Pre-Code Poster Child

My late, great friend – writer/director Ric Menello – once dubbed the 1958 William Wyler western The Big Country as “un film de Jerome Moross.” The reason for this is because, while entertaining enough, the rambling epic is noteworthy throughout the globe for one reason:  an amazing soundtrack by the famed composer.  This, in and of itself, has nothing to do with my review, except for the reason that The Film Detective’s new Limited Edition Blu-Ray restoration of 1933’s THE SIN OF NORA MORAN, directed by Phil Goldstone, is, to apply the Menello Axiom, “un film de Alberto Vargas.”

The movie, a rare Poverty Row attempt (Tiffany) to go “legit,” checks off all the lurid pre-Code boxes:  adultery, blackmail, murder, political scandal and even “hot woman on death row.”  They even hyped a new, exciting process in which to tell their tale.  To achieve these lofty ends, producer-director Goldstone secured popular established and rising stars (not common for low budget histrionics), and got himself a decent cameraman (Ira Morgan), a racy, sizzling sourcework (Willis Maxwell Goodhue’s story Burnt Offering), and a talented composer (Heinz Roemheld).  Goldstone’s greatest score, however, was hiring the celebrated illustrator/painter Alberto Vargas to create the movie’s one-sheet.  It has become perhaps the most iconic Hollywood poster of the pre-Code era (certainly one of the most coveted and beloved and cherished pieces of promotional art in the annals of the entire industry).  When I first saw a repro of the ad, I gasped, “This is from a 1933 pic!!!???”  How could that be?  At first I thought (circa, 1970 or so, when I first spied the reprint ad) it was the greatest softcore poster I’d ever seen.  I figured the “1933” tag must have been a misprint.  But it wasn’t.  And, nor was NORA softcora.

I spent years trying to find this movie, especially when I discovered that the title character was enacted by Zita Johann, an early crush.  Rifling through pre-Code releases from the majors turned up nothing – and for good reason.  As indicated, the movie was a low-budget item from Tiffany.  True, if any Poverty Row outfit aspired to something greater, it WOULD be Tiffany.  They had, after all, made James Whale’s first success, 1930’s Journey’s End, and then, practically went bankrupt filming the first all-Technicolor sordid drama, the amazing and outstanding, Mamba (also 1930).

So what is THE SIN OF NORA MORAN?  Well, I’m not going to give away everything, but will provide readers an appetizing taste.

District Attorney John Grant (the great Alan Dinehart, already praised this year for his participation in Supernatural) is a political winner in virtually every sense of the word, except in perhaps choosing his relatives.  His slick, savvy brother-in-law Dick Crawford, a revered top-line attorney about to ascend to the city’s position of Governor, is also a cheating horndog.  Doom is, thus, practically spray-painted on Nora Moran’s torso when he first eyes the struggling buxom, sophisticated beauty, then seduces her (after removing his wedding ring).  He buys Nora an apartment, convinces her to give up any notions of a career – and vows that they shall eternally live for their love (the heaving interplay and lip-biting smiles on their faces reveal that they do have great sex, in a way that only pre-Code can deliver).  But the ugly truth about his being married to the sister of a powerful player eventually comes out. Nora may have had to give up her dreams, but not the aptly named Dick.  He ditches her without a second thought; nevertheless, the memories of their illicit carnality keeps bringing him back.  Until there’s a murder, placing Nora in the pokey.

Edith, Crawford’s jealous wife (who, as we noted, is Grant’s sister) finds out, and pressures Mr. D.A. sib to practically let her pull the switch on the electric chair.  But Grant has one last card up his sleeve. And that’s a secret he’s about to spill.

While NORA has all these delicious elements to make the movie a pre-Code classic, it lacks two major necessities (and one major-minor one):  a really good director and a really good script.  Had NORA been made at fast-paced Warners (the perfect studio for this kind of narrative), I imagine the project would have been handed over to the likes of Curtiz, LeRoy, Wellman, Alfred E. Green, Roy Del Ruth, Archie Mayo, etc.  I also surmise that the writing would have been top-notch, and overseen by no less than Darryl Zanuck.  Alas, this was not to be the case.  While certainly intriguing (and good looking – it truly doesn’t resemble a Poverty Row production), it misses the pantheon rung to have it spread-eagled alongside Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, The Sin of Temple Drake, Blessed Event, and other key studio releases from that era (the lack of a major company’s involvement is the major-minor aspect I alluded to above).

The new process/processes THE SIN OF NORA MORAN ballyhooed, too, while unusual for a Poverty Row entry, was/were not all-that-new.  These comprised elaborate flashbacks, but mostly consisted of the use of stream of consciousness, a la Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.  Truth be told, that device, used so effectively in the stage presentation of O’Neill’s play, WAS utilized in the MGM depiction, released a year before NORA.

This leaves us with the cast – and they’re dandy.  The aforementioned Dinehart never disappoints, ditto, bookend cads Paul Cavanaugh (as the adulterous lover) and John Miljan, an early employer who rapes and blackmails Nora (this brings to light an unintentional but psychologically fascinating aspect of the movie that should have been underlined, but wasn’t: that Miljan and Cavanaugh physically resemble each other, the latter being a highbrow version of the former, thereby suggesting that Nora is sexually drawn to a certain type of scumbag. Talk about missed opportunity!  Claire Du Bray also registers as the vengeful, scorned wife, but it is the underrated, super-gorgeous Zita Johann who seals the deal.  A ravishing beauty and excellent actress, Johann was the first wife of producer-writer-actor John Houseman (1929-1932); in fact, it was her accompanying Houseman to visit Howard Hawks for conferences regarding a script collaboration on Tiger Shark, that got Johann the female lead.  That same year (1932), she achieved horror immortality, costarring with Boris Karloff in her most famous work, The Mummy.  The casting coup of Johann for NORA upped the ante so much that Goldstone, generally a producer-only, decided to take over the directorial reins as well (it was soon all-too-obvious to those present that he had become obsessed with the actress during the filming – a scenario that would have made quite a movie by itself).

The Blu-Ray of THE SIN OF NORA MORAN is, for the most part, meritorious.  Who knew that 35MM even existed?  The restoration work, involving the Film Detective, Independent-International Pictures, and the UCLA Film and Restoration Archive deserves kudos.  Only intermittent cross-talk “webbing” (especially apparent during opticals) mars the pristine experience.

Some terrific extras append the release, comprising an illustrated booklet and an original documentary, The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann.  Bizarrely enough, much of the credit for NORA surviving belongs to infamous schlockmeister Sam Sherman.  He first saw the pic at a film collector’s house in the 1960s, and, became its number one fan.  Sherman even later connected with Johann, retired and living in New York (where the producer operated as well), and wore her down to the point where she appeared in his 1986 opus Raiders of the Living Dead!  All of this is covered in the aforementioned gobsmacking Mysterious Life supplement.

Of course, in true exploitation fashion, that Vargas poster had to be used as the Blu-Ray jacket.  For that alone, it deserves a spot in every pre-Code/classic movie collection.  But, remember, the Blu-Ray is a Limited Edition, with only 1500 copies available, so don’t leave the lady waiting!

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN.  Black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective/Independent International/UCLA Film and Restoration Archive. CAT # FB1007.  SRP:  $24.99.

Limited Edition of 1500.

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