Category Archives: Classics

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933, Phil Goldstone)

It’s hard to have worse written characters than dialogue. Like, how can character motivation be worse than what the characters speak to show their motivation.

The Sin of Nora Moran shows what it’s like to have worse characterizations than dialogue. It’s not pretty. What’s sort of frustrating is the occasional bursts of interest. They seem to be accidential or just further attempts at manipulating the audience while not providing the actors any possible explanation for their motivations. Because Sin of Nora Moran turns out to be all about its reveal.

And not the reveal it promises from the first few minutes or from the title. It has a second big reveal, which negates the first big reveal, but also casts a shadow back on the entire film. Sure, it’s only an hour and change, but it’s a long shadow. Or, more aptly, it’s one of the terrible filters director Goldstone and editor Otis Garrett use to show characters suffering internal turmoil. The performance and the narration (and the performance of the narration) isn’t enough. Nora Moran has to cloud everything over to make sure audience gets it.

But it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to get because the whole thing’s based on a twist and none of the characters seem aware of that twist. And they really, really, really should be aware of the twist. And, no, Bruce Willis isn’t a ghost. If only.

Here’s the movie. Governor’s wife Claire Du Brey confronts her brother, Alan Dinehart, about her husband having an affair. Dinehart is a political fixer; they’re both blue bloods, the husband (Paul Cavanagh) isn’t, but they both fund Cavanagh for their own ambitions. W. Maxwell Goodhue and Frances Hyland’s script falls over itself to remind the viewer Du Brey is an evil rich woman who shouldn’t be upset Cavanagh’s stepping out.

Of course, Cavanagh doesn’t tell his girlfriend he’s married, which should be a thing but isn’t. Zita Johann is the girlfriend. She’s Nora Moran. Is her sin having the affair with Cavanagh? No. Is her sin killing the man who raped her (John Miljan)? No. Is her sin covering up the murder with Dinehart’s help? No.

Sorry. I got distracted. So Dinehart tells Du Brey the story of Johann. He starts it with the revelation Johann is dead; she was executed for that murder she committed. It takes a while for victim reveal, but it’s sort of obvious. There aren’t very many characters in Sin of Nora Moran. It’s low budget. The filmmakers do a lot to try to draw attention away from those budget issues, but Gladstone’s direction of the actors is so bad and the script is so thin… well, it’s hard not to long for the stock footage montages when compared to the unrewarding narrative.

Because Nora Moran never delivers on anything. Dinehart’s narrating the story, but then it goes into Johann on the night of the execution doped up and remembering what got her there. What could be awesome layered narrative is instead muddled crap; Goodhue and Hyland’s script isn’t there; Gladstone’s direction isn’t there. Johann’s even aware she’s in the memory and able to change minor details–like she’s free to break from the scene to comment on it–which the film later forgets. Nora Moran seems like it had some behind the scenes disasters, anything to explain the slapdash narrative, but apparently not.

The overbearing music from Heinz Roemheld doesn’t help things, though I think it quiets down after a while. It’s sort of a blur. The music probably settles once Garrett starts with the filters. The movie always has bad swipes, but they’re nothing compared to that nonsensical filter the second half.

The acting is uniformly unimpressive. Zohann, Dinehart, and Du Brey come out best, but Zohann’s material is terrible and Dinehart and Du Brey are both fairly bad through the entire first act. It’s when they’ve got the most to do. They’re better at sitting around talking about the movie’s plot than acting it out.

Paul Cavanagh makes very little impression until he makes a lot of impression and it’s a bad one. He gets the big final acting scene and he’s lousy. It’s not his fault–the direction’s bad, the writing’s bad–but he’s still lousy.

Miljan’s barely in it, which is fine. He plays a drunken rapist. His performance is adequate, but his presence unpleasant.

Told straight, The Sin of Nora Moran might be a decent soap melodrama. Could be. With a better script, better direction, no filters. Some different actors. A lot more money. See, the movie’s got a lot going against it and nothing really going for it. It relies entirely on tricking the audience, with zero reward.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Phil Goldstone; screenplay by Willis M. Goodhue and Frances Hyland, based on a story by Goodhue; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Zita Johann (Nora Moran), Paul Cavanagh (Gov. Dick Crawford), Claire Du Brey (Mrs. Edith Crawford), Alan Dinehart (District Attorney John Grant), Sarah Padden (Mrs. Watts), John Miljan (Paulino), and Henry B. Walthall (Father Ryan).


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The Moon Is Blue (1953, Otto Preminger)

William Holden never seems out of place in The Moon Is Blue, but occasionally the film seems out of place having William Holden in its lead role. He’s not mundane, he’s a star. The film isn’t about the mundane but it needs to acknowledge the possibility of it. Holden ain’t it.

He’s top-billed but not the protagonist. At the start, it plays like he might be, but no. The protagonist is Maggie McNamara. The film just follows Holden because–star wattage or not–he’s a lot easier to figure out than McNamara. The film covers the first twenty or so hours of them knowing one another (it’s a play adaptation). In that time, Holden picks up McNamara at the Empire State Building, they have dinner at his apartment, she meets his neighbors (David Niven and Dawn Addams), her father (Tom Tully) punches Holden out, Holden watches her on TV (she’s an aspiring actress, he’s a successful but not famous architect). A lot happens in the film’s ninety-nine minute runtime.

Being a stage adaptation, there are limited locations. About seven total. Most of the film takes place in Holden’s apartment, where he and McNamara stop off before an impromptu dinner date. They get there by cab, which is when Moon starts forecasting its twist. McNamara is going to talk real–Moon was infamous at time of release for the onscreen use of the word, “virgin”–and she’s fairly aware of what Holden (and then Niven) have in mind for her.

So a lot of Moon Is Blue is McNamara saying something honest and unvarnished to Holden or Niven (sometimes both) and the men reacting. It plays out, usually, in an approximation of real-time. Holden goes into the evening aware of McNamara’s disinterest in being seduced, Niven comes into it wondering (but very gently) if he can get around it. Age also plays a factor. Twenty-two-year-old McNamara wants a middle-aged man; thirty-year-old Holden (well, thirty-five playing thirty) isn’t old enough. Forty-one-year-old Niven (actually forty-three) more fits the bill, but by the time she meets him, she’s smitten with Holden.

Of course, Holden’s just broken Niven’s daughter’s heart. Addams is the daughter. She and Holden’s failed romance subplot gets introduced quietly in the first act, but really plays through in the second. Second act is where Moon gives up the pretense of not being McNamara’s movie.

She’s excellent. The part’s quirky and McNamara keeps up with it, always ready for Holden or Niven’s reactions. Holden’s good but his part is thin. Thinner than Niven’s, who’s just a rich, lovable lech. Moon stops Holden’s character development at the end of the first act (even when there are later revelations, they don’t turn out to be consequential at all). It’s not his story, it can’t pretend to be. And Holden keeps getting better, the less there is for him to do. Wonky third act material or not, Holden’s great in it.

Niven’s hilarious. He doesn’t have much character development, but Niven’s performance is so loud it both doesn’t matter and seems like there’s more depth to him.

Addams is basically caricature. She’s fine. Great costumes for her (courtesy Don Loper). While her character is important to the narrative, it’s not a big part for Addams. Intentionally, the costumes end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

F. Hugh Herbert’s screenplay (from his stage play) is good. The dialogue is better than the plotting, which falls apart in the third act.

Preminger’s direction is superb with the actors, strong with the pacing, troublesome with the composition. He’ll compose these excellent two or three shots, in medium or long, but his close-ups are dull. It works because the performances are so good, it just doesn’t excel. Much in Moon Is Blue excels. Preminger doesn’t keep pace, stylistically.

Even with the third act hiccups and the bland close-ups, The Moon Is Blue is still an excellent comedy. McNamara, Holden, and Niven do no wrong.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on their play; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; produced by Preminger and Herbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Maggie McNamara (Patty O’Neill), William Holden (Donald Gresham), David Niven (David Slater), Dawn Addams (Cynthia Slater), and Tom Tully (Michael O’Neill).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 3RD ANNUAL GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME, AND VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding)

Bette Davis and George Brent never kiss in Dark Victory. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, she’s a mysteriously ill young socialite. He saves her, they fall in love. But does he really save her….

Victory gives Davis an excellent part, right up until the end of the film. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride–in the first act, which is three acts of its own, Davis isn’t particularly likable. The film establishes her on her Long Island estate, twenty-three and free. And very rich. With some decent suitors (Ronald Reagan in an affable performance) and her best friend (and secretary) Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis goes riding during the day, out on the town in the evening, then home to party all night.

The film opens with her dealings with Humphrey Bogart, who plays her stablehand. He’s Irish and sexist. Bogart’s accent is usually Irish, though very noticeable when not. The sexism just leads to banter; it’s not a great part, in the end, for Bogart. He’s a tool of the melodrama. But he’s still likable, especially at the beginning, when Davis comes off like a spoiled brat and Fitzgerald her enabler.

The film’s focus moves soon to Brent, who gets her case from a decidedly underused Henry Travers. Brent’s excellent as the conflicted doctor, enough so to humanize Davis in their first scene together. From then on, although the action sticks with Brent for quite a while, Davis’s part gets better. She’d had some good dialogue quips, but she was the film’s subject–more, the film’s characters’ subject–not the protagonist.

Whether or not she ever truly gets to be the protagonist is questionable (and one of the film’s eventual failings; it shouldn’t be in question).

So the first thirty-five minutes concern Davis’s recent headaches and how Brent treats them. There’s never a discussion of medical ethics in Dark Victory and it kind of needs it. A lot, as it turns out. Because the only way for the film to function without them–which leads to Brent and Fitzgerald alternately and jointly infantalizing Davis–is through melodrama. After forty-five minutes, Dark Victory never tries for more than melodrama; it promises more than melodrama, but it never attempts to fulfill those promises.

The melodrama does give Davis and Fitzgerald some good material. Not really Brent. Brent gets overshadowed by everyone in the second half of the film, including Reagan (not to mention Bogart, accent or not). The script avoids dealing with Brent, once he’s done just as a doctor. Brent still has some fine moments in the film, but nothing like he had in the first half, when his forced calm demeanor ached with tragedy. It’d be a lot to keep up the entire runtime, sure, but at least screenwriter Robinson could’ve had him in some longer scenes.

Robinson’s adapting from a play, which might explain some of the pacing after the first act. Davis goes through a minor character change, with some fabulous costuming, incidentally, but it requires a rather extreme narrative distance. For her next character change–she gets a lot of character development with the part, going through four distinct phases–the narrative distance closes in, which is great, but the script gets real choppy. It’s a stagy bit of narrative. Not stagily filmed, but stagily plotted. There’s a jump forward, then an exposition-heavy sequence taking place over a single night, with characters strolling through in order to explain what’s happened since the jump forward. All the acting’s fine–Davis is great–but it’s too jammed, too rushed.

And if it’s going to be so jammed, so rushed, at least have Travers do a walkthrough. He goes from leading the second tier supporting cast in the first act to complete, inexplicable onscreen absence.

Davis’s performance makes the film. Brent’s, for a while, seems like it could but their relationship is way too chaste (exceptionally so considering they were carrying on off-screen). Fitzgerald and Davis have a wonderful relationship, full of character development and so on… until the development stops. The film foreshadows a lot for its characters and delivers none of it. Ostensibly it delivers on one thing, but through cop out.

Technically, the film’s fine. Goulding’s composition is decent, if unimaginative in his overuse of interior long shots–the sets aren’t that great and even if they were, they’re immaterial to the melodrama–and Ernest Haller’s photography is good. Max Steiner’s score is excellent.

