Saturday, October 17, 2009

Black Moon (Columbia, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually got to watch a movie I recently recorded from TCM: Black Moon, a 1934 release from Columbia based on a novel (originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine) from 1933 by Clements Ripley that was more or less about voodoo. Directed by Roy William Neill from a screenplay by Wells Root — both names that have adorned much greater films than this one — Black Moon, even more than The Missing Juror, was a triumph of style over substance: vividly atmospheric direction by Neill and incredible chiaroscuro cinematography by Joseph August, dressing up an incredibly silly story with plot holes the size of galaxies and a deep strain of racism that got more annoying as the film progressed.

The story opens in New York City, with businessman Stephen Lane (Jack Holt, top-billed and an odd role for someone known mostly as an action star — it would have been like casting John Wayne in Citizen Kane) getting concerned about his wife, Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess), who grew up on a Caribbean island called San Christopher (Charles chuckled at the inadvertently multicultural name!) and whose parents were sacrificed by a voodoo cult when Juanita was just two (though we don’t learn that until well after the halfway point of the film) and who was raised by a Black nanny, Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), who it’s intimated corrupted her and fed her blood to drink, thereby inducting her to the voodoo cult.

At the start Juanita is living a sort-of normal life — at least she’s maintained her marriage long enough that she and Stephen have a daughter, Nancy (played by Cora Sue Collins, yet another offensively cutesy-poo Shirley Temple wanna-be) — but she’s hearing the call of the jungle and responding to it by obsessively beating a voodoo drum every chance she gets. Juanita thinks she can get the jungle out of her system by going to San Christopher again as an adult, and at first Stephen is going to accompany her but at the last minute he has to stay behind to negotiate a big business deal. Instead he sends her there with his secretary, Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray), as her traveling companion — despite the warnings of her uncle, Dr. Raymond Perez (Arnold Korff), that she should not go.

The population of San Christopher is two whites — plantation owner Dr. Perez and his overseer, John Macklin (Lumsden Hare), whom Dr. Perez dispatches to New York to tell Juanita not to come — and 5,000 Blacks; one wonders why the Blacks don’t rise up and get rid of the two white guys instead of taking some quite different and less sensible avenues of rebellion. One voodoo cult member actually follows Macklin to New York and kills him by throwing a knife at him in a hotel hallway, but not even the murder dissuades Juanita from going to San Christopher. Once there, she falls in with the native cult and is torn between her marriage and family life back in the U.S. and her born destiny as a voodoo priestess (one wonders if Clements Ripley’s novel explained this plot point by making Juanita half-Black and if that got censored from the film). Gail, who previously had been depicted as in love with Stephen but unwilling to have a back-street affair with him — and thereby determined to quit her job with him because seeing the man she loves and can’t have because he’s married to someone else was getting just too frustrating — naturally tries to get Juanita to leave the island and go back to New York.

When that fails, she gets Dr. Perez to send Stephen a message — only he has to do it through the Black wireless operator, and the voodoo cultists (who behave throughout the movie with a ruthlessness that might have appalled Saddam Hussein) kill the guy just as he gets the message off. (Later another cultist sabotages the radio room altogether when Stephen himself arrives and tries to send a message back.) As the film continues director Neill’s atmospheric shots get more and more intense and beautiful — and the plot gets sillier and sillier; Stephen duly arrives, only to find his wife having slipped farther and farther away from his world. She has one last crisis of conscience when the voodoo cultists demand that she sacrifice her own daughter — given the way another woman had been shown as desperately in love with her husband, any even slightly hardened moviegoer could have guessed in 1934 that Juanita would be dead by the fade-out, and where I thought this was going was that she would refuse to kill her daughter and therefore the cultists would kill her — but how it actually does end is that she agrees and is about to do the dirty deed when Stephen crashes the voodoo ritual and shoots her in the back before she can finish the ceremony.

Then, when any rational person would expect the Black worshipers to converge en masse on the white interlopers and lynch him on the spot, all they do is stand there and register shock, allowing him to scoop up his daughter and get away with her, Gail and Lunch McLaren (Clarence Muse), the “nice” Black boat pilot who’s quickly established as the one sympathetic character of his race because he sings spirituals (in most of his scenes he’s doing “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” which actually becomes the basis for the outro music over the end credit) and therefore is a good Christian instead of a voodoo freak. There are a few really good things about Black Moon — not only the atmospheric cinematography but also the interesting “authentic” detail that when the natives are conversing with each other, or Juanita is addressing them directly, they speak Kreyol, the African-flavored dialect of French that is the common language in Haiti — and the Kreyol is untranslated, so we’re kept at an appropriate distance from the native culture and speech.

But what’s good about Black Moon is dwarfed by what’s wrong with it, starting with the plot holes — like the fact that the 5,000 Blacks on the island could easily overwhelm the handful of whites, but they let the whites get away with killing their voodoo priest (Stephen shoots the guy down to keep him from sacrificing an adult woman, just as he later kills his wife for trying to sacrifice their daughter — indeed, since Juanita is shown only from the back it’s not clear at first that she is leading the ceremony and it’s not just the old voodoo priest, merely wounded and not dead) — and continuing with the casting.

Dorothy Burgess and Fay Wray look so much alike — the only reliable way to tell them apart is that Wray has the less attractive hairdo — I was expecting a plot twist that they were sisters (or at least half-sisters); and Burgess herself simply isn’t a good enough actress to convince us that she’s genuinely torn between her white Western mores and her voodoo heritage. I couldn’t help wishing that Columbia had given this part to Zita Johann, who in the 1932 classic The Mummy had played a somewhat similar character — a half-English, half-Egyptian woman pulled apart by the two sides of her heritage and pulled apart even further when she finds she’s the reincarnation of a Pharaonic princess — and played her dazzlingly, with a sophistication and real emotion that totally eluded Burgess.

But the worst part of this movie is its relentless racism — the Blacks of San Christopher are depicted as implacably evil, feeling about white people pretty much the way the Nazis felt about the Jews, and utterly unscrupulous about sacrificing people or just murdering them in cold blood the moment they’ve become inconvenient. Black Moon is arguably the most openly racist mainstream Hollywood production since The Birth of a Nation, and that’s not just 2009 hindsight either: the American Film Institute Catalog entry on the film quoted a contemporary review from the trade paper Motion Picture Herald that warned, “In that the colored natives involved in the film are rather harshly pictured as bloodthirsty worshippers of black gods who indulge in sacrificial orgies, the film may meet with objections in those situations in which colored people make up a portion of the patronage.”