Category Archives: 1933

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 Narrow Corner (1933, Alfred E. Green)

The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.

The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.

Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.

Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.

Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).

The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.

The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.

Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.

Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.

Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.

It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.

The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.

If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.

Inglorious given he started it.

But still. Not bad at all.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).


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Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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Penthouse (1933, W.S. Van Dyke)

Penthouse is a lean mystery masquerading as a class melodrama. Most of that class melodrama stuff comes at the front–and is only really ever alluded to later–making the film front-heavy. Unfortunately, so much time goes towards the melodrama, the mystery suffers. Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of charm–from the cast, from the script, from director Van Dyke–and it makes up for the uneasy narrative.

Warner Baxter is a blue blood lawyer who discovers his passion is for helping the unjustly accused professional criminal. The criminal can’t be guilty of the crime he’s charged with. The film opens with Baxter successfully defending Nat Pendleton’s mob boss. Pendleton’s fantastic. He’s part of the film’s comic relief, but he’s also conveys danger.

Penthouse doesn’t seem to have much of a budget–it’s that lean mystery, after all–so there aren’t a lot of big set pieces. Danger and drama usually play out in conversation. It’s a talky lean mystery, so it’s good screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do so well with the dialogue.

Baxter can make any line engaging. He easily breezes through most of the mystery stuff at the end as he distracts from the film’s lack of a big third act finish, but when his material’s good, he’s outstanding. There’s not a lot of time in the script to establish Baxter. His girl (Martha Sleeper) breaks his heart and the film follows her instead of him–because the melodrama. Baxter’s just getting hammered, much to the chagrin of both Pendleton (in addition to being a client, he’s a pal) and Charles Butterworth (as Baxter’s suffering butler).

Only then the film doesn’t stick with Sleeper, but follows Phillips Holmes as her other suitor, then shifts to Mae Clarke as Holmes’s illicit lover. By the time C. Henry Gordon shows up–as Clarke’s ex and Pendleton’s criminal rival–one might forget there was someone else in the opening titles, second-billed, in fact. Myrna Loy. She doesn’t even show up until the second act, which isn’t ideal because there’s only an hour left.

Loy’s sort of a mob moll, sort of not. It’s unclear; Goodrich and Hackett get a lot of amazing innuendo into the script but barely any details. Penthouse isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to entertain. When it’s too busy trying to build to entertaining points–Loy and Baxter flirt wonderfully but when it comes time for them to make actual sweet talk, it’s all off. Goodrich and Hackett awkwardly combine their romantic melodrama into mystery deduction scenes. It never gels. Maybe because Baxter treating Loy as disposable doesn’t make any sense.

But they’re still great together in most of their scenes and both of them generate a bunch of goodwill on their own. Loy and Butterworth are wonderful together, for example.

Van Dyke’s got some good direction in the film, usually involving Clarke or Loy. He doesn’t try as much in the other scenes, just keeps it brisk. He does seem to get bored occasionally. There’s one fifteen minute stretch in the second act it feels like nothing but two shots between different characters sitting (or walking to some other place to sit).

Penthouse is an uneven, but still successful outing. Another thirty minutes or so, a little more of a budget, a little better editing from Robert Kern (though maybe Van Dyke didn’t have the time for more coverage), it probably would’ve been better. With Loy, Baxter and Pendleton (and Butterworth)–and Van Dyke’s able direction–it works pretty well.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche; directors of photography, Lucien N. Andriot and Harold Rosson; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Warner Baxter (Jackson Durant), Myrna Loy (Gertie Waxted), Nat Pendleton (Tony Gazotti), C. Henry Gordon (Jim Crelliman), Martha Sleeper (Sue Leonard), Charles Butterworth (Layton), Phillips Holmes (Tom Siddall) and Mae Clarke (Mimi Montagne).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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