Paper Moon (1973) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Adapted from the novel, "Addie Pray" (1971) by Joe David Brown, PAPER MOON is the story of Moses Pray and Addie Loggins. With scenery reminiscent of "The Grapes of Wrath," the film is set in the depression-era Midwestern region of the United States. As the movie opens, we see a small group of mourners clustered at a graveside. Among the mourners is Addie, the dead woman's small daughter. Moses Pray -- ostensibly of the "Kansas Bible Company" -- approaches the group, as the service concludes, and two of the elderly women remark that the child bears some resemblance to him and asks if he might be related. "If ever a child needed kin, it's now," one lady says. With no knowledge of who her father is, Addie's only haven is her Aunt's home in St. Joseph, Missouri. Having identified himself as a "traveling man spreading the Lord's gospel in these troubled times," "Mose" is prevailed upon to deliver the helpless child to her Aunt since he's going that way, anyway. Addie, wise beyond her years, soon discovers that Mose is little more than a scam artist traveling from town to town delivering unordered Bibles and charging exorbitant prices to recently widowed women whom he identifies through the obituary columns of local papers. Soon, Addie and Mose become a team, traveling from town to town, making money in every dishonest way imaginable, and looking for the ultimate score. The colorful characters they meet along the way make the film all the more interesting. Paramount among these is "Miss Trixie Delight," an exotic dancer who Mose rescues from a traveling carnival and her minion, Imogene. The film is peppered with "regional" dialog. Perhaps one of the most memorable lines of the movie is uttered when Mose is forced to wrestle a backwoodsman in order to trade his new car for the hillbilly's battered old truck. "Make him say calf-rope, Leroy!" one of the observers calls out.

  • Sometime during the Great Depression, Moses Pray is at the sparsely attended graveside funeral service in Gorham, Kansas for a woman he knew, he tasked, albeit reluctantly, with taking the deceased woman's nine year old daughter, Addie Loggins, to live with her only kin, her maternal Aunt Billie, in St. Joseph, Missouri, despite Moses and Addie not knowing each other. In private, Moses and Addie acknowledge that he could very well be her biological father. On the surface, Moses is a bible salesman for the Kansas Bible Company. However what Addie quickly learns is that Moses is a con artist, his primary penny ante scam being to scan the obituaries for recently deceased males, and approach the deceased man's family claiming that the deceased man had purchased a name engraved bible for a loved one (named in the obituary) so that Moses can collect the exorbitant fee for the bible, the loved one rarely refusing to pay as the bible is a final memory of the deceased. Out of circumstance, Moses is forced to keep Addie with him a bit longer than directly driving her to St. Joe, he in the process involving her in his cons, especially as he discovers that she may be more adept at it than he is. Their initially antagonistic relationship softens over time as they rake in more and more money, to the point that their general talk is that they will end up together truly as father and daughter. But a happily ever after could be threatened by a number of encounters, including with: Trixie Delight and Imogene, a young woman who Moses has a thing for, and her maid, with Trixie not being as much a lady as she would like to portray herself as being; and a number of targets of their cons who may take drastic action to show Moses they do not take too lightly to be swindled.

  • Kansas, 1930s. 9-year old Addie Loggins's mother has just died, leaving her alone (she never knew her father). Moses Pray is a con man and initially uses Addie's misfortune to make some money off a third party. With that done, he tries to pack her off on a train to her aunt in Missouri, but Addie won't have any of that. They set off for her aunt's place by car, with neither having much time for the other, initially.

  • When Moze is unexpectedly saddled with getting the 9-year-old Addie to relatives in Missouri after the death of her mother, his attempt to dupe her out of her money backfires, and he's forced to take her on as a partner. Swindling their way through farm country, the pair is nearly done in by a burlesque dancer and an angry bootlegger.

  • During the Great Depression, a con man finds himself saddled with a young girl who may or may not be his daughter, and the two forge an unlikely partnership.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • It is the early 1930s, and a small funeral service is underway at the gravesite of Essie May Loggins. In attendance are two female acquaintances and Addie (Tatum O'Neal), the 9-year-old daughter of the deceased. Arriving late for the service is Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal), a suave-looking younger man. It becomes clear that Essie May was a somewhat "loose" woman, and that Moses was one of her lovers. One of the women at the funeral says she notices a resemblance between Moses and Addie, and wonders if Moses is not the girl's father. Moses denies this, but the women persist in questioning him. When they find out that he is heading in the direction of Missouri, they convince Moses to deliver Addie to her aunt and uncle in St. Joseph. Moses is frustrated with this responsibility, but he sees an opportunity in it as well. Moses is a con man, and he uses his own knowledge of Essie May's affairs to blackmail a local man; he takes Addie in to briefly meet the man and then suggests that he may have fathered the child and that Moses could press the issue now that Essie May is dead. Instead of taking responsibility for the child, the man pays Moses $200 to keep quiet, and Moses uses the $200 to buy himself a new car, as well as a train ticket to St. Joseph for Addie. However, Addie is no innocent child. She overhears the conversation that Moses has with his victim, and she refuses to be used in a con game without any compensation: she demands the $200 that Moses acquired, arguing that it's rightfully her money. Moses is furious that Addie is sharp enough to figure out what was going on, and afraid that she might actually blow the whistle on him, he agrees to get her $200 back. After sending a telegram to Addie's relatives saying that she will be delayed, Moses takes Addie with him while he goes to make back her hush money.

    Addie learns that Moses' hustle is posing as a Bible salesman. He looks in the obituary section of the local newspaper, goes to the homes of men who have recently passed away, and informs their widows that their husbands ordered a Bible with the woman's name printed on the inside. While Moses is talking to a woman named Pearl, Addie finds material in the car with which he printed her name on the inside of the Bible. Touched that her deceased husband intended to buy her a gift, Pearl gives Moses the money for the Bible, and Moses' con is clear to Addie.

    Moze (as Addie refers to him) is annoyed with having to take Addie along with him on the road, and she reveals herself to be wise beyond her years at every turn. She carries a cigar box with her containing her only possessions in the world, other than her radio. Addie herself thinks that Moze is her father, and she reminds him of this several times, but he denies it consistently. Moze dislikes Addie being involved in his con, but he soon learns that she is an asset when he attempts to hustle a widowed woman into buying a Bible and suddenly a lawman appears in the house, questioning Moze about his business and his identity. Addie saves the day by rushing up to the house and charming the policeman, and she even ups the price of the Bible on the spur of the moment. In another instance, Addie takes pity on a woman who appears at her door surrounded by young children; Addie refuses to allow Moze to take the woman's money and leaves the Bible for her anyway. Moze is angry with Addie for interfering in his affairs, but Addie understands now that she is partners with Moze, and their con turns into profitable business. Moze also teaches Addie different con techniques, such as how to talk sales clerks out of money, and Addie's charm works well for them.

    Things take a different turn when Moze and Addie visit a traveling carnival and Moze acquires a girlfriend named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn). Trixie appears in the carnival as a 'harem girl', and there is a suggestion that she does a little more than just dance for the male patrons. Moze informs Addie that Trixie and her personal maid, Imogene (P.J. Johnson), will be traveling with them from now on, and Addie is furious to have their relationship interrupted by Trixie, who is a loud, obnoxious woman. Addie becomes sullen and ignores Trixie until she has a frank conversation with the girl; Trixie admits that she can never hold onto a man for very long, and that if Addie is patient, Moze will soon tire of her and she will move on.

    Addie seems to accept this proposition, until Trixie talks Moze into buying a very expensive new car; Addie looks in her cigar box and finds all of their money gone. This is the final straw for Addie, and she immediately plots Trixie's downfall. Enlisting the harried Imogene to help her, the two of them arrange for Trixie to be caught in a compromising position with the desk clerk of the hotel where they are staying. For her part in the scheme, Addie gives Imogene enough money to get back home to her family, and after Moze catches Trixie in bed with the clerk, he immediately collects Addie and abandons Trixie.

    From here, Addie and Moze seize another opportunity: while staying at a small hotel in a rural area, Addie notices a bootlegger conducting business quietly. His customers approach him and he retrieves their liquor from a small shed in back of the hotel. Addie and Moze get the idea to climb into the shed and steal some of the liquor, then sell it back to the bootlegger. Although their scheme works, they do not know that they have been found out by a man lurking in the shadows nearby. As they leave the hotel in their car, they are pursued by a sheriff who takes them into custody. While at the sheriff's station, Moze and Addie are questioned relentlessly. Although he knows what they did, he cannot prove anything--Addie has hidden the telltale cash they made in her hat. The sheriff intends to keep Addie and Moze locked up until he can pin something on them, so Addie spontaneously comes up with a plan; she steals back the keys to their car and urges Moze to make a break for it. Together they rush outside and make a quick getaway. Pursued by the sheriff and his men, they manage to make it across the border into Missouri, where the sheriff has no jurisdiction and cannot arrest them. Realizing that their car will make them conspicuous, Moze spots a dilapidated old truck outside a farm and rouses the inhabitants of the shabby farmhouse. Making up a reason, he informs them that he needs to swap vehicles and that he will give them the brand new car in an even trade for their broken down truck. The men refuse to trade, saying that the new car is no use to them since it cannot haul anything, so Moze offers to wrestle for it. The men can't resist the challenge and send their best 'wrassler', Leroy (Randy Quaid), to take on Moze. Moze quickly takes the match, however, by playing dirty, and he 'wins' the right to drive off in the beat-up truck.

    Now that the two of them are in Missouri, the issue comes up about Addie's original destination: her aunt & uncle's house. Moze instead suggests that this is no longer necessary; they will conduct business as usual, as they are partners. Both of them are happy with this decision, as they don't really want to be separated.

    Moze quickly sets up an opportunity for a very big score involving a wealthy gentleman, and he tells Addie that this will net them enough money to finally get out of the con business. Moze sets out to meet their mark, with Addie to follow later, but he is intercepted by the sheriff from Kansas and his men; while they cannot arrest Moze for his crime in Kansas, they are only interested in revenge, and they chase Moze down and beat him severely. Addie knows something is wrong when Moze is nowhere to be found, and she finds him beaten and bloodied, lying in a stairwell.

    Now that violence has found him, Moze has a change of heart about having Addie along in this lifestyle; he will take her to live with her aunt and uncle after all. Addie promises that she will not cry about separating from Moze, but when he drops her off at the house, she is less than enthused about living there. Addie's aunt (Rose-Mary Rumbley), is a flighty woman who treats Addie like the child she is, and Addie is put off by her cloying and overly cheerful attitude.

    Meanwhile, Moze has set off up the road in the broken down truck, which stalls out and leaves him sitting there. He is down on his luck, but even more, he is heartbroken about Addie leaving. Suddenly he looks up into his rear view mirror and sees her, off in the distance, running toward the truck. Although he is glad to see her, he puts on a stern face and stares her down, telling her "I told you, I don't want you riding with me no more." Addie is hurt at first, but then she stares back at him and says "You still owe me $200." Moze is flustered, and the truck begins to drift away while he isn't looking. Addie shrieks in warning, and they both run after it. Together they climb inside and drive off to a new destination.

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