Madness in the Moonlight: Rediscovering 1934’s Black Moon by matthew c . hoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/17/14:

I used to collect dozens of rare movies on VHS. These were often bootlegged copies recorded off some “Channel Z” station. One of the tapes I had which I never had a chance to watch was Black Moon (1934). I’m glad I never viewed that video copy because several years ago I had the chance to see it screened on film at the Bank of America Cinema, which had been the LaSalle Bank Theatre when I operated it. What you will see tonight won’t have the texture or richness of the images I saw because projected film looks differently, and I believe movies shot on film should be shown on film if possible. But you’ll get a close approximation of that experience. What I remember most about seeing tonight’s film for the first time is the cinematography by Joseph August and the brooding atmosphere that pervades the film from the very first scene to its bizarre climax.

Black Moon is the sort of pulp fiction one might’ve seen illustrated on the cover of an issue of Weird Tales. Based on a short story by Clements Ripley, it tells the story of a woman haunted by the shadows of her past. Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, a wife and mother who is called back to the island of San Christopher in the West Indies. At an early age she had been exposed to the rituals of voodoo, and though she was able to escape the island, she was never able to escape its hold on her. The only way she can overcome those dark forces is to return to their source. However, in the eyes of the natives, she is welcomed as a returning priestess—a jungle goddess of sorts. Jack Holt plays her businessman husband, Stephen Lane, who wonders why she’s disappearing into the jungle at night, and Fay Wray is his secretary, Gail, who accompanies Juanita on the trip (even though she’s secretly in love with Lane). Gail sounds the alarm almost immediately upon arriving. She sends a message for Lane to join them on the island.

Black Moon feels a little like a B movie, but its production values are much higher than the typical programmer. Joseph August was one of the most accomplished cinematographers in Hollywood. He would shoot such films as The Informer, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Devil and Daniel Webster. The compositions and lighting reflect a level of detail and care you wouldn’t find in most low-budget films. One instance in particular is the scene in which the natives try to smoke out the heroes who have taken refuge in a tower on the plantation. The smoke gradually seeps in under the locked door until the characters are suffocating in a beautifully lit scene.

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Jack Holt, who plays our rather husky hero, is only adequate here. His best moments are his scenes with Cora Sue Collins as the little daughter; you get a sense of genuine concern for her. Holt was a square-jawed, two-fisted hero of mostly westerns. His most successful period as a star came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Three Jack Holt films worth rediscovering are Submarine (1928), Flight (1929), and Dirigible (1931), but that’s only because they were all directed by Frank Capra. Holt is the father of Tim Holt, who starred in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jack Holt was also the physical inspiration for Chester Gould’s comic book character Dick Tracy.

Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, the Creole-speaking wife who essentially turns her back on the civilized world to join the natives. For its time, the concept of a white woman becoming part of black culture must’ve shocked the sensibilities of viewers. Though her situation is certainly removed from our reality—I doubt many of you have ties to jungle sorcery– Burgess conveys the inner turmoil of her character as forcefully as someone today who might be struggling with bi-polar illness or depression. Her battle is with a psychological monster. She’s split between her civilized self and the world of her people on the island. Her duality even pulls her away from her own family, and that is the most tragic aspect of the film. She confronts these beckoning demons head-on, but it all goes wrong in a hurry and she succumbs to their power. Though we should be sympathetic towards her given her earlier experiences as a child, the movie instead makes Juanita the villain.

Dorothy Burgess had been a Broadway actress and acting ran in the family. Her aunt was the famous stage actress Fay Bainter. Burgess later starred in several films in Hollywood following her big break in 1928’s In Old Arizona, in which she played the Spanish love interest for Warner Baxter’s Cisco Kid. Some of her 1930s credits include Hold Your Man, Taxi!, and Ladies They Talk About with Barbara Stanwyck. Her own life was haunted by personal tragedy. In 1932 Burgess was charged with manslaughter when her car piled into another vehicle, killing a 17 year old girl. When her film career came to an end in the mid-1940s Burgess turned to writing. In 1944 she published a novel called Say Uncle, which deals with vampires. She was only 54 when she died in 1961.

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Fay Wray, the great scream queen of 1930s horror, stars as Gail. She’s the secretary who becomes a mother substitute after Juanita falls under the jungle spell. Though Fay has little to do in the film, her presence in it nonetheless is one of the highlights. Fay had been acting since the silent era when she appeared in films like The Wedding March. Throughout the early 1930s she played the heroine in many chillers including The Most Dangerous Game, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X. She starred opposite Jack Holt in several films including Dirigible. Though she’s a brunette here, Fay Wray is best remembered as a blonde in her most famous film, 1933’s King Kong.

Clarence Muse, who plays the character Lunch in this film, was a multi-talented black actor who also wrote and composed music. Horror fans will remember him as the coach driver in another voodoo film, White Zombie. For a Hollywood film, Black Moon is distinct because Muse is not playing a racial stereotype in the manner of his contemporaries like Willie Best, for example. He provides some comedy relief, but it’s not nearly as offensive or demeaning as it could’ve been. His character brings a degree of balance to a racially-charged film. The story’s background is a social powder keg ready to explode. Juanita’s uncle, who comes from a long line of white oppressors, lives on a plantation that is periodically besieged by the black residents—the “monkey chasers,” as Lunch calls them.

Roy William Neill directed Black Moon. The following year he made The Black Room with Boris Karloff in a dual role, and his last credit was the film noir The Black Angel in 1946. Besides movies with “Black” in the title, Neill is best known for the several Sherlock Holmes films he made in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He also directed Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which is the best of the Frankenstein sequels after Son of Frankenstein. In Black Moon, Neill establishes an almost claustrophobic jungle environment where the menace is always closing in– not unlike 1933’s The Island of Lost Souls. Sets such as the plantation house are not secure enough to keep this dread presence out.

Note the shadow of the hanging man in the background!
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For people expecting zombies and the walking dead, that’s not what this one is about. However, there’s no question Black Moon’s oppressive mood was an influence on Val Lewton’s later film, I Walked With a Zombie. The rhythmic beat of drums is heard periodically on the soundtrack, adding a sense of foreboding. There are some genuinely disturbing moments in the film, perhaps none more so than the climax involving a voodoo sacrifice and the choice the hero must make. It’s the kind of ending that will leave you speechless.

The Rediscovered was initially going to be a series all about strange adventures in exotic lands, but as the series evolved into something broader, only two films from that early concept stayed: West of Zanzibar and tonight’s film. They are also the two shortest films in the program. Black Moon is only 68 minutes, but its storytelling is very economical. It’s an overlooked film from the 1930s with horror overtones. The story might not appeal to everyone, but pay more attention to the film’s visual imagery and its atmosphere. There you will discover the power and magic of Black Moon. I hope you as viewers will fall under its hypnotic spell.

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