Cast & Crew
Cora Sue Collins
When Edith Crawford, widow of Governor Dick Crawford, comes to her brother, District Attorney John Grant, with love letters she found in her husband's safe, John advises her to burn the letters. He then shows her a newspaper clipping about the other woman in her husband's life, Nora Moran, who was the first woman to die in the electric chair in twenty years, and tells Nora's story. In the past, as preparations are being made for her execution, the twenty-one-year-old Nora has a chance for a reprieve if she tells the reason she committed the murder with which she is charged. To quiet the distressed girl, she is given an opiate. Under the influence of the drug, Nora remembers her life as a child and the automobile crash over a cliff that killed her parents. In her memory, after she is refused a job dancing in a chorus, she convinces Paulino, a lion wrestler with a traveling circus, to hire her as his assistant. She is happy until Paulino enters her train suite and rapes her. Still under the opiate's influence, Nora relives events from her past and questions whether it ultimately was a good thing that she left the circus. She remembers that later, as a dancing girl, she met Crawford, danced with him, spent a week of romance with him and received a ring from him. Edith now breaks into John's story and angrily states that while Crawford and Nora were enjoying their romance, she was slaving for Crawford. John then rebukes his sister, reminding her that she wanted Crawford because of social ambition, and he admits that the reason he groomed Crawford for the governorship was to further his own political power. John says that because he was afraid of a possible scandal, he investigated Nora and learned that Crawford set her up in a house across the state line, where they would see each other Mondays and Fridays. In the past, John rings Nora's bell, and knowing what will happen in the future, she contemplates not answering, but she fatalistically realizes that she must answer the door. John talks to Nora, and it is only when he threatens to break the story of the scandal that Nora learns Crawford is married and running for governor. To give Crawford the wrong opinion of her so that he will break up with her, Nora falsely confesses relationships with other men, after which he leaves in disgust. Alone with John, Nora, knowing what is about to happen, confesses that she is terrified of going through the murder again, and John blames himself for not leaving soon enough. In prison, Nora, nearly insane from her memories and the effect of the drug, pleads that she not be allowed to go back to sleep. John, continuing the story to Edith, says that Crawford, now governor, refused to grant Nora a stay. John says that on the night of the murder, Nora refused his money and resolved to leave town on the next train. That night, she telephones John at his hotel for help, and when he arrives at her house, she shows him the body of Paulino, whom, she says, she killed with a whip when he threatened to blackmail Crawford. John and Nora plan to make it appear that Paulino died in a drunken fall from the circus train, but Nora is apprehended. John explains to Edith that Nora refused a lawyer, even though he could have gotten her off. The night of Nora's execution, Crawford denies her reprieve and remembers returning to Nora's the night of the crime and finding Paulino there. After Paulino threatens to blackmail Crawford, they struggle. As Paulino chokes Crawford, Crawford strikes him with the whip handle. Realizing that Paulino is dead, Nora convinces Crawford to leave so that their happiness together will not be tainted by scandal. As Nora is about to be executed, Crawford talks with her apparition. She says that there is nothing to fear in death and she is dying for the good things he will do. Although she argues against a pardon, Crawford confesses that he killed Paulino and tries to pardon her, but his telephone line is dead. As Nora's smiling vision disappears, he realizes that she is dead. Hearing her voice repeat that there is nothing to fear in death, Crawford writes a letter to John and shoots himself. After John asks Edith whether the story will end or begin there, she gives him Nora's letters, which he burns.
Cora Sue Collins
Henry B. Walthall
The Sin of Nora Moran
The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) follows a storyline common in the pre-Code era of Hollywood in which a young woman of meagre means falls in love with a wealthy man of status. Because he stands to lose wealth, power, or position due to their illicit affair or disreputable relationship, she is destined to suffer from the abandonment that inevitably follows. Generally told from the woman's point of view, this subgenre of melodrama was sympathetic to the young female protagonists while depicting the men as weak, cowardly, or cruel. After the enforcement of the Production Code, and its mandate of virtue for leading ladies, girls who dallied with men were reduced to unsympathetic secondary characters pegged as temptresses, homewreckers, or on the road to ruin.
Zita Johann, best known as the object of Imhotep's obsession in The Mummy (1932), stars in the title role. Young Nora seems to be fate's victim from childhood, losing both her birth parents and later her adoptive parents. Though she studies dance to improve herself, the only job available to her is in a small circus as the assistant to Paulino the lion tamer (John Miljan). Paulino's brutal nature is evident in the way he abuses his lions, so it comes as no surprise when he rapes Nora. Escaping to New York City, she finds a job in a night club, where she meets Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), an older gentleman destined for the governor's mansion. Crawford is kind to her and sets her up in a house, but he is fearful of destroying his political career, so he limits their relationship to secret assignations twice a week. When Paulino catches up with her and violence results, Nora realizes that she had been living on borrowed time.
The storyline of The Sin of Nora Moran may be familiar melodrama, but the nonlinear structure is so intricate and the tone so bizarre that the film feels bold and unique. The story begins in the present when Mrs. Crawford finds love letters to her husband from Nora. She takes them to her brother, John Grant, played by Alan Dinehart, who is the district attorney and Dick's political strategist. As Grant begins to tell Nora's story, a flashback reveals that Nora is in prison awaiting execution. From that flashback, another trip back in time from Nora's perspective reveals how she lost two sets of parents. The film cuts from the present to the past and then to the distant past and then back again, unfolding the story in flashbacks within flashbacks and from more than one narrative point of view.
