Pre-Code Surrealism in ‘The Sin of Nora Moran’

This existential nonlinear Pre-Code melodrama has remained largely unseen, but the film is just as exciting to watch today as it was in 1933.
Sin Of Nora Moran
The Film Detective
By  · Published on September 12th, 2020

Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In her first entry, she looks at the 1933 melodrama The Sin of Nora Moran.

Talking about older Hollywood movies can feel repetitive when we only discuss those that are branded as “classics.” Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Citizen Kane certainly warrant consideration, but such canonized classics don’t appeal to everyone, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story of Hollywood’s early years. The beauty of studying film history is that you can dive into the never-ending black hole of cinema and pull out something rarely talked about.

These rarities — like the focus of this installment, Phil Goldstone‘s The Sin of Nora Moran — can prove general assumptions about old movies wrong. And they can make even the biggest classic movie fan feel like they’re discovering old movies all over again. Hopefully, with this column, we can breathe new life into some forgotten films by discussing their rightful place in film history and why we should watch them today.

The Pre-Code era of Hollywood, in particular, is an endlessly fascinating era of exciting movies across all genres. Pre-Code describes the time between when William Hays wrote the Production Code in 1930 and when it was heavily enforced in 1934. Hollywood releases from that time defy everything we assume about old movies. Pre-Codes are promiscuous, dangerous, criminal, and seedy. They show women rebelling against the image that movies were trying to force upon them. Pre-Codes also place us in a moment in American history that was recovering from the progressive 1920s and trying to make sense of unprecedented national poverty.

A lot of the most famous Pre-Codes (Baby Face, Public Enemy, Madam Satan, Gold Diggers of 1933) were made by major studios at the time. They were the higher-brow Pre-Codes compared to the kinds of movies made on “Poverty Row.” The small studios in Hollywood made B-movies, lower-quality commercial efforts intended to be the second show in a double feature. Without the budgets of major studios to allow for elaborate sets or fancy costumes, these Poverty Row productions needed to get creative in order to appeal to audiences. They could and would often be more inventive, but they were also largely under-seen compared to the major releases.

The Sin of Nora Moran is one of the most unique movies to come out of Poverty Row. The title character, played by Zita Johann, is a woman with a tragic past and the best intentions who gets caught up with the wrong kind of people, leading her to the electric chair. This kind of premise is very common in the Pre-Code era. Filmmakers in the early 1930s loved to show women being unruly in the first half of the film and then punish them in the latter half in order to make up for their behavior in the eyes of conservative moviegoers.

A classic and certainly more conventionally plotted example is MGM’s Red-Headed Woman from 1932. Jean Harlow stars in the film as the titular harlot hell-bent on seducing her married boss. Her sexuality and promiscuity are the driving forces of the plot, and she cannot get away with stealing another woman’s man without being punished. In the end, she’s not wife material and is discarded for the respectable woman. Red-Headed Woman definitely capitalizes on Harlow’s sensual persona but can’t depict it in a way that condones it. Many Pre-Codes similarly relied on the sexuality of notable stars both in their plot and in their marketing.

The Sin Nora Moran did not have any such cred from its cast. Therefore, it needed a more interesting plot structure. The familiar Pre-Code story stands out here for the nonlinear way in which it is told. Nora Moran’s life is not depicted in chronological order, nor even in typical flashback fashion. The movie begins without her, in an office where former Mrs. Crawford (Claire Du Brey) and District Attorney John Grant (Alan Dinehart) are going through letters written to Mrs. Crawford’s dead husband, Dick (Paul Cavanagh). She has a feeling that the woman in the letters had something to do with Dick’s death but doesn’t know who she is. John recognizes whom the letters are from, though, and shows Mrs. Crawford an old newspaper clipping announcing that Nora Moran was to be executed as the first woman to go to the electric chair in twenty years.

Our first look at Nora, in a photograph accompanying the newspaper clipping, shows us the consequences for something she’s done without first telling us what she did. John asks Mrs. Crawford to consider how Nora felt waiting to die in her jail cell. As he asks Mrs. Crawford to sympathize with Nora, he asks the audience to sympathize with her, as well. Then the movie travels back in time to before Nora was killed.

John narrates the story of Nora coming to terms with her past, and the movie moves through her memory in the disjunctive and unreliable way that it actually feels to recall the past. In some scenes, what we believe are flashbacks are actually dreams Nora is having, imagining herself preventing her own death. There’s something very surreal about seeing our main character stand inside of a memory, begging to change her destiny and separate from both time and place. At one moment, Nora is just a floating head, an unreal disembodied version of herself. This way of storytelling creates an existential Pre-Code unlike any other classic from this time.

Such a nonlinear and wandering narrative was extremely rare in 1930s Hollywood. However, another more famous filmmaker known to use this technique of jumping through flashbacks was Preston Sturges, as seen in The Power and the Glory, which came out the same year as The Sin of Nora Moran. The New York Times even compared the two movies in a way that implied Goldstone stole his nonlinear storytelling technique from Sturges. That may have contributed further to the obscurity of The Sin of Nora Moran. Regardless, it’s fascinating that such nonlinear and surreal tricks that we are used to seeing more in modern cinema can be traced back to much older movies — most of which aren’t considered classics.

The Sin of Nora Moran not only gives us a nonlinear Pre-Code story, but it also shows us more of a woman’s point of view than do other films of the time. Most Pre-Code melodramas did not ask the audience to outright consider how a woman felt like John asks Mrs. Crawford and the audience to do at the beginning of the film. We see what the world thinks of Nora Moran as she’s on death row. The public paints her as a conniving little gold digger who was only using a man to create a scandal and get rich. This is how Mrs. Crawford thinks of her until the very end of the film, once we’ve heard Nora’s whole story.

Throughout the movie, we see other characters sympathize with her. She’s humanized in ways rarely found in the Pre-Code movies that were made to exploit vulgarity yet then warn against it. Pre-Codes like Forbidden, starring Barbara Stanwyck, did not provide the main female character with other women who sympathized with them despite their bad decisions. There are a few times that The Sin of Nora Moran shows the audience less-judgmental female minor characters. Women working in the prison where Nora is kept consider how what happened to Nora could happen to any woman they know, even their own daughters or themselves. A woman who worked with Nora comes to her in a dream, pitying her and comforting her. She doesn’t judge her for the circumstance she’s gotten into. The Sin of Nora Moran shows how the world wants to see women who veer from the narrow, respectable path that women should walk and what Nora really is. She’s a woman of circumstance, one who’s been judged unfairly all the way until her death.

We are actually very fortunate to see this movie today, long after it played for small audiences who were willing to stick around after a major feature. In The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann, a bonus feature included on the Sin of Nora Moran‘s home video release, historian/ filmmaker Sam Sherman talks about how he came across this movie in the 1960s when it was screened in a fellow collector’s apartment in Manhattan. He had never heard of it before but knew it needed to be preserved and seen beyond their inner circle of movie collectors. Sherman traded other old prints of movies in order to obtain a copy.

At the time, The Sin of Nora Moran was not on anyone’s radar. Zita Johann was living unrecognized and mostly forgotten in Manhattan. Sherman met up with her to learn more about the movie and its production and they wound up becoming friends. After restoring the movie himself, he had it circulated on television as part of horror programming under a different title, Voice of the Grave. Eventually, his restoration caught the eye of the UCLA Film Archive, which offered to work with him to better restore the 35mm nitrate camera negative.

The Sin of Nora Moran is still not as widely seen as other Pre-Codes, but it has been shown on Turner Classic Movies and recently received a restored Blu-ray release. If Sherman had not been interested in the movie when he watched it in someone’s tiny Manhattan apartment, we wouldn’t have access to it the way we do now. The story of how it resurfaced is a testament to the power of preservation and how the significance of a movie can come about long after its release.

Today, we can appreciate how The Sin of Nora Moran experimented with story structure in ways that we didn’t see much in cinema until fairly recently. This creates an eerie, existential viewing experience completely unique from other movies made at the time. It also represents the variation in movies made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood by showing how the common premise of the good girl getting mixed up with bad men was told in different, more interesting ways.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_