Movie Diary 12/20/2010

Black Moon (Roy William Neill, 1934). Voodoo, pre-production code, Fay Wray, the strange beating of jungle drums. I go on about this here.

They Made Me a Fugitive (Cavalcanti, 1947). Really dynamic Brit-noir, with Trevor Howard as a bracingly sarcastic aristo who gets involved with the wrong underworld types. The thing is full of sassy dialogue and some very intense violence, and the atmosphere of postwar England, with rationing and dark hangovers, is everywhere.

Today’s Eighties film at What a Feeling!: She’s Out of Control, starring Tony Danza. This is a film so bad it causes existential unrest in film critics.

Black Moon (The Cornfield #12)

Very first thing in the movie is the sight of a wealthy urban sophisticate sitting in her child’s room, beating out a hypnotic rhythm on a large primitive drum. This is Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess), wife to successful businessman, hale ‘n hearty, everybody-loves-him Stephen Lane (Jack Holt). Check her name: two exotic morsels followed by dull-as-dishwater Lane; the lady was raised on a Caribbean island, part of the only white family there, and as this opening indicates – the servants respond with a “there she goes again with the drums” reaction – she has never entirely gotten over her voodoo-inflected upbringing (parents killed at an early age, neglectful uncle, prolonged outings with the natives). When you get to the end of the picture, you wonder what she’s doing with this trance-like drumming: communing with her true wild self, or preparing her daughter for a ritual sacrifice to come?

This is Black Moon, a 1934 Columbia film directed by Roy William Neill, who had come up through silent films and would do Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and a great many Sherlock Holmes titles in the 1940s. It comes two years after White Zombie and (given a few saucy references to things like “living in sin”) just before the Production Code really settled in. In U.S. culture an interest in voodoo and zombies remained in the air in the wake of William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, and Black Moon hits a lot of the signposts of that world, many of which would come up later in I Walked with a Zombie. There’s a triangle here, as there would be in I Walked with a Zombie; accompanying Juanita to San Christopher is Stephen’s secretary, Gail (Fay Wray), who has already made it clear to the audience (if not to her thickheaded boss) that she is in love with him.

Once on the island, there are various nocturnal walks, a couple of voodoo ceremonies, and a great many moody, forceful compositions. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August (who did Sylvia Scarlett and The Informer within a year and was clearly in a groove) create true backlot mysterioso here, from the overgrown yard of the plantation house to the noirish interiors. The scattered dribs of Creole language add to the mood, and Juanita’s talk of the islanders being oppressed by their white employers – delivered after she has definitively gone over to their team – comes as a well-aimed dart, even if most of the natives in the film fall into the realm of background menace.

But then, you can only do so much in 68 minutes, and what Black Moon does it does well. And with some eeriness, too: why do Juanita and Gail look almost identical? Is the whole movie some sort of oddball dream Stephen has, about replacing his unreachable wife? Within Jack Holt’s giant noggin, the idea must have been there: sure, he got cool cred for marrying the foreigner, the slinky alien lady with the jungle history and the sugarcane patois, but now his friends are raising their eyebrows about her incessant drum-beating, and after all, although she comes from money, it isn’t our kind of money, is it, old sport, and really what sort of a name is Juanita Perez? Not exactly one for the Blue Book, eh? So Stephen lets her go off to San Christopher, with daughter in tow, as she promises him that “When I come back, you won’t know me. I’ll be mild, placid, positively meek.” Evidently her nervous condition has made her something of a handful. He lets her go, despite the fact that every single person in the movie talks about what a dire idea is for Juanita to get anywhere near the old island ways. It is also necessary to overlook the Perez family emissary who comes to the U.S. to deliver a message but gets a knife in his back before he can say what he’s come about.

We don’t see what Juanita does when she goes off for her prowls, nor is it detailed what happened to her during her voodoo upbringing – except that her uncle saved her from “a living death.” She merely vanishes for long sections, and returns looking zonked-out and over-heated. What we do see involves a couple of glimpses of voodoo rites –  singing and drumming and that – the point of which is human sacrifice. This is where enforced discretion often creates intrigue in movies. What does she do out there, in the tropical jungle? She has knowledge that Stephen can’t possibly understand, with his fat smile and his good faith and his ease in a cold climate. This can’t go on, between the two of them. He doesn’t get her, and she must, as she says, go back home. As she sits in her daughter’s room in the opening scene, we may appreciate the ordinary space. But also notice that the classy wallpaper is decorated by a large drawing of a tree, whose tangled limbs spread out over the wall in this corner of the room. The ancient things are calling.