The most unusual sequences are those of Nora in prison awaiting execution. Dream-like scenes show Nora in deep anguish, holding a conversation with Sadie (Ann Brody), an old friend from her circus days who suddenly appears next to her. In a poignant if strange scene, Sadie offers to change her actions in the past, so that Nora's current situation and future outcome will unfold differently. A character attempting to alter a part of the story the audience has already watched and accepted as fact was bold storytelling for 1933. Equally hallucinatory is a scene in which Dick, now the governor who could stay Nora's execution, speaks to her disembodied head, then debates aloud with his conscience. A scene in which Dick and John Grant stand over Nora's coffin may not be real at all. It could be a dark speculation into the future, or Dick's guilt weighing heavily on his soul. The film offers no definitive explanation.
While most of the abandoned women stories are tragedies, The Sin of Nora Moran is undoubtedly one of the darkest. This is partly due to Nora's hard-luck life in which she is orphaned twice, raped, and imprisoned. But, the dream-like scenes that seem to reflect the characters' inner turmoil add to a mood of despair and desperation--two feelings that Depression-era audiences could relate to.
In addition to the unique structure, The Sin of Nora Moran makes use of sophisticated montages to indicate the passage of time. The montages consist of shots taken from stock footage that are cut together in rapid succession but also superimposed or connected by dissolves. For example, when Nora finishes with dancing school, she tries to find a job in the city. A montage of overlapping images of her feet, her worried face, the teeming streets of a big city, and signs that say "Position Filled" indicate her difficulties in finding work and her desperation to take any job. The montage takes only a few seconds of screen time, but the combination of images tells the complete story of her struggles.
The Sin of Nora Moran was produced at Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio active during the 1930s. Phil Goldstone, who directed the film, was a producer at Majestic who strived to create better films than most Poverty Row productions. Goldstone had been a real estate mogul who invested in independent productions and worked hard to persuade theaters to exhibit films made independently of the major studios. At tiny Majestic, Goldstone did not have to answer to producers and studio heads, a situation more conducive to experimenting with storytelling conventions and editing practices. Whether Goldstone is responsible for the haunting, hallucinatory nature of the film is unknown. Apparently, he took over direction from Howard Christy. Whoever was responsible, the film seemed to be ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the unique structure and rapid montages confounded reviewers and audiences, and the film failed at the box office.
Star Zita Johann did not enjoy a long career in Hollywood films, partly of her own choosing, but she was recognized as a powerful stage actress. She used a technique for getting into character that was based on an almost spiritual approach. She called it "theater of the spirit." Before a performance, she sat alone in her dressing room, said a few prayers to tap into her spirituality, pulled herself into the part, and then walked onstage. Her acting methods served her well, giving her performances a burning intensity that earned her the nickname the "White Flame of the American Theater."
Few knew until after her death that Johann had a keen interest in spiritualism, the occult, and reincarnation. According to the actress, her forays into the latter helped her tap into the emotions and spirits of the characters she played. The haunted and haunting quality of her character Nora Moran likely benefitted from her unusual approach to her craft.
Producer: Larry Darmour and Phil Goldstone for Majestic Pictures
Director: Phil Goldstone
Screenplay: Frances Hyland and Willis Maxwell Goodhue, adapted from the story "Burnt Offering" by Willis Maxwell Goodhue
Cinematography: Ira Morgan
Editor: Otis Garrett
Art Direction: Ralph Oberg
Cast: Nora Moran (Zita Johann), John Grant (Alan Dinehart), Dick Crawford (Paul Canvanagh), Paulino (John Miljan), Mrs. Edith Crawford (Claire Du Brey), Nora as a Child (Cora Sue Collins), Sadie (Ann Brody), Mrs. Moran (Aggie Herring), Mr. Moran (Harvey Clark)
1933 Black & White 65 mins.
By Susan Doll
The Sin of Nora Moran
The working title of this film was The Woman in the Chair. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, after filming began, producer Phil Goldstone took over as director from Howard Christy. The news item noted that Goldstone banned all visitors from the set and put a guard at the stage door on the lookout for reporters. Reviewers commented that this film borrowed the technique of "narratage" from the Fox production, The Power and the Glory, produced by Jesse L. Lasky, directed by William K. Howard and written by Preston Sturges, which was released earlier in 1933. The term "narratage" was coined by the Fox publicity department to describe the technique that Sturges used of telling his story in a series of flashbacks, some of which were narrated, that were not arranged in chronological order. New York Times, in comparing the two films, echoes other reviews in commenting that The Sin of Nora Moran "lacks the clarity, the efficient acting and the good writing of the Jesse Lasky production." In addition to using the Sturges technique, this film played with the time element, so that in some scenes set in the past, the characters know what will occur in the future. Alternately, in one scene, the character in the present is dressed from a period in her past. In the murder sequence, the film contains an effect in which the frame seems to separate in half. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, John Miljan was loaned from M-G-M. Gilbert Emery was listed as a cast member in a Hollywood Herald production chart, but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed.