The Puzzling Sin of Nora Moran
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Sin Takes a Holiday (1930), The Sin Ship (1931) — pre-Code debauchery can be hard to keep straight — and I’m just referring to these sinful titles right now. That said, I could’ve sworn I’d seen The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) before, but a few minutes in, I realized I hadn’t. There’s simply no way you could forget this story.
If you can untangle it in the first place, that is. At its core, The Sin of Nora Moran tells the tragic tale of young, victimized Nora (Zita Johann). Not only is Nora sentenced to death for the murder of the carnival boss, Paulino (John Miljan), who raped her, but she’s also refused a pardon by her married lover, Governor Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh). That’s the main takeaway once you wade through the twists, flashbacks, narrators, hallucinations, and warped sense of morality the film haphazardly unpacks in a way that is evocative, illusory, and downright bewildering. That said, below are five of this bizarre pre-Code’s most intriguing elements — all the more reason to seek out what writer John Cocchi calls “the best independent feature of the Thirties” today.
Looking for A Christmas Movie?
Well, this isn’t it, but apparently Poverty Row distributor Majestic thought otherwise, as The Sin of Nora Moran was released in mid-December 1933, months after the one week shoot wrapped in June. A New York Times article inquired why Majestic thought such a glum subject would be suitable for the season, as The Sin of Nora Moran is the exact opposite of festive. I can’t imagine how holiday audiences would have responded to this movie, unless the Depression somehow made the “tragedy every minute” more tolerable? Who knows, but when you’re cramming an illicit love affair, rape, murder, body disposal, life-changing sacrifice, and suicide into 63 minutes, there truly is no room for light spots to “break the shroud of gloom,” as The Billboard put it.
John (Alan Dinehart) and Dick (Paul Cavanagh) discussing details of Nora’s (Zita Johann) execution — which hasn’t even happened yet — is unsettling, to say the least.
Structure, What Structure?
Critics pointed to The Sin of Nora Moran’s “narratage” assembly, a term coined by the Fox publicity department for The Power and the Glory’s (1933) nonlinear flashbacks, as part of the reason the plot was so hard to decipher. The New York Times dubbed the movie a “bewildering mass of scenes,” while The Chicago Daily Tribune brusquely stated that “it might have been gripping if it weren’t so confusing,” and I’m right there with those reviewers. The picture’s time-traveling episodes seemingly know no bounds: select scenes take place in the past, with some flashbacks even unfolding within flashbacks, and others transpire as dreams or hallucinations. It’s impossible to keep it all straight — but it’s surely fun to try.
Aside from the confusing time component, Nora Moran also bends reality in an astonishing way. Not only do characters sometimes break the narrative in flashbacks to comment on the future and wonder if they can alter it, but the film’s bold spirituality and mystic elements also lean towards the avant-garde. Many of these otherworldly scenes bring blatant discomfort, such as brusque details of an electrocution; Dick and DA John (Alan Dinehart) explicitly discussing Nora’s death, before it happens, while she lies in a casket (John: The current “goes through her head, her arms, and her legs. If you don’t believe it, come to the execution tonight. They’re going to kill her again. The warden wasn’t pleased with the way she died.”); and a transcendent final exchange between Nora and Dick that strongly postulates the afterlife. Disquieting scenes as ethereal as these are not often observed in pre-Codes.
Talk About Suggestive
The poster for The Sin of Nora Moran may be more iconic than the film itself. Ironically, the stark image of a blonde woman hanging her head in despair (or shame, or she’s just tired?), dressed in a barely-staying-up-borderline-translucent undergarment is the polar opposite visual of brunette star Zita Johann, at least hair and attire-wise.
Audiences usually expect a certain amount of provocative material from pre-Codes, and Nora Moran delivers with close-up shots of chorus girls’ behinds and a strongly implied rape. However, a good chunk of the risqué matter censors criticized emerges on more twisted psychological grounds than we generally see in this period, some of which I described above: scenes involving frank execution preparations (discussing coffin sizes, a matron lamenting “she has such pretty hair”), stark hallucinations about death and the hereafter, and Double Indemnity vibes in a car scene in which Nora and John dispose of a body… and then John illegally prosecutes her for the murder, which happened in another state. Seriously, nothing is normal or moral in this picture.
There’s also no shortage of shots of Johann in distress in jail, about to die, in The Sin of Nora Moran.
Zita Johann: Who?
Beautiful, riveting, enigmatic. Johann was not a woman I recognized (I haven’t seen The Mummy), and her filmography solidified my intrigue in her: She appeared in only 8 movies, 7 of those being pre-Codes. “She has brains—that girl!” boasted D.W. Griffith, who directed her debut in his final film, 1931’s The Struggle. She had guts, too: Part of the reason Johann, a respected Broadway actress, made so few movies was that her artistic standards led her to disprove of the studio system. Financial reasons finally swayed her, but the independent actress wasn’t afraid to speak her mind honestly in Hollywood; in fact, she infamously slighted MGM’s Irving Thalberg by inquiring: “Why do you make such rubbish?”
Johann imbued that sense of integrity and personal truth in Nora, too. The actress’ documented spirituality and mysticism are visceral in this picture and lent themselves well to the drastic tonal changes required. From youthful optimism, to credible PTSD, to the poignant joys and heartbreak of first love, to a devastating sacrifice, and finally to the otherworldly hauntings that come with an imminent execution, Johann dramatized Nora’s rollercoaster life ingeniously and convincingly.
Is Nora speaking to Dick from beyond the grave? Seemingly, but nothing can be confirmed in this picture.
B-Movie Producer Extraordinaire Phil Goldstone
As the posters proclaim, The Sin of Nora Moran is a Majestic production, an indie outlet run by Phil Goldstone from 1932-1935. Goldstone chiefly operated as a producer, but for some unknown reason, he took over as director from Howard Christy after production began on Nora Moran — a rare move for him. Given the film’s week-long shooting schedule, who knows what effect that personnel change had on the proceedings; there’s also speculation that the picture’s narrative structure was someone else’s brainchild, but who that may have been is anyone’s guess. On top of that, it’s been reported that Goldstone banned set visitors, going so far as to station a guard at the door to look out for reporters, AND he apparently became so enamored with Johann that he had his agent propose to her on his behalf. (She declined.) That all sounds on par with The Sin of Nora Moran’s eccentricities, doesn’t it?
But truly, I’d expect nothing rational of this picture, considering all the other perplexing elements present on and off screen. With the film vacillating through dubious planes of truth, time, and reality, The Sin of Nora Moran may not qualify as a pre-Code classic, but it surely goes down as an intriguing entry!
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.