I was wrong. BLACK MOON was new to me when I viewed it recently as part of TCM’S Summer Under the Stars salute to KING KONG’s  main squeeze, Fay Wray. It’s a voodoo tale also starring square-jawed Jack Holt and Pre-Code favorite Dorothy Burgess . The director is Roy William Neill, who would later work with genre giants Karloff (THE BLACK ROOM), Lugosi and Chaney (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN), and helm eleven of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.

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The film open with the pounding of jungle drums, and we see Nita Lane (Burgess) is the one pounding them in her luxurious home. Nita grew up on the Caribbean isle of San Christopher, where her parents were murdered during a native uprising. Hubby Stephen (Holt) is against Nita returning to the island, but can’t dissuade her, so he asks his secretary Gail (Wray) to accompany his wife and young daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins).

Nita is visited by a man named Macklin (Lumsden Hare), sent by Nita’s Uncle Raymond to keep his niece away from San Christopher. The blood sacrifices have returned to the island, and Nita is warned to steer clear. “You can’t stop me”, is her reply, “I’ll come and go when and where I please”. Unable to reason with her, Macklin goes to Stephen’s office, and has a knife thrown in his back by a native assassin for his troubles. Meanwhile, Nita hears the steady beating of the voodoo drums in her head.

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Nita is treated like royalty by the natives upon her return to San Christopher. Uncle Raymond tries to persuade her to leave, but there’s no talking to her. Gail is worried about Nita’s bizarre behavior, and wires Stephen to come to the island. The telegrapher is found hanging, and soon Nancy’s nurse is found dead. Nita replaces the nurse with her  former nanny Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), and becomes more ominous looking by the minute.

Stephen charters a schooner from ‘Lunch’ McLaren (Clarence Muse), who fears his girlfriend is about to be sacrificed by the voodoo cult. The two men sneak into the jungle and observe the weird ceremony, with frenzied drumming and feverish dancing… and Nita presiding over it as the White Priestess! The High Priest is about to chop off ‘Lunch’s’ girls head when Stephen shoots him. The two run away in fear, not witnessing Nita finish the bloody job!

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Uncle Raymond tells Stephen the truth about Nita- after her parents were killed, she was watched over by Ruva, and initiated into the voodoo cult as their priestess, taking part in their murderous sacrificing rituals. Raymond sent her away when he found out, and thought being married and having a child had cured her of her bloodlust. Later, Nancy has a nightmare and Stephen gives her some water, not knowing it’s been loaded with a voodoo drug by Nita, meant for him. The child survives, but soon the natives trap Stephen and company in the estate. They manage to escape, and now the cult demands retribution in the form of a new sacrifice… Nita’s own daughter Nancy!

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Dorothy Burgess excels in the role of Nita, with her ominous looks and wild-eyed dancing. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August bring a great sense of dread to the proceedings, and the shadowy camerawork is film noirish in its execution (pardon the pun). BLACK MOON isn’t particularly scary, but has enough good moments to qualify as horror. It’s an obscure title that’s rarely seen today, and is worth going out of your way to find, especially for Golden Age horror completests.

 

 

Pre Code Confidential #7: PLAY-GIRL (Warner Brothers 1932)

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One of the many fun things about Pre-Code films is seeing how they get away with racy dialog without being overly explicit. The risqué double entendres fly freely in PLAY-GIRL, starring Loretta Young as an independent woman who ends up marrying a degenerate gambler, winding up pregnant and husbandless until the conclusion. The story didn’t really matter to me; it was the innuendo-laden script that kept me interested.

That saucy script was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago”, later adapted into the 1942 film ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers, and then turned into Bob Fosse’s smash Broadway musical CHICAGO, which in turn became the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2002. Ms. Watkins was a former crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and based her play on the murder trial of “jazz babies” Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Hollywood beckoned, and she wrote screenplays for UP THE RIVER (the film debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (uncredited), and LIBELED LADY (Tracy again, with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy).

Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner
Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner

Though the plot revolves around Loretta Young’s travails, Pre-Code favorite Winnie Lightener receives top billing as Loretta’s best friend Georgina. Lightner’s bawdy persona made her a star in the 1929 musical GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which is now regrettably a lost film. Winnie starred early Technicolor musical comedies like HOLD EVERYTHING (with Joe E. Brown), THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, and GOLD DUST GERTIE (with Olsen & Johnson), but after the Production Code went into place, her career stalled, and by 1934 she retired from the screen to become Mrs. Roy Del Ruth.

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Winnie gets most of the good lines in this one. While sleeping with roommate Loretta, her panties go flying off the clothesline. Loretta asks what she’s going to do, and Winnie replies, “Keep off step ladders”. Later, when Winnie’s at work, bent over on top of a ladder, a customer quips, “I guess you ain’t got just what I want”. Loretta reads a book on merchandising, trying to better herself, and Winnie tells her, “You don’t see Peggy Joyce* reading no merchandise books and she’s a somebody. Her merchandise is the kind that sells on sight!”.

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The girls also have a frenemy named Edna at the department store they work at, Edna. She’s played by another Pre-Code favorite, Dorothy Burgess (HOLD YOUR MAN, STRICTLY PERSONAL, BLACK MOON). Dorothy and Winnie are constantly at each other’s throats, and this bit of dialog is probably the best, when Loretta throws a party at her new apartment:

Winnie: “Ooh, can I see the bedroom?”

Dorothy: “You usually do”.

Winnie: “Well you oughta know, I generally meet you coming out!”

The picture’s no great shakes, but it’s the witty, sexually laced banter that makes it worthwhile. There are plenty of Familiar Faces here, with Guy Kibbee as Winnie’s sugar daddy, Norman Foster as the gambler who Loretta falls in love with, and DRACULA’s Edward  Van Sloan as the department store owner. James Ellison, Noel Madison, George “Gabby” Hayes, Roscoe Karns, and perennial cop Robert Emmett O’Connor appear in small roles. PLAY-GIRL is a fine example of what Pre-Code’s are all about, and though it’s hardly a classic, the dialog alone makes it a film to put on your must-see list.

(*Peggy Hopkins Joyce was an actress known for her many marriages and divorces, love affairs, and extravagant lifestyle. She appeared with W.C. Fields in the all-star comedy INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.)

The Pre-Code Confidential Series: