Black Moon (1934): Jungle Fever

A drum beats. Its rhythm is slow, regular, ominous—and, above all, exotic. But the face we see is white, the very image of the round-cheeked 30s beauty. However, she is tightly framed, out of context. Her eyes stare eerily into space, as though she were looking past the camera, which tilts down, over the woman’s luxurious silk pajamas, to reveal her perfectly manicured hands beating the drums.

Thus opens the 1934 Voodoo melodrama Black Moon, with Juanita Perez, daughter of plantation owners from the island of San Christopher, bringing the tom-tom of the jungle to her posh New York apartment, as her little girl watches in bewilderment. I must admit, the beginning did captivate me.

Since not many people have seen this picture, the plot goes like this and there are some mild spoilers here: Juanita goes back to the island where she was born—because her husband (Jack Holt) wants her to confront her “neurosis” (Yes! Drumming is the number one sign of an unbalanced mind!) on the island where she was born. He also asks her to take along their child (bad idea) and his secretary, Gail, played by Fay Wray (Again, really, really bad idea. That’s like sending Jerry Lewis along and hoping that nothing funny happens).

Turns out that Juanita spent most of her youth chillin’ with the natives and learning—gasp!—their dark religion so that she’s become kind of a Trader Horne-esque white goddess. (Okay, Hollywood, what is it with the Africans or descendants of Africans worshipping white chicks? Oh, that’s right, it’s just an excuse to get white stars into grass skirts and halter tops.) So, when Juanita decides to lead a native uprising, she’s coerced into offering up her daughter as a sacrifice. Daddy to the rescue!

For the duration of the film, director William Roy Neill, best known for his work on the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone, throws in a few flourishes that boost this piece of hokum above its origins in a Cosmopolitan magazine serialized novel (Warning: there is no sex quiz in this movie, even though it is Pre-Code). Unearthed from the Columbia vault, Black Moon offers up a number of reasons why you might want to invest about an hour of your time in it. Here are mine:

5. The outfits are gorgeous.

Seriously, it was getting to the point when I just couldn’t believe all the adorable variations Fay Wray as Gail found to dress up her trim safari-style outfits: with a cravat, with a belt, with a different collar… Gee, I might be under threat of being sacrificed to an unholy cult, but, by God, I will make even tension look good!

Gail’s straight-line tailoring and smart details contrast with Juanita’s floating, sophisticated evening gowns, which she wears around even in the day. As the heiress of a plantation, she has that frou-frou debutante look—before she goes over to the dark side, that is.

4.  It’s kind of like a “woman’s film” gone very wrong.

Apart from the occasional subplot, women seldom drive the conflict in classic horror movies, especially ones from the 1930s into the 40s. They represent mostly the stakes of the fight against evil—or the warped creations of an evil man. I can think of only Dracula’s Daughter as an exception in the 1930s and maybe Halperin’s Supernatural. Sort of.

Black Moon, by contrast, offers an overwhelmingly melodramatic female-focused film with horror overtones. You won’t find anything supernatural here. It’s really about one woman’s split identity and how it pushes her to betray her biological family.
There are also lots of scenes of people snuggling up with a little girl, domestic quarrels, use of the word “neurosis,” and, of course, a secretary who’s really in love with her married boss. Yup. We’re in weepie territory… except, instead of being wrung dry for its sadness factor, it’s all twisted for thrills and horror.

3. Dorothy Burgess goes bananas.

This lovely brunette delivers a ripper of a performance, screaming in Créole, dancing half-naked, weeping over her child that she’s about to sacrifice, and, most frequently, fixing her luminous eyes on some point in the distance.

She communicates two personalities: the tropical sophisticate and the uninhibited, brash young girl who allies herself with the natives. When she’s waffling between these two pulls, Burgess fills Juanita with a fuzzy, somnambulistic, trance-like dreaminess. This strange duality strikes me as particularly appropriate, since Burgess won her highest acclaim playing an ethnic other in the film, In Old Arizona.

Supposedly, after a head-on collision in which her passenger was killed, Burgess succumbed to a nervous breakdown and never was the same afterwards, which, I’d argue, makes her performance of madness and conflict so much more on the edge…

2. Lots of instances of clever lighting and cinematography!

I’ll let the images speak for themselves here:

 

 This “eclipse” of profiles at left is amazing…

1. It’s a racial and ideological powderkeg!

Someone (I forget who) claimed that Dracula really encapsulates the fear of colonization in reverse, the anxiety that “inferior” cultures would come back to suck the life’s blood out of England. Well, maybe, but Black Moon is definitely about assimilation in reverse.

Sure, you will chuckle at Dorothy Burgess wearing her Voodoo goddess costume and dancing around in the moonlight, and I don’t blame you. However, I suspect that audience members would’ve shifted uncomfortably in their seats while seeing Juanita, dead serious, dressed in exactly the same turban-and-tunic ensemble as the African women who work the plantation.

 I don’t buy it that the oppressed masses would choose a white woman as their leader—which is still relatively ideologically safe. On a visual level, we get the message of uniformity and equality. The white aristocrat embraces the same dress and customs as the children of slaves. Now, that would’ve scared the hell out of 1930s audiences.

Moreover, Juanita does feel that the natives are her people. Raised by a black nurse, Ruva, she considers the African population her real family. I appreciated the genuine affection that Burgess shows for the statuesque Madame Sul-Te-Wan in their reunion scene, which conveys much about their bond. We understand why Juanita is prepared to give up her own child to be accepted by the natives. They gave her love and genuine affection long before her husband deigned to grace her with his child.

I think it’s also significant that, according to the logic of the Voodoo cult, the white woman needs to feel the pain of losing her own child before the native community will accept her. How many slave mothers lost their children forever for reasons that are pretty much beyond comprehension? This movie stirs up a lot of dormant, ugly memories like this. Black Moon may seem tame and biased, but I would argue that it does live up to the Pre-Code reputation for luridness and ahead-of-their-time focus on forbidden cultural tensions.

Even if, at the end, the natives are submissive and once again doing exactly what the nasty overseer, Dr. Perez, Juanita’s uncle, tells them to, this film does tackle slavery and post-slavery. At one point, Juanita looks her uncle right in the eye and tells him that what his fears of an uprising really show that he’s haunted by the ghosts of all the natives “you’ve whipped and killed!”

The white woman who, it’s implied, doesn’t know her place as a wife and mother joins forces with the oppressed African descendants on the island to overthrow the brutal male father figure who governs the island with an iron fist. Juanita reminded me of the bare-chested Marianne of Delacroix’s Liberty Guides the People as she fiercely orders her people to smoke her own biological family out of her hiding place.

The problem is, staging a revolution can dehumanize us almost as much as playing the oppressor can. I wish the movie took its message in this direction, instead of just punishing the female protagonist for sinning against her race and her social role. Even so, I’m pretty impressed by some of the proto-civil rights stuff that comes out of Juanita’s mouth.

So, in closing, whether your interest is fashion or Pre-Code craziness, dig up Black Moon and give it a chance. You might be surprised at how controversial it is.

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