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Black Moon

Black Moon(1934)

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teaser Black Moon (1934)

The strict enforcement of the Hays Code in Hollywood officially began at the beginning of July in 1934, curbing a brief but memorable spate of sound-era films that pushed the boundaries of film censorship as far as society would allow. One of the very last horror films released during the so-called Pre-Code era was Columbia's Black Moon (released a few weeks before the Code's formal imposition), an atmospheric entry in the cycle of "tropical terror" films popularized by the likes of films like its closest cinematic ancestor, 1932's White Zombie, and 1928's sadistic West of Zanzibar from the silent era. Here voodoo and the regular fascination with "other," dark-skinned cultures becomes the focal point once again, though the presence of the usual exploitation elements like zombies, torture, and sexual perversity is jettisoned here in favor of a slightly different kind of voodoo tale.

After surviving the deaths of her parents during a mysterious voodoo rite, Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) grows up to form a normal family with her husband, Stephen (Jack Holt), and her daughter, Nancy (Cora Sue Collins). Accompanied by their nanny/secretary, Gail (Fay Wray), they return to the island of San Christopher where the lure of "the drums" still flows in Juanita's veins, and the locals seem to regard her with an unsettlingly intense reverence...

For horror fans, the biggest draw in Black Moon (no relation to the bizarre 1975 Louis Malle film of the same name) is the presence of Fay Wray, one of the screen's first bona fide scream queens whose diverse filmography across many genres is still best remembered for her quintet of films released between 1932 and 1933: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat and her most famous role as Ann Darrow in King Kong. This film would actually prove to be her horror swan song (not counting the eerie mystery The Clairvoyant one year later), though she remained a busy actress until 1980. Wray had little recollection of even making Black Moon, claiming in a Starlog magazine interview that it's "a film I've almost erased from my consciousness... I've never seen it."

Oddly, the film forces her to split time with another female lead, the ambiguous Juanita played by Dorothy Burgess. The beautiful niece of veteran actress Fay Bainter made her auspicious film debut above the title in 1928 with the Oscar-winning In Old Arizona, a slot she had earned thanks to several years of acclaimed stage appearances. However, the rest of her career was far more inconsistent thanks in part to a violent car crash in 1932 in which she was one of the drivers. She continued to work steadily but suffered serious psychological side effects, eventually retiring from the screen eleven years later to return to stage work in which she remained until her death in 1961.

One performer almost universally singled out for praise in Black Moon is Clarence Muse, cast in the potentially demeaning "comic negro" role of Lunch McClaren. Racial attitudes of the time are often a dicey proposition with modern audiences, and this film provides plenty of disconcerting material with its depiction of an entire island full of black residents constantly trying to butcher the handful of white overseers over a century-long struggle. Writer John T. Soister offers his own take on the McClaren role (an American black man from Georgia offered as contrast) in Up from the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s, praising him as "adventurous, articulate, and very quick to distance himself from the locals... He can be humorous without being foolish, and his conversations with Jack Holt's character are man to man, not white man to black man; their relationship remains refreshingly condescension free... Purposefully or not, the screenplay subtly contrasts the American black man with the Caribbean black man. The former is in every way more independent and responsible and less easily led than his island counterpart." Holding a Juris Doctor degree and boasting considerable musical theater skills, he was one of the most in-demand black actors of the 20th century, graduating to mainstream Hollywood films such as Watch on the Rhine and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (both 1943) and remaining active onscreen until shortly before his death with late-career roles including The Black Stallion (1979) and Car Wash (1976).

A veteran filmmaker since the early silent era, director Roy William Neill was a hired hand on many productions like most of his peers, usually for programmers such as As the Devil Commands and The Circus Queen Murder (both 1933). His proven skill with macabre material here led to another more high-profile Columbia film in 1935, the Boris Karloff dual-role classic The Black Room. He soon jumped ship to Universal Pictures where he helmed the stylish Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, but that same year also marked his most indelible contribution to cinema as he was brought on to direct the Basil Rathbone mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. He went on to helm nine more Sherlock Holmes films including the series' most horrific later entry, The Scarlet Claw (1944), which essentially serves as a culmination of Neill's previous experience in the genre.

Equally significant behind the camera here is the film's cinematographer, Joseph H. August, a regular collaborator with Neill on most of his Columbia films of the period. The following year August became a noted industry name with his work on John Ford's The Informer (1935), followed by an increasingly impressive string of assignments including Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (both 1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and his final film, the ethereal Portrait of Jennie (1948). Oddly, both August and Neill died at relatively young ages less than a year apart from each other from exactly the same cause, a heart attack; Neill passed away in December of 1946, while August followed him in September of 1947.

The revival of interest in early Hollywood horror films which brought fame to filmmakers like James Whale and Val Lewton has yet to bring much attention to Black Moon (dismissed upon release by The New York Post as "a humid melodrama"), though it has found its champions in some quarters. The now-defunct Scarlet Street in particular made a canny observation about its status as close ancestor to Lewton's undeniably superior I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to which it owes "an undeniable debt." However, horror fans should keep their expectations in check for, as a disappointed Bryan Senn noted in his review of the film, it contains "no zombies, no hexes or curses, no talk of vengeful spirits or voodoo gods, not even a single ceremonial snake rears its sacred head. The story might just as well have taken place in the wilds of India as a tale of religious upheaval or in darkest Africa as some Tarzan movie subplot." Whether viewers would now see a voodoo film made without these staples as a failure is, of course, a matter of personal taste, but compared to the flood of voodoo horrors unleashed the following decade from the likes of studios like Monogram, it offers a distinctly different take on the subject from an industry quickly adjusting to a new set of restrictions and audience expectations.

Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Clements Ripley (story); Wells Root
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Music: Louis Silvers (uncredited)
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Jack Holt (Stephen Lane), Fay Wray (Gail Hamilton), Dorothy Burgess (Juanita Perez Lane), Cora Sue Collins (Nancy Lane), Arnold Korff (Dr. Raymond Perez), Clarence Muse ('Lunch' McClaren), Eleanor Wesselhoeft (Anna, the nursemaid), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Ruva), Laurence Criner (Kala, the priest), Lumsden Hare (John Macklin)
BW-65m.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Sources:
Langman, Larry and Finn, Daniel. A Guide to American Crime Films of the Thirties. Private Release, 1995.
Senn, Bryan. Drums o' Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema. Midnight Marquee, 1998.
Soister, John T. Up from the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s. McFarland, 2004.
"Fay Wray Remembers King Kong." Starlog #194. September 2001.
The Internet Movie Database

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