Jack Holt

Black Moon (1934, Roy William Neill)

Before getting into all the great things about Black Moon, I need to talk about the racism. There’s the general thirties racism, with the black sidekick (Clarence Muse) being constantly cartoonish. But the film’s entire plot is racist–it’s about a Caribbean island full of voodoo cult natives who’ve brainwashed a white woman (Dorothy Burgess). According to Moon, American blacks are fine. The Caribbean ones? Unthinkably savage. Oh, and the Black in the title? Veiled reference to Burgess being a race traitor.

Those incredibly uncomfortable elements aside, the film’s beautifully made and often wonderfully acted. Jack Holt plays Burgess’s husband, who has no idea his wife is a sleeper agent for a voodoo cult. Holt’s excellent in the leading role; he and Muse do quite well together.

Cora Sue Collins plays Holt and Burgess’s daughter. She’s excellent too.

Burgess has the most difficult role and has ups and downs, but hits an incredible high point near the end.

As Holt’s adoring secretary, Fay Wray has almost nothing to do. She’s okay, but her character doesn’t belong in the script. Logically speaking, Muse’s character should have gotten that time.

The film’s weakest performance is Arnold Korff. He’s never able to sell the plot twists and revelations. But he’s not bad, just not on par with the others.

Technically speaking, Neill’s direction, Joseph H. August’s photography and Louis Silvers’s score make Moon an exceptional picture. The final sequence is unexpected and masterful.

The racism damages Moon, but it still deserves a look.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy William Neill; screenplay by Wells Root, based on a story by Clements Ripley; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Richard Cahoon; music by Louis Silvers; produced by Harry Cohn; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring 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) and Henry Kolker (The Psychiatrist).


Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)

How to describe Cat People….

When a swell, blond American (Kent Smith) meets a dark (but not too dark) Eastern European woman (Simone Simon), she rouses all sorts of non-apple pie passions in him. Being a swell guy, he pressures her into marrying him–she’s clearly emotionally disturbed, but it’s okay… Smith hires her a great psychiatrist (Tom Conway) who eventually tries to rape her.

I’m not making up the passions part by the way–the scene where Smith tries explaining it all to other woman Jane Randolph is painful. Smith’s terrible.

That above synopsis pretty much gets at Cat People‘s core story. Beware the foreigner. Randolph’s a much better match for Smith anyway. She’s a hard worker, not some kind of artist.

Sadly, the film’s got a lot of great things about it. DeWitt Bodeen’s mildly xenophobic screenplay still has some amazing scenes in it… though most of them come at the beginning when Simon’s still the protagonist. There’s later an odd shift of focus to Smith and Randolph. Actually, mostly Randolph so she can be the damsel in distress.

Tourneur’s direction is startling, particularly in those high suspense scenes; it’s excellent work. Some of Cat People‘s shots are singular. Simon’s great, Conway’s great (it’s interesting to see him ooze the charm in equal parts with the slime), Randolph’s pretty good (just wholly unlikable).

Fantastic Nicholas Musuraca photography and Mark Robson editing round out Cat People.

Given its many–occasionally extraordinary–successes, it’s a shame Bodeen’s plot flops.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Simone Simon (Irena Dubrovna), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed), Tom Conway (Dr. Louis Judd), Jane Randolph (Alice Moore), Alan Napier (Doc Carver), Alec Craig (Zookeeper) and Jack Holt (The Commodore).


Thunder Birds (1942, William A. Wellman)

Thunder Birds runs just under eighty minutes and if one were to subtract the propaganda, both narrated and in lengthy monologues–not to mention the flashback to the stoic Brits–he or she would have a fifty-five minute love triangle set at an Army flight training base. The whole reason one leg of the triangle is British (John Sutton) is to rouse up support for the British.

Luckily, the movie’s love triangle is mildly effective, which makes the propaganda digressions tolerable. All of the credit for that success is surprisingly not Gene Tierney. Tierney’s great in the movie, bringing a combination of playfulness and maturity to the role. What’s surprising about the movie’s treatment of her is the constant sexism. There’s a terrible sequence at a Red Cross training with all the volunteers–all female–coming off as man-crazy and incompetent. Worse is Tierney’s grandfather, George Barbier, frequently deriding her (she’s “still a woman,” after all).

But that paragraph was supposed to be positive. Sutton’s quite good in the film, bringing a thoughtful sense to his role (an acrophobic doctor turned RAF cadet). He and Tierney have excellent chemistry; big surprise. Leading man Preston Foster is the last leg of the triangle and he and Tierney too have good chemistry. But when Foster’s with Sutton, the scenes are just bad. Foster’s very Hollywood acting doesn’t mix well with Sutton’s subdued, introspective performance. Either Tierney just worked well with Foster–her performance is a mix of charm and intelligence–or she manages to get good scenes out of anyone.

Since there really is less than an hour of story, there’s not much time for a supporting cast. Barbier’s good as the chauvinist pig (what makes it so disturbing is how he’s siding against his granddaughter’s wishes, which is a bit surprising in a Lamar Trotti script, but I guess Trotti is a servant to his source material). Richard Haydn’s great as Sutton’s friend who disappears way too fast. But Dame May Whitty’s brief, flashback role is a waste of time both for her and the film.

Where Thunder Birds really excels is in the Technicolor cinematography and the action sequence at the end. Ernest Palmer’s cinematography is great and the aerial photography is fantastic. But Wellman is just churning it out during these scenes. It’s all fine, but it’s never particularly significant. The end sequence, featuring Sutton (in a plane) saving Foster from a sandstorm is amazing. Great stuff, with some fine editing from Walter Thompson.

The story–the standard Fox war movie love triangle–does take an unexpected turn at the end. Wellman successfully milks the anticipation for the last five minutes, but then gets stuck with that narrated propaganda for a close. In the last ten minutes, I’m not sure Sutton even has a line–odd for the protagonist. The Fox propaganda movies were always decent and Thunder Birds is fine enough as one; it’s just a little emptier of actual content than I would have guessed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Walter Thompson; music by David Buttolph; produced by Trotti; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Tierney (Kay Saunders), Preston Foster (Steve Britt), John Sutton (Peter Stackhouse), Jack Holt (Colonel MacDonald), May Whitty (Lady Jane Stackhouse), George Barbier (Gramps), Richard Haydn (George Lockwood), Reginald Denny (Barrett) and Ted North (Cadet Hackzell).


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