Davis gets to do so much in Dark Victory, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t let her do all it promises for her. I almost started talking about the film as the difference between a part and a role. If there’s such a difference, Dark Victory gives Davis a great part but promises her a great role.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William Holmes; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr. Frederick Steele), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Virginia Brissac (Martha), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright), and Henry Travers (Dr. Parsons).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Power of the Press (1943, Lew Landers)

Power of the Press runs a thin–not slim, but thin–sixty-four minutes. It’s paced better than expected (publicity stills suggest quite a few cut scenes); scenes never seem rushed, scenes never seem truncated. Instead, they’re just deliberate. Otto Kruger is a blue blood New York City newspaper publisher who dabbles in fascism. He couldn’t buy his way into politics, but Daddy already bought him a newspaper. Or some of one.

Guy Kibbee, in the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist, is the new majority owner. He’s a small-town newspaper man from Nebraska who inherits that majority stake because he still cares about the news. About the freedom of the press. About democracy. About the ninety-nine percent (actual line, 1943–“fake news” gets repeated a whole lot too). Kibbee’s got his ethics and ace assistant Gloria Dickson on his side. But can they save a great metropolitan newspaper? Can they bring some clarity and truth to it?

On his side, Kruger’s got literal hitman Victor Jory and managing editor Lee Tracy. It’s unclear if Jory’s in it for the fascism or the money, but Tracy is definitely in it for the money. Robert Hardy Andrews’s screenplay (from a Sam Fuller story) has some rather decided thoughts on fascists and capitalists–and some, sadly, apt insight into how the two support one another.

The movie sets up Kruger and the paper, then brings in Kibbee. Those events take however long a round-trip train ride is from New York to Nebraska, plus a day. The rest of the movie, featuring Kruger using the newspaper to frame an innocent man, sabotage the Allied Powers a little, murder an immigrant, frame Kibbee, and whatever else, it all takes place in about a week. Maybe less. We don’t even get to see Kibbee’s apartment. It’s all at the newspaper.

Until it’s not in the third act, which is when Press hints at what might have been if it weren’t so short and so perfunctory. It’s a low budget, homefront jingoist newspaper thriller. There are crime aspects, there are conspiracy aspects. It’s a reasonably successful one too. Kibbee’s occasional dictated editorials (delivered as monologues) are definitely rousing. And they’ve got some teeth. The racists are traitors one is particularly awesome (and depressing given the film’s from 1943). Kruger’s a great villain. The way the script paces revelations into his backstory alongside a sort of intensifying villainy… Kruger’s dangerous, even though probably none of the main characters are in danger.

Tracy’s second-billed, but his part’s rather small for most of the film. He’s good. He can bark orders and he can stop and listen. There’s remnants of a romance (or at least hope of one) between him and Dickson. More time would be a subplot though and Power of the Press doesn’t do subplots.

Kibbee’s fine in the “lead.” Sometimes good, like during his monologues, but the movie sets him up as a cute old grandpa, then hints at giving him an actual part, then gives up on it to do the homefront newspaper thriller stuff.

Minor Watson is good in a minor (and uncredited) role.

The film’s adequately produced. Director Landers has some good shots, he has some bad ones. Mostly he just has adequate ones. Ditto the photography and editing. Neither impress or disappoint. They both help imply a greater world outside Press, which the budget doesn’t allow shown. Including street scenes. For a New York City-based newspaper thriller… Press didn’t even get the backlot.

It’s still thin, successful or not. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone out on such a fun third act either. From the first scene, Press is focused on being threatening enough to be serious. There’s no fun. Grandpa Kibbee doesn’t have any cute hobbies. But then in the third act, with the right scenes, the actors interact right and it gets fun. Too bad the whole thing isn’t fun. Charm wouldn’t hurt Press. Everyone in the picture’s got charm, they just barely get to employ it.

2

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on a story by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Mel Thorsen; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Leon Barsha; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Guy Kibbee (Ulysses Bradford), Gloria Dickson (Edwina Stephens), Otto Kruger (Howard Rankin), Lee Tracy (Griff Thompson), Victor Jory (Oscar Trent), Rex Williams (Barker), Frank Yaconelli (Tony Angelo), and Minor Watson (John Cleveland Carter).


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