Sunday 11 October 2009

Black Moon (1934)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Jack Holt, Fay Wray and Dorothy Burgess
Fay Wray was a busy girl in the mid thirties, hardly surprising given that she'd become the screen's first scream queen in 1933's King Kong. She had become a major name in the horror genre a year earlier, but only made two films in 1932: Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game. With the success of King Kong, she'd be hot property. I've seen five of her 1933 movies, including The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum, and yet I'm still not even halfway. She made eleven films in 1934 too, and this makes four for me, the best of the others being The Clairvoyant.

We meet the Lanes first. Nita, or Juanita Perez Lane, is a little crazy, though not so much that she has to be kept away from her daughter. She's struggling against a strong fear, one that might only be assuaged by going back to the Caribbean island of San Christopher on which she was born and grew up. Her uncle, who owns the large Perez Plantation on the island, doesn't want to her to come back, especially as the mere news of her trip back has sparked a resurgence of voodoo drums and a fresh sacrifice at the full moon. She won't be dissuaded so Dr Perez's man goes to her husband Stephen instead, only to be murdered by a native right in Lane's office doorway.

Stephen Lane is a businessman, able enough to not be flustered by a man being killed in front of him, willing to take the trip to San Christopher to help cure his wife's homesickness but apparently not able to notice that his secretary, Gail Hamilton, is madly in love with him. He's played by Jack Holt, a tough and square jawed leading man in the late silent and early sound era, though his long career ran from 1914 to 1951. Hamilton, of course, is Fay Wray. The pair must have known each other pretty well, this being the last of six films they made together in a five year period, the only one that I've seen being Frank Capra's Dirigible.

They're both a long way from home in San Christopher, where the Perez family are pretty close to being the only white folks on an island full of black outcasts from Haiti. To Lane and Hamilton, it's a thoroughly dangerous place to be, but to Nita it's home and it's in her blood. The first time we see her she's playing voodoo drums in the nursery back in New York, but on San Christopher she's a key part of the local cult, which as you might expect is all about blood sacrifice, dark gods and voodoo rituals. The drums are a frequent sinister background to the film, though I find it a pleasure reminiscent of the taiko drums that provide a similar background to the Japanese festivals known as matsuri.
Horror was a massively important genre in the early thirties, not least through the massive success of the iconic Universal horrors such as Dracula and Frankenstein. Zombie films in their modern form really didn't come along until much later, but they were around as voodoo films this far back. White Zombie is the earliest I've seen, made in 1932 by RKO, with Bela Lugosi and, in a small role, Clarence Muse, a talented black actor who deserved more substantial parts than he was usually given. He's hardly a leading role here but he gets much more to do than he did in White Zombie, though he's saddled with the unfortunate character name of Lunch. He even gets to sing a couple of times.

I've seen Jack Holt and Fay Wray often, so I'm not surprised at their performances here, which are roughly what I'd expect. Holt is tough and unshakeable as Stephen Lane, even in the face of such danger as he faces on San Christopher. He's the sort of man you'd want next to you in a crisis, level headed and willing to make tough decisions, along with being a crack shot. Wray is utterly capable but still deliciously vulnerable as his secretary, precisely the sort of girl any red blooded man would always want to save. She's loyal, daring and beautiful, and ever likely to get out of trouble before you could rescue her. No wonder they were so in demand during this period, full of adventurous yarns in exotic lands that the explorers were opening up but couldn't yet explain.

Dorothy Burgess is the surprise here, playing Nita through a few changes of character, not entirely believable but forgiveably so given the short 69 minute running time of the film. I've seen her before playing supporting roles in Warner Brothers movies, but she's never really registered as a presence before, even in films as innovative as From Headquarters. She registers here and I wonder why she didn't return to the genre again. Perhaps it merely wasn't her scene, even though she shone in it, just as Myrna Loy hated the exotic roles she played in this period that are fascinating to fans today. She apparently retired from the screen in 1935, came back for a string of B movies in the early forties and then retired again in 1943 to write a novel.